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Bill Clinton

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Brexit and Drugs

A drug bust can ruin your whole day, so it’s best to have a get-out-of-jail-free card ready. In the United States being white will usually make the police take a charitable view, but in the United Kingdom the best strategy is to say that you are planning to go into politics. (Although being white helps there too.)

These observations are prompted by last week’s scandal in the United Kingdom, where by Saturday seven of the ten candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party had been outed as former users of illegal drugs. This includes all three leading candidates for the job, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Jeremy Hunt, one of whom will therefore almost certainly become prime minister next month.

The revelations were prompted by a just-published biography of Michael Gove, currently Environment Secretary, which revealed that he had used cocaine repeatedly twenty years ago, when he was still a journalist. Indeed, on at least one occasion in 1999 he hosted a party at his Mayfair apartment in London where the guests were openly using cocaine.

Now he says that “It was a mistake. Now I look back and think ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’.” Although mentioning it quite recently to his media coaches in what he thought was a private training session was his real mistake.

But he deserves to suffer. On the day after that party in 1999, Gove wrote a column in ‘The Times’ in which he condemned ‘middle-class professionals’ and ‘London’s liberal consensus’ for treating recreational drug use as a harmless peccadillo. In the trade, that’s known as working both sides of the street.

So Michael Gove wins the Hypocrisy Cup, but it was a highly competitive event. Boris Johnson, tipped to win the Brexit succession struggle after Theresa May’s resignation, hasn’t said anything about drugs recently, but journalists swiftly dug up a 2005 television appearance in which he said quite a lot.

“I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.” Vintage Boris, but a) he did think he was doing cocaine, and b) in a 2007 interview he said that he had tried both cocaine and cannabis at university, but that they had “no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatever.” This is known as the ‘Bill Clinton’ or “I did not inhale” ploy.

And then all the other candidates for Conservative Party leader and British prime minister were asked the same question. Esther McVey said: “I have never taken any class A drugs [heroin and cocaine], but have I tried some pot? Yes, when I was much younger.”

Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock all said that they had smoked cannabis at university, but had never done ‘hard’ drugs. Jeremy Hunt was more creative, admitting that “I think I had a cannabis lassi when I went backpacking through India.”

Nicely done, that. Hunt didn’t really know it was cannabis, he’s been around a bit – and he dodged having to say what other drugs (if any) he had done.

And finally Rory Stewart, who explained that he went to a village wedding in Afghanistan when he was walking around the country. It would have been rude to refuse: “I was invited into the house, and the opium pipe was passed around.” And then the Bill Clinton defence: the family was so poor that they may have put very little opium into the pipe.

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that seven out of ten prime ministerial candidates have done some drugs. You could hardly have gone to university in the 70s or 80s in Britain – or anywhere else in the West – without sampling at least a few. It doesn’t seem to have done them any harm, except perhaps politically.

The shame and the hypocrisy lie in the fact that these men and women belong to a government that routinely jails other, less privileged people who have done exactly the same thing, or at least bans them from working in their chosen profession (as Michael Gove’s department did to teachers found to possess class A drugs, even at home, when he was education secretary).

Should we legalise all recreational drugs? Of course we should. They would no longer support vast criminal empires that exploit their illegality, and they would be less likely to harm people if their quality was monitored by the state. Some people would get addicted, just as with alcohol or tobacco, but that’s less a function of the drugs than of the individual’s vulnerability to addiction. Which particular substance hardly matters.

Legalisation of ‘hard’ drugs is not going to happen in this generation, because there is still too much political mileage to be gained by ‘fighting’ them. But here’s a consoling thought: the people who will finally decide the Conservative leadership contest are the party’s 160,000 paid-up members, who are socially conservative, mostly rural, and well over 60 on average.

