Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Politics of Fear

Yesterdays sacking of the Governments drugs advisor, Prof David Nutt, brings into sharp focus the tension politicians face when making policy and setting the agenda. Prof Nutt stated this week (and has done so previously), that cannabis and ecstacy are no more dangerous than cigarettes and alcohol. He said this based on the facts at his disposal as a scientist. However, with successive Governments having made a virtue out of being tough on drugs and talking up the dangers of their use, his candid assessment was very unwelcome, particularly as he was their chief advisor on the subject.
So, here is a classic example of a Government asking for specialist advice, but when that advice undermines current policy, they change the advisor rather than the policy. In recent times we have seen this in education, the armed forces and the police, but here we have an issue which all Governments pin some of their moral standpoint on, and knowing full well that they would be open to attack if they were seen to be 'soft on drugs'. So it is in their vote winning best interests to stick with their dogma rather than open an informed debate on a delicate and emotive subject. Politicians of all viewpoints know how this feels. Faced with the choice between the facts and arguments as you know them, versus the strongly held beliefs of the electorate, which should they choose? The temptation is to always play the way of the electorate; after all, they elected you right? You promised to listen didn't you? Well here you are, listening! The problem is, politicians can, and should, be the standard bearers for change and new ideas. This takes a lot more courage, and certainly a great deal of judgement. If communities really do want the status quo, then you should help to defend that. If they want a different kind of change, you should help to create it. But you owe it as community leader to at least let people have the facts and make up their own minds before being on hand to assist in the solution people want. An example of this recently was Peter Carroll, a Lib Dem councillor in Kent, who started a campaign for rights for Ghurka veterans. Joanna Lumley did a wonderful job at the sharp end, elegantly breaking Government ministers, but Peter campaigned for years on this issue, and for a long time for no reward personally or politically. He just felt so strongly about the issue he refused to give up. This is remarkably rare in Governments as a collective, as they seem to suffer a mass neurosis about stepping out of line (although as the Government gets tired and old, the neurosis seems to drive them to step out of line on a daily basis!). It usually starts with one person, either a campaigner or politician, fighting through all the obstacles for something they hold dear, and win over public opinion, only for the Governement to catch on at the last and make it their own. We need people like that now more than ever.

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