A shaky start: more prudence required

Within two weeks the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow

The Brown cabinet is feeling its way towards a foreign policy. Gordon Brown's first move was the pointed decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as a minister at the Foreign Office. A loyal servant of the United Nations and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, the newly ennobled Malloch Brown is loathed by the Cheneyites.

As if that wasn't enough, Douglas Alexander then confirmed to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that Britain wants to discard the Bush-Blair axis in favour of a multi national approach to all major foreign policy challenges, including security and terrorism. Brown was predictably swift to deny that he wanted any changes in the transatlantic relationship. But nobody in the US is fooled, and nobody should underestimate the symbolic power of the Prime Minister's early statement of intent: he is smoothing the way for close ties with the incoming Democrat administration that most anticipate will take office in January 2009.

Just in case President Bush thought he was being singled out for special punishment by Gordon, David Miliband stepped up to the despatch box with the dramatic announcement that four Russian diplomats (aka intelligence officers) were being expelled in response to Moscow's refusal to hand over the main suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case.

Miliband was clearly pleased with the cross-party support he got for his actions. But it may be worth pausing for thought. Britain does not have an extradition treaty with Moscow, and Russia is under no compulsion to deliver Andrei Lugovoi to the Crown Prosecution Service. And Britain remains unwilling to deliver Boris Berezovsky either to Moscow or to Brazil, despite Brasilia issuing an Interpol warrant for his arrest on 12 July. The CPS and Miliband may well argue that legally there is a watertight case for Lugovoi's extradition. Politically, it is much more shaky.

So, within two weeks, the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow. Sergei Lavrov - who I can't help suspecting may be the secret love child of the late, grumpy Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, known as Mr Nyet - has indicated that Russia does not want this matter to escalate. None theless, the Brown government may encounter obstacles to co-operation with Moscow and Washington in the coming months.

The list of major foreign policy issues where Britain needs good relations with the two powers is long and troubling. Iraq and Afghanistan are the two most obvious. On Iran, there is a real danger that as the end of the Bush administration nears, Washington might concoct ever more nutty adventures such as an invasion, in order to present an incoming Democrat president with foreign policy chaos. Britain and the EU could be in the unusual position of wooing Russia as an ally as they try to head off the apocalypse.

But the immediate headache is Kosovo, which was high on the agenda at Miliband's EU talks in Brussels on 23 July. The US and Russia are on a collision course over the UN-administered territory's final status. Washington insists that it will recognise a uni lateral declaration of independence by the Kosovar Albanians in the event of the UN Security Council failing to adopt a resolution sanctioning independence. The Russians have said they will veto anything Belgrade doesn't like.

Playing chicken over the Balkans is unwise at best. But neither Moscow nor Washington will be picking up the pieces - whatever the outcome, the EU will be clearing up the mess, financially, politically, socially and even militarily.

And this, counter-intuitively, is where David Miliband has a real opportunity to develop an innovative foreign policy with concrete results. Until now, Britain's Kosovo strategy has in effect been an adjunct to the state department's policy in Washington. This is both tired and unable to deliver results. But the replacement of Blair, Chirac and Schröder, a stultifying combination, with the invigorated trio of Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel offers a genuine opportunity for Europe to fashion coherent policies, on a case-by-case basis, that will advance the interests of the collective and the EU's individual members.

Kosovo is the obvious place to start - it is in Europe's backyard, and if the EU can prevent the Russians and Americans from wrecking stability in the region by persuading the Serbs and Albanians to reach a negotiated settlement over the territory, then Britain may be able to develop a foreign policy capable of compensating for the disasters of the past five years.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?