If anybody is going to punish these hypocrites, it’s them.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 13. (“But he…street”; “Nicely…done”; and “The shame…secretary”)

Term Limits

8 October 2007

Term Limits

By Gwynne Dyer

If you have a high enough opinion of yourself to want to be president in the first place, you probably think that term limits are a stupid nuisance. If two terms of Bill Clinton (or Vladimir Putin, or Benazir Bhutto) are a good thing for the country, then surely three or four terms would be even better. Surely there must be some way around it….

Russian President Vladimir Putin has found a way. For years he’s been saying that he’ll serve his two terms (eight years) and then leave office. Russia must become a country of laws, and it’s out of the question to change the constitution just because two-thirds of the Russian population want him back for a third term (and they do). He’ll still be around if the new president should need some advice, but no individual is indispensable.

And then, surprise! Last week Putin suddenly announced that he would head the list of his party, United Russia (motto: “Putin’s plan is Russia’s victory”), in the December parliamentary election. United Russia is certain to win the election — and Putin told the party’s congress that he would be willing take the job of prime minister once he retires as president in March.

“Heading the government is a realistic idea,” Putin said, adding that he would be happy to work under the new president who must be elected next spring provided that he is a “decent, competent and effective person.” That should not be hard to ensure, since it is Putin who will nominate the new president — and we all know that he wouldn’t really be working UNDER the new president.

Putin is by far the most powerful and popular politician in Russia. If he becomes the prime minister, then the executive power will slide from the president’s office to his. Then, in the following election in 2012 (when he’ll still be only 60), he can run for the presidency again quite

legally, and move the centre of power back to the president’s office. And at no point will the democratic constitution of the country have been tampered with. Clever.

Even shadier games are underway in Pakistan, a country whose democratic facade is a good deal more tattered than Russia’s. The general who made himself president of Pakistan eight years ago, Pervez Musharraf, was facing mounting popular discontent, but he has just made an alliance with the twice-deposed former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who will return from nine years of exile on 18 October.

Musharraf had previously changed the constitution to ban anybody from serving more than twice as prime minister, precisely in order to prevent Benazir Bhutto and her long-time rival Nawaz Sharif (also twice removed from the prime ministership by army pressure) from ever returning to power. But now that change will be undone, and Benazir Bhutto, daughter of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (executed by a previous military regime) will return triumphantly to power. Or at least a share of power.

This is shabby stuff, and the dynastic element is particularly hard to take. Why, with almost 170 million Pakistanis to choose from, is this woman the great hope of Pakistani democracy? Because she is an enormously rich feudal landowner and the daughter of a martyred former prime minister, and because the dynastic principle is big in the democracies of the Indian sub-continent. Three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi clan have loomed as large in Indian politics as the Bhuttos in Pakistan, or the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka, or the two rival families that have polarised Bangladeshi politics for most of the past thirty years.

You wouldn’t find that sort of thing happening in the older democracies — except, of course, in the United States. There are 300 million Americans, but if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency next year and gets two full terms, only two families (father and son, and husband and wife) will have monopolised the presidency for 28 consecutive years.

Bill Clinton would have wiped the floor with George W. Bush in the 2000 election if he had been allowed to run, but strict term limits got in the way of that. Happily for him, Clinton does have a wife who can run for the presidency.

It has never been clear when Hillary Clinton developed her ambition to become president, or how much it was actually her own idea. Although she was clearly interested in policy issues, there was no sign that she had such an ambition during Bill Clinton’s first term in 1992-96. By the end of his second term it was quite obvious, however, and her path through the Senate to the 2008 presidential nomination had already been thought through.

It clearly suited them both: Hillary gets to be out front at last, but Bill gets back in the limelight too. The man who was once billed as America’s “first black president” — because he was allegedly so closely attuned to black American culture — may also finish up, at least vicariously, as America’s first female president.

In fact, part of the Clintons’ appeal to the Democratic voting base, which has now given Hillary an almost unbeatable lead for the Democratic presidential nomination, is precisely the two-for-one package that is on offer. But it still feels sort of, well, subcontinental.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Heading…president”;and “It has never…through”)

Deja Vu

1 February 2003

Deja Vu All Over Again

By Gwynne Dyer

Has anybody else noticed that there is a plot afoot to turn economics into an exact science? Since we are all part of the experiment, I think we should be told.

