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.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 13. (“But he…street”; “Nicely…done”; and “The shame…secretary”)