The politics of fear

A legislative programme that contains many laudable goals will instead be dominated by authoritarian

Another Queen's Speech, another anti-terrorist crackdown. This year's Counter-Terrorism Bill follows last year's Terrorism Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. There are only so many ways of saying the same thing. With each new wave of legislation, only the date gives a clear indication of which law is which.

In 2001, in its report on the new Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, the Commons home affairs select committee wrote that "this country has more anti-terrorism legislation on its statute books than any other developed democracy". Since then, a further three pieces of substantial legislation have been passed in this area; this new bill will make it four. The latest proposed measures will allow the questioning of suspects after they have been charged. Ministers are also considering increasing the length of time a suspect can be detained without charge beyond the present 28 days. Memories are short, but as the government talks once again of increasing this period of detention, it is worth remembering that when Labour came to power in 1997, the period of detention without charge was just 48 hours - only in exceptional cases could the home secretary grant an extension of up to five days.

Most of the criticism of Gordon Brown's first legislative programme has been wholly unjustified. The drive to build more affordable homes, the raising of the educational leaving age and the extension of flexible working to include the parents of older children all add up to the beginnings of a progressive vision.

But on security, the government's policy has been consistently illiberal and Brown has signalled his intention to continue where Tony Blair left off. On the weekend before the Queen's Speech, I attended a conference held by Progress, new Labour's most cheerleading fringe group, where I spoke at a meeting entitled "Beyond the Politics of Fear: How Does Labour Win the Security Debate?" It struck me that Labour already believes it has won the security debate, a feeling reinforced by the new legislation.

In the court of public opinion - or so the new Labour argument goes - no anti-terrorism measure is too harsh, no curtailment of liberty too far-reaching, just so long as most people believe it is not happening to them. At the same time, the Conservative Party's decision to defend ancient liberties in the face of legislation such as control orders, the extension of detention without trial and ID cards is seen as an open goal for a Labour government that has never been afraid to flex its authoritarian muscles. This leaves us in the strange position where we have the Tories, the Law Lords and most of liberal Britain on one side and the Labour Party and the Daily Mail on the other.

There is some evidence of a shift of tone under Brown - but the softer language of the new Home Secretary and the excision of the phrase "war on terror" from the ministerial lexicon means little when the government is so determined to revise the internment legislation. In the chopped logic of this government, there is no security debate. The last election was won on the present security agenda and the belief is strong that the government has an authoritarian mandate.

It is easy to forget that this government was indulging in the politics of fear long before the events of 7 July 2005; indeed long before 11 September 2001. The direction of travel was indicated by the very first piece of anti-terrorism legislation to be brought in - the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998. It was this piece of legislation that fundamentally shifted this country's philosophy towards the terrorist threat by making it an offence "to conspire to commit terrorist acts abroad". This ensured that Britain became dependent on other countries' definition of what it was to be a terrorist in order to counter the domestic threat. Our domestic policy became yoked to the demands of foreign policy. The most glaring example of the inconsistency of this policy came when Libya was brought in from the cold. At a stroke, Islamist dissidents of the Gaddafi regime became al-Qaeda terrorists.

What followed was an obsession with foreign terrorist sleeper cells. Thousands of hours of police time and vast sums of public money were wasted on pursuing terror suspects from North Africa against whom there was no serious evidence of terrorist activity. As we now know, to tragic cost, we were looking in completely the wrong direction - the deadliest threat was home-grown.

On the pretext of "the war on terror", fundamental liberties have been swept aside. The Terrorism Act 2000 extended detention without charge to seven days. A year later the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act brought in detention without trial for foreign terror suspects. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 extended the period a suspect could be kept without charge to 14 days. When the Law Lords ruled that holding foreign suspects without trial was unlawful, the government used the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act to introduce "control orders", which restricted the movement of terror suspects using electronic technology and curfews.

Labour's first piece of anti-terrorist legislation was a reaction to the Omagh bombing of 1998, and although the threat has switched from Irish republicanism to Islamist nihilism, the pattern of atrocity followed by crackdown has been maintained. It is interesting to contrast this with the reaction to the Brighton bombing of 1984, in which the IRA targeted the Conservative cabinet at the party conference.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out in his recent book, Thatcher and Sons, the then prime minister did not respond by announcing a new raft of legislation, but by requesting that Marks & Spencer open early to allow survivors to replace clothes lost in the blast. As an admirer of Lady Thatcher, it is a model of leadership Gordon Brown would do well to follow. Faced by the present Islamist threat, a truly courageous government would have held its nerve and refused to allow our fundamental liberties to be whittled away by the men of violence.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.