Economics is about the behaviour of human beings, so it has the same drawback as other social ‘sciences’: you are not allowed to confirm your hypothesis by running repeated experiments on live human beings. Somehow, though, an undercover team of experimental economists has managed to trick the Bush administration into re-running the great Reagan adventure in ‘voodoo economics’ of the 1980s. They can’t tell us which theory they are testing for fear of influencing the results, but it looks like it’s about the relationship between the size of budget deficits and the severity of the subsequent recession.

Ronald Reagan set a peacetime record for budget deficits in 1984, the year that he was seeking a second term: 6.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. He justified it by grossly inflating the threat from the decrepit Soviet Union, which was actually teetering on the brink of collapse (the intelligence agencies were as eager to please the administration then as now), and pumping up the defence budget to fight the ‘evil empire’. The short-term result of this extra spending, no doubt by purest coincidence, was to make the US economy grow by 7 percent in 1984, guaranteeing Mr Reagan’s sweeping re-election victory.

The longer-term effect, of course, was force up interest rates as government borrowing competed with private borrowers for credit, and to kill the boom in a particularly savage way: the recession at the end of the 80s was the grimmest since the 50s. Small wonder that the father of the current president, a real conservative (as opposed to a neo-conservative), dubbed the Reagan budgets ‘voodoo economics’ when he was seeking the Republican nomination in 1988. It didn’t save President George H.W. Bush from the recession that followed, however, and the voters punished him by electing Bill Clinton in 1992.

So along comes President George W. Bush in 2001, and in only three years he has turned the 2 percent surplus he inherited from Clinton into a deficit that is now nearing 5 percent of GDP. Since the defence budget is already stuffed to bursting, he did most of it by pushing through unfunded tax cuts targeted on his core supporters.

At one point, according to the recent tell-all book written by Ron Suskind in collaboration with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Mr Bush appears to have had doubts about the beneficiaries if not the scale of his largesse, asking “Haven’t we already given money to rich people? Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle?” But his political adviser Karl Rove told him to “Stick to principle” and he meekly obeyed.

The massive deficit — $520 billion this year, and the final bill for Iraq could drive it still higher — is already producing the desired short-term economic boom. If it starts to create jobs as well as profits by the middle of the year, then only a drastic deterioration in the security situation in Iraq could stop Mr Bush from winning in November. But that’s not what interests the economists-in-disguise who tricked him into this repeat of the Reagan experiment. They just want to see how bad the subsequent recession will be.

Recessions are bound to occur from time to time, but they vary wildly in severity. Many people expected a particularly bad one after the exceptionally long nine-year Clinton boom, mainly due to a superstitious belief that the universe will always get even, but in fact the recession we have just come through was one of the mildest on record. So you can see the cutting-edge economic theorists getting together and coming up with a brilliant new theory: budget surpluses are followed by gentle recessions; huge deficits lead to brutal recessions.

But if you want your discipline to be recognised as a proper science, then you have to reproduce the results under properly controlled experimental conditions. How could we ever get another administration to repeat Reagan’s folly? It’s not just Americans who would suffer, either: the whole world would face a long, bitter recession in a few years if America went down that road again. Have we the right to do that to people in the name of science?

Of course we do; science is important, and besides we’ll probably get the Nobel Prize in economics. So the whole massive operation went ahead: the kidnapping of Vice-President Dick Cheney at his secret ‘secure location’ and the substitution of a surgically altered look-alike experimental economist who goes around spouting lines like “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” It is certainly a daring experiment, though one has reservations about how responsible it is.

It’s hard to create conditions that exactly duplicate those of the Reagan era. This time, for example, there is no opposition-controlled Congress trying to cut the deficits and mandate a balanced budget, so the swings may be more extreme than first time round. But if you want to test a theory to destruction, this should work just fine.

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To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraph 6. (“At one point…obeyed”)