Drugs rethink means scrapping “grandfather rights”

Image from "Cigarettes and beer" by Mister Graves on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenceA government report this week found that there is no link between tough penalties and drug use. This has prompted calls from various politicians for a review of drugs laws. While it’s clearly a complex issue, it’s hard to argue with a rigorous report or with scientific research into addiction. Perhaps there is a case for changing the law so that addicts are treated as people with medical conditions rather than criminals – if necessary as a mental health issue with compulsory treatment, as addicts are hardly in the best position to judge whether they need help.

It’s clear that a comprehensive review of drugs laws would have to include alcohol and tobacco. These hold what I refer to as “grandfather rights”. This is a term that refers to something that is exempt from a current law or regulation because it already existed prior to the law’s introduction, even though it would certainly not be allowed were it new. Examples of grandfather rights include domain names: UK academic institutions must choose a domain at least three characters long, but some universities such as Leicester have two-letter domains (le.ac.uk) as they pre-date the rules. Another example is driving licences. A standard UK car driving licence used to allow motorists to drive a small van or a minibus, but this is no longer the case. Anyone who obtained their licence before the change may still drive the larger vehicles, but new drivers may not. Likewise, alcohol and tobacco are only treated differently from all the currently illegal drugs for historical reasons. If they were discovered now, they would most certainly not be legal.

Many of the experts who have spoken out in favour of changing the approach of drugs actually support a tightening of the law around alcohol and tobacco – something ignored by the group of people I term the “drugs lobby”, that is those who want to see drugs legalised because they want to use them, even if they try to dress it up with scientific or political reasoning. Professor David Nutt was famously sacked as the government’s drugs advisor after he criticised their re-upgrading of cannabis. He is often cited by those who wish to see cannabis decriminalised, but how many people realise how much he would like to see tough new restrictions on alcohol, and ultimately for it to be banned? The Green Party is known as a political party in the UK that wants to see a move away from the criminalisation of drug use. Yet it too wants a tougher policy towards alcohol, including a complete ban on advertising and sponsorship, significantly higher taxes, and much harsher drink-driving penalties. Needless to say, neither has much time for the tobacco industry, either.

The very same arguments that can be used to justify a rethink of policy towards the drugs that are currently illegal necessarily show that there needs to be a rethink when it comes to drugs that are currently legal. You can’t argue for policy to be based on level of harm but then exempt certain substances arbitrarily. If there is good reason to cast aside the historical origins of drugs laws, and to ignore international, legal and social customs and conventions, there is no reason to continue with the glaring anomaly that still allows people to smoke tobacco in public and in front of their children, and that sees our hospitals full of drunks at the weekend, receiving treatment for cuts and grazes when they should really be receiving psychological help.

But here’s the rub. It’s already politically very difficult for a government to be seen to be relaxing laws on illegal drugs. Telling the addicts it’s going to be harder to get their booze and fags would be trickier still, and is yet another reason why such a comprehensive review of drugs policy is unlikely to happen.

United we will remain

The Union Flag and Scottish Saltire flying in front of the Scottish Parliament building, EdinburghIt will come as little surprise to regular readers that I am delighted with the result of yesterday’s referendum in Scotland. Although I had remained optimistic that the people of Scotland would vote “No” to independence, I had thought the result might be closer.

Historically, support for independence has hovered at around a third of the population of Scotland or less. Even though the timing of the referendum and other details were chosen by the Scottish National Party – who are said to have employed political psychologists to ensure it favoured them as much as possible, for example occurring towards the end of a Conservative UK government’s term – and despite their relentless campaign, they were still only able to muster the support of less than 45% of the population. I don’t expect that to last. Sooner or later, support will drop to the pre-referendum levels. Had the vote been a “yes”, it would have been a travesty. It couldn’t have been said to represent the “settled” will of the Scottish people. The campaign seemed more to resemble a game show or reality TV series, with the aim to win the competition on the day to claim the prize, rather than to measure the long-held views of the population. I suppose the same is true of general election campaigns, but at least there the prize is to govern to five years. Here, the change would have been forever.

I do think the Westminster government mishandled the referendum somewhat, and were too complacent for too long. However, the Better Together campaign didn’t deserve the criticism it often attracted. The fact is, it’s difficult to make “no” sound positive. Whenever they stated a fact or position of the UK government, it was jumped on by the “yes” side and branded “negative”, whereas another day the “yes” team would present their latest argument, but any attempt to scrutinise it was simply branded “negative” by the SNP’s slick media machine. There was only one real threat issued by either side, as opposed to simply stating a position, and that was when the SNP said there would be a “day of reckoning” following a yes vote for companies who had supported a no vote.

As I said back in February, the weakness in the SNP’s whole argument and blueprint for independence was that many of their promises were little more than aspirations. They couldn’t guarantee use of the pound or EU membership because that would have been dependent on third parties’ agreement. Happily, it seems the people of Scotland saw through these claims. As one German newspaper put it this morning, the SNP had been “promising the moon”.

Perhaps the only downside of a “no” vote (and it is a price worth paying) is that we will not have a chance to see just how many issues Alex Salmond had misled people on. I doubt he or the core independence supporters would have cared; for the rest of the people of Scotland it would have been to late, had they been stuck with no control over their currency or unfavourable EU membership terms. There is just one of Alex Salmond’s promises we can check. Last month, he was asked if he would resign immediately in the event of a “no” vote, and he said he would remain and serve out his term as First Minister. Today, following a “no” vote, he resigned.

