Issue 269: 2021 03 04: Redemption

04 March 2021


Drugs and the reshuffle.

By John Watson

It was enough to make me choke on my toast but in this morning’s The Times, among reports of a new government campaign to reduce the taking of recreational drugs by the middle classes, I found the following passage regarding Michael Gove’s prospects of becoming Home Secretary:

One government insider joked: “What better way to spread the message of law and order to the British public than a man who’s admitted taking cocaine?”

The reference of course is to Gove’s admission in the course of the Conservative leadership campaign that he had taken cocaine a number of times at social events some 20 years ago in the course of his career as a journalist; but, leaving aside the condescending and smirking tone, the insider’s joke gives rise to a question.  What possible relevance does the admitted taking of drugs so far in the past have now?

Let us start at the practical end.  One responsibility of the Home Secretary is to set the policy on drugs.  Will they be better or worse at that if they have some experience of using them?  Well, on the plus side, you would expect a rather better understanding of the subject, of the temptations and pressures which lead to drug use and the way in which drugs are promoted.  Generally speaking, policy is best set by those who understand the subject matter, because they are far less likely to be seduced by politically-driven nonsense.

So that is an advantage.  What is there to set against it?  There is no suggestion that Gove still takes drugs or is part of some underground druggie culture of the sort which Sherlock Holmes used to penetrate in dockland areas.  Nor is this some concealed history which could give rise to blackmail or suggest continuing moral turpitude.  No, Gove has simply indulged in an illegal practice and, long ago, given it up.  Surely that only increases his suitability for working to counter it in the future.

The odd thing is that outside the realm of politics we would accept that quite easily.  How we celebrate the ex-con who becomes a pillar of the community; the reformed gangster who helps young people keep away from the gangs; the ex-thug who now runs a boxing gym which helps lost youngsters back onto the straight and narrow.  I remember a very distinguished chairman of the London Juvenile Court telling me with delight of a man who had spent much of his young life in trouble with the law but had later gone on to become chairman of the juvenile court in one of our provincial cities.  There was no question of some young rogue selling him a bogus story and yet when it came to sentencing he had a deeper understanding of what he was looking at than his middle-class colleagues from comfortable backgrounds.  Of course his experience made him a better magistrate.  How could it not?  And no one would regard his appointment other than as thoroughly sensible.  On the other hand when it comes to major politicians everything turns round and youthful folly becomes a stick with which they can be beaten.

Gove is not the only politician to be attacked in this way.  However much one may be opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, the trawling through the people with whom he had shared platforms in his distant youth threw little light on his current views and did no more than provide evidence that he had been a firebrand in the past.  Nor, had they proved true, would the stories of what David Cameron had done with a pig’s head when an undergraduate have had the slightest relevance to his ability to form a government.  But it isn’t just the irrelevance of this sort of attack which is offensive.  It is that it runs against the English tradition of tolerance and redemption.

Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 most criminal convictions become spent after a rehabilitation period.  For example, in the case of an adult offender who receives a custodial sentence of up to 6 months the conviction will be removed from his or her record two years after that sentence is completed.  The idea is to give those convicted a fresh chance and, whether one thinks that the best way of doing that is by concealing their previous conviction, one cannot fault the motive behind it.  People should have the chance to move on – at least when there’s nothing to suggest that their doing so poses any threat to law and order or to society.  Why, then, this bizarre attitude to politicians?  Is it that those who aspire to public office should always have been whiter than white?  Heaven forfend!  What a ghastly collection of milksops we would get if that were the case.  Is it that they always have political enemies seeking to tear them down?  Perhaps there is an element of that, though it is doubtful whether the public, always more fair-minded than the press and those at Westminster, are really impressed with this sort of thing.  Is it because the press, desperate to sell newspapers, need scandals from the soap opera of politics to sustain their circulations?  Probably there is something in that.

As the focus of government moves from Brexit to other issues, a cabinet reshuffle is inevitable.  The Prime Minister may well have mixed feelings on Michael Gove and readers will have their own views as to whether he would make a good Home Secretary.  Still, it is hard to see that his use of drugs 20 years ago should have anything to do with the matter and, in the event that he is appointed, I hope that Boris Johnson will raise a flag for the tradition of redemption by making that point specifically.


(photograph of Whitehall by Annie Spratt, Unsplash)


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