A marijuana legalisation campaign in June 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
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In contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober all the time is the real lunacy

There's plenty of marijuana-smoking and khat-chewing on my doorstep - in the park it's all good fun.

Oh, now that autumn is well and truly here, would that I could summon up the sweet smells of the skunk smokers outside the Surprise! They come across from the college around mid-morning and, plonking themselves down at the pub’s grotty outside tables, beneath the crap loggia, they skin up and fill the air with that peculiar taint: two parts synthetic cat’s piss to one of old-style marijuana. They’re pretty inoffensive, the skunk smokers: they just sit there, cosmically addled in their Puffa jackets and trainers, their jeans at half mast and the waistbands of their stretchy psyches exposed for all the world to see.

The skunk smokers are young and mostly black – the boules bellies who patronise the pétanque area immediately beside them are entirely pasty-white and middle-aged. One of them plaits his grey beard. I’ve never seen the boules bellies exactly drunk but there’s that persistent hoppy aroma and low-level effervescence about them, when they play, indicative of men who are seriously committed to real ale. Elsewhere in the park, there’s more drinking going on: the Portuguese who gather outside the Luna Café favour bottles of Sagres and the Ghanaians who cluster on the low wall along from the pétanque area have a penchant for tinned Guinness but, again, neither group seems to get pissed: this is workaday drinking.

Indeed, during the week, there’s a serviceable vibe to the local alcohol culture that would gladden any erstwhile Blairite: these solitary Polish tradesmen, sitting cross-legged under the trees, canvas grips full of spirit levels and plastering hawks beside them on the grass, a can of Lech or Tyskie wrapped in a brown paper bag in one hand, a black-market fag in the other – surely they are exemplars of the happy, pan-European café society that we all hoped open borders and 24-hour licensing would usher in?

Still, I doubt even the most passionate globaliser would feel as sanguine about the khat chewers. They buy their khat in a café on the Wandsworth Road, where it arrives early each afternoon – presumably direct from Heathrow, since the stuff loses its potency in about 24 hours – and sits quite brazenly, stacked up on the floor, wrapped in newspaper. I tried chewing khat a few times but although the hit was acceptable, an intriguing cross between amphetamine and weed, the means of ingestion was insufferably tedious, necessitating as it does the eating of about half a hedge before you lose your grip on suburbia.

The khat chewers are either solitary on benches, or else make up small colloquies that occupy the tree-fringed mound at the southern end of the park. All are instantly recognisable by their bugged-out red eyes and the bouquet of privet-looking fronds tucked under their arms.

The khat chewers are either Ethiopians or Somalis – and some are presumably Yemenis. They’re inoffensive enough and one can’t help but feel a little protective towards them, dependent as they are on a drug that has to be daily dew-picked a continent-and-a- half away.

I wish I could say the same about our indigenous addicts, who are often shockingly incontinent. Vanessa, who maintains a hefty crack habit about a hundred yards down the road from me, often collars me outside the local chemist’s; and when, in the past, I’ve challenged her on the veracity of her claim to be begging the price of some baby formula, she’s yanked her breast from her blouse and squeezed it in my face to prove that she’s lactating, albeit insufficiently.

But that’s not in the park. In the park, the toxified largely behave themselves and even needle junkies retire decorously to the bushes and then use the dog shit bins for their contaminated sharps. No, it’s in the street that things get wiggy: at night, the demented whippoorwill of the emergency services’ sirens whips this poor Will into a frenzy, as does the garbled gargling of late-night totterers- back from the local pubs.

I need at such times to remind myself: you were once like them – indeed, usually considerably more stoned/drunk/wired than they are and sometimes for several days in a row. No, in contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober 24/7 and 365 days a year is the real lunacy: I am part of a quiet and well-behaved crowd of nutters who, if we are ever remarked upon at all, are only castigated by the effervescent majority for being the most frightful bores.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide