On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Lib Dem leadership candidate Chris Huhne, alongside fellow bloggers Millennium Dome, Alex Wilcock, Paul Walter, Mary Reid, and James Graham.
In general, I was impressed with what Chris had to say. He was very personable, very confident, and gave some very convincing answers to some very mean questions. There was, however, one answer in particular that I wasn't very pleased with.
I asked Chris the following question about drugs:
Jonny Wright: In your manifesto, you write: “On drugs, we must have the courage of our convictions,” but you don’t say in any kind of detail what those convictions are. I’d suggest to you that we can’t carry on fighting a losing battle against drugs, and that it’s time for a different approach, where mature adults calculate the risks and make their own personal decisions. I think that’s an approach that could be justified very convincingly using our liberal principles. How would you sketch out, in very practical terms, what a Chris Huhne drugs policy would look like?
Chris Huhne: Well let’s start with the liberal principles, because you’ve got me on a good theme there. We had tremendous rows in the parliamentary party on what we were going to do about the smoking ban. Some people talked about opposing the smoking ban as fundamentally illiberal because of the John Stewart Mill principle, which says that the only reasonable basis on which you can coerce anyone is if they are causing harm to others. I argued, on exactly the same principle, that we needed a smoking ban, precisely because smoking in public places does cause harm to others.
It comes down to a balance of judgement on drug issues. I think drugs need to be determined by scientific advice, not in terms of their categorisation, not in terms of what the Daily Mail tells us, or what the editor of the Daily Mail happens to think at a particular moment; so first and foremost – follow the scientific advice.
Secondly, I do very much agree with you here, if that’s the implication, that we need to take a much more medical attitude towards many people who are addicted to hard drugs. We need to make sure that they are able to find what they need without breaking into the local supermarket or robbing the local corner shop. Such an important part of crime is caused by the way we approach addiction. We need to try much harder to see it as a medical problem in which doctors have a much clearer role in ensuring that people are able to meet their addiction needs, and gradually build up a programme, over time, to come off drugs.
I don’t go down the libertarian line. I respect it as a position, but my experience is that when people take drugs, they harm others. Their own families, their own community – it’s not just a question of the individual, it’s also a question of the impact they have on others.
JW: You seem to be saying that we should take the advice of medical professionals in our strategy on drugs. But why should it be the legislators who take the medical advice onboard, rather than individual people in their own individual lives? How do you square that with decentralisation?
CH: I think it’s about taking onboard the impact on society of addiction and of drug use. If you say that people take this decision for themselves, without concern for anyone else, I would say that’s not the real world, because anybody who does become a serious drug user does have a real impact on their family, and on the health service, and on the local community.
JW: You could use exactly that same argument to ban alcohol, couldn’t you?
CH: You could. And clearly, in the past, in our party, the temperance movement, as you know, was very powerful, and did try to do exactly that, and justified itself on the same sort of principles that I’m talking about. For better or worse, alcohol has become a socially accepted part of our society, in a way that the use of other drugs has not. It seems to me that we need to re-think our approach to alcohol; we need to make sure that people are aware of the dangers of alcohol, particularly since alcohol is getting cheaper and cheaper relative to people’s income. There isn’t much that can be done about that, because the excise duty can be so easily avoided by buying in from countries on the continent. There are real issues about alcohol that we need to address, but because it is a socially-accepted substance, I think it’s in rather a different category to other drugs.
For a whole host of reasons, I'm not very happy with his answer. I don't wish to speculate about Chris's past life - it's not much of my business - but if he's been living on the same planet as the rest of us, he will certainly have met people who've smoked the occasional spliff, or popped the odd ecstasy tablet on the dancefloor, without causing any direct harm to their families and communities. I wouldn't in any way wish to suggest that those substances are safe: clearly they both carry significant risks. But just as adults can decide for themselves whether the pleasure of a pint of Tribute is worth the risk of liver damage a few decades down the line, I'm happy to let adult cannabis smokers make up their own minds about the risks of psychosis. I cannot for the life of me see why that very personal risk assessment should be made by legislators in Westminster, rather than by individuals. Liberals, and Chris Huhne in particular, love to talk about decentralised decision-making. There's no kind of decision-making more decentralised than that of an individual making their own mind up about the risks they're willing to take as part of their lifestyle.
The argument about the wider societal effects of drugs falls rather flat when you look at the legal status of alcohol. Alcohol, used irresponsibly, makes people misbehave, and even cause criminal damage - to the tune of £7.3bn a year. But we don't criminalise alcohol itself; we criminalise the people who use it irresponsibly and harm others, because the vast majority of us drink sensibly and hurt nobody. Damage to life and limb is against the law already. I don't see why we should take pre-emptive action against the many to compensate for the indiscretions of the few.
To make his argument on drugs, Chris has to sacrifice his principles. He accepts that alcohol is every bit as harmful as other recreational drugs, but because of its entrenched status, he's happy for people to drink. If alcohol had just been discovered yesterday, he'd have to ban it as well, by his own logic! For the sake of pragmatism, he's being deliberately and knowingly inconsistent.
I love Chris Huhne's rhetoric about being anti-establishment; about coming from the outside to take on the big two. That idea the absolute key to our future success, as I've said before. If we try to fight Labour and the Tories on their own terms, as part of a three-way political mainstream, we'll lose. They have the funding, the experience and the voter base to come out on top; we don't.
Disappointingly, when it comes to a controversial issue such as drugs policy, Chris is quite happy to defend the status quo, even though by his own admission, he has to be inconsistent and illiberal. For all the talk of bravery and radical spirit, when the going gets tough, he's quite happy to bury himself in the middle of the political establishment. If he wants my vote for leader, he'll have to do better than that.