So does the referendum leave the United Kingdom divided and weaker as a nation? I don’t believe so. The vote removes the uncertainty that has been hanging over us for decades, and affirms the Scots’ place within the Union. A new devolution settlement will benefit all parts of the UK. Rather than thinking of the nations of the UK being in competition, I see the real problem facing us, the real inequality, to be the way London sucks the life out of the rest of the country. I intend to visit the English devolution question in future posts, but I can say quite categorically now that we do not need an English parliament. The regions of England are as ill-served by Westminster as Scotland is. So let’s have regional government in England, and give large cities a special status and control over their own affairs – which will of course include London. Not only will such arrangements benefit people in England, it will also mean Scotland and Wales will no longer be considered to be receiving special treatment, and so strengthen the Union.

Has our reputation been damaged following the vote? Most foreign governments and news outlets seem relieved that it was a “no” vote, but there also seems to be a lot of surprise and even admiration that the vote was allowed in the first place. Many countries with regions keen to break away deny those people a referendum. The UK has quite rightly been applauded for its commitment to democracy, and for the civilised manner in which the vote was conducted – in relative terms anyway. Fair play, civility, and a belief in democracy and freedom of expression are all values the British people share. We should celebrate the common values that bind us as well as our differences as we begin a new and exciting era in the politics of this great nation that we share.

Didcot Power Station before and after

Two views of Didcot Power Station taken from Didcot Parkway railway station. The first was taken on 12 March 2013, less than two weeks before the power station closed. The second is from 27 July 2014, just after three of the cooling towers were demolished.

Didcot Power Station, March 2013

Didcot Power Station July 2014

Proms queue diversity

Last week when I was taking a look at what people were saying on Twitter about the first night of the BBC Proms, I came across a tweet by someone called Gavin Dixon:

Time, once again, to lament the lack of social diversity in the #BBCProms arena queue. Quite literally #middleclassproblems

As he refers specifically to social diversity, and given the hashtag, the implication is that he feels those queueing for the Proms are overwhelmingly middle class.

Royal Albert HallI should start by saying that in general I feel the Proms have quite a diverse audience, more so than many people realise, and certainly when compared to many other events. When it comes to social class, however, I have to wonder how Dr Dixon determined the class of the people in the queue. Unless he handed out questionnaires, I would guess that it is based on appearance, so for a start that shows some prejudice against people of certain social classes, with the assumption that they dress or behave in a particular way. I would have thought anyone attending an event, from whatever background, would turn out in attire appropriate for the occasion.

Perhaps Dr Dixon’s definition of middle class includes enjoyment of classical music. In that case, it is hardly surprising that the people queueing for a classical concert are “middle class”. The Proms has attempted to introduce some slightly different styles of music in recent years: a Comedy Prom, a Gospel Prom, music from the musicals, “World Routes” artists, and this week even a work by the Pet Shop Boys. Even so, these are still relevant to the Proms and its broadly classical music ethos, featuring orchestras or traditional music of other countries. Changing the programme much further to include an even wider variety of concerts, especially if it meant reducing the number of traditional orchestral concerts, would mean the festival was no longer the Proms but was something else. Ultimately, the Proms is going to attract mainly people who enjoy classical music. Personally, I do not think there is anything wrong if someone does not like classical music. Everyone has different tastes, and one preference is not superior to another: they are simply different, and are catered for by different events. Why try to persuade someone to like something they are not interested in; or why change something many people like just to attract others whose interests lie elsewhere?

Of course, there is always the argument that the Proms are subsidised by TV licence fee payers to the tune of £5-6 million per year, so it has to be more inclusive. This takes us into the realms of arts funding in general, where I do feel public subsidy should be for art forms that would not be financially viable otherwise. Given the sheer numbers of performers on stage, an orchestral concert will always struggle to make money, even a sold-out performance in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall. Besides, many of the people at the Proms have TV licences (although not the diverse overseas visitors!) and the Proms does provide Radio 3′s evening output for couple of months, plus many hours’ television. The money involved is a drop in the ocean for the BBC – in the bad old days, it was equal to Jonathan Ross’s annual salary! While there are often heated discussions about the BBC licence fee in various forums, spending on the Proms never comes up as it is not something most people are concerned about in the grand scheme of things.

Gavin Dixon is a classical music journalist who writes for publications such as Gramophone. I wonder if he ever worries about the social diversity of writers in such magazines? I see plenty of people hanging around in the town centre each day who are looking for jobs, if he would like to step aside. Alternatively, perhaps his column inches in Gramophone could be given over to a rap DJ or some former X Factor contestants.

One group of people I do find over represented in the Proms queue, who tend to be fairly cliquey, are people involved in music, be they critics, students or teachers. Perhaps the real problem with the Proms audience is the people with PhDs on symphonies of fairly obscure 20th century composers. It would be much better to stop over-analysing the music, stop over-analysing the make-up of the queues, and simply enjoy sharing the concerts with all the other promenaders from a wide range of backgrounds, who may have just one thing in common: a love of classical music.

Didcot Power Station gallery

[Didcot Power Station photo gallery thumbnails]

Didcot Power Station was completed in 1968. In 2013, it was closed down. At the end of July 2014, the first three of the cooling towers are due to be demolished. As a tribute to this fixture of the south Oxfordshire skyline that has become synonymous with the town, I have chosen 28 of the best photographs from my collection, taken over the last eight years. As with all my photo galleries, the images are accompanied by a few facts and some trivia about this monument to 20th century industry.