Nurturing democracy in Pakistan

The Foreign Policy Centre's Alex Bigham considers how the world sho

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about what the international community should do next to help alleviate the chaos consuming Pakistan. One was emphasised by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian – that we should never seek to interfere in the internal affairs of a country, and that, as is his usual claim, we are the architect of our own misfortune. The other is being taken up by the bulk of US presidential candidates – that the US should be ready to bomb Pakistan if its nuclear sites look threatened by the Islamists, and that the UK and US should provide oversight control of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (a policy advocated by Hillary Clinton).

While I have more sympathy with the Clinton argument, both points of view are a little naïve – the US is not going to sit idly by while Islamist extremists overrun the world’s sixth most populous country armed with WMD, nor are they likely to be able to completely overturn Pakistan’s sovereignty when it comes to security issues. One of the lessons from the Iran nuclear case is that patient diplomacy, which the EU has spearheaded, combined with a carrot and stick approach can yield positive results. As the recent US intelligence report emphasised, it persuaded Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. One of the great mistakes that have been made in the past in relation to Pakistan is the outside obsession with individuals over institutions. John Negroponte was guilty of this recently, in his overtures to both Musharraf and Bhutto.

With the tragic death of Benazhir Bhutto, the inevitable focus of the commentariat and policy makers has turned to the young Oxford student Bilawal Bhutto, or the tough army general, Ashfaq Kiyani. But this obsession with personalities over institutions will always leave the leadership of Pakistan vulnerable to interference and even overthrow from the 3 As – the Army, America or Allah (i.e. the Islamists). Bilawal is clearly smart, but is he ready to take on the mantle of leadership, when he has spent so little time in Pakistan and struggles to speak Urdu?

Neither outside force or even a strong leader can build a vibrant democracy. That’s not to say the international community is powerless to effect change, but it needs to take local people with them. Supporting democratic institutions, grassroots NGOs and political parties, as well as groups that advocate human rights, women’s issues and support for marginalised communities will do far more to engender a democratic culture in the long term.

The UK, in partnership with our EU allies could be doing more. While it may seem somewhat ironic these days, Westminster was the ‘mother of all parliaments’ – influencing the establishment of legislatures across the world in past centuries. It’s important that our modern foreign policy is also focussed on democracy building – and not cautioned by the problems in Iraq. It’s not just FCO or DfiD support though – visits by parliamentarians, NGOs and academics can all help to foster a more democratic atmosphere.

The Commonwealth, which has an important relationship with Pakistan, is one of the few international institutions to suspend or expel its member countries when democracy or human rights are seriously threatened, and did so in November when Pakistan implemented martial law. It would be helpful if other international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank would have the courage of their rhetoric to similarly put pressure on countries that subvert democratic norms.

Pakistan is not the basket case some have made out – and Musharraf is hardly on a par with Saddam or Mugabe. The country's economy has improved dramatically in the past five years, thanks in part to the stewardship of former Prime Minister Aziz, but it hasn’t translated as much as it should do into poverty reduction for ordinary people.

Even though its popularity is damaged, the army will always play its part in Pakistani politics, as it has done frequently since the 1950s. Often, it is to maintain Pakistan’s stability and status as a relatively secular democracy. The challenge is to ensure that the other representative democratic institutions are powerful enough to compete with it.

Alex Bigham is the Head of Communications and Projects at the Foreign Policy Centre, a London based progressive think tank.
Biteback and James Wharton
Show Hide image

“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.