Vote for Little Britain?

Simon Hooper visits Haltemprice and Howden where David Davis has forced a by-election on civil liber

It's not hard finding David Davis. There he is as I drive through Willerby, standing outside his campaign headquarters, taking advantage of a sunny break between the early morning Yorkshire showers to do his first television interview of the day.

A few minutes later, having warmly greeted the day's visiting Conservative bigwigs, former shadow cabinet colleagues George Osborne and Michael Gove, Davis can barely be restrained from his electorate any longer.

"Howden team this way!" he cries as he strides out of the door, sleeves already rolled up and displaying commendable eagerness for the frontine leafleting and door-stepping that is the main business of by-election canvassing.

This of course has been no ordinary by-election. Since Davis resigned from parliament and the Conservative front bench on 12 June to launch his one-man crusade for civil liberties, he has been both ridiculed as an eccentric political stuntman and feted as that rarest of beasts, a principled independent thinker uncowed by the Westminster spin machine.

With less than two days left of the campaign, both arguments still hold and neither the electorate here in Haltemprice and Howden nor the media seem able to make up their minds which David Davis they prefer.

In many ways, Davis has made his point already. Having attracted a broad spectrum of support from the likes of Tony Benn, Bob Geldof, Martin Bell, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Shami Chakrabarti – who have all ventured north in solidarity with his cause – Davis pretty much won the argument when Labour declined to stand a candidate against him over the issue of 42 days.

Catching up with him later in the day in Howden's picturesque market square, he concedes disappointment that Labour failed to rise to his challenge. "The Prime Minister tells us it's vital to national security and yet they won't defend it? It's pathetic and cowardly, both morally, intellectually and politically," Davis tells newstatesman.com.

But the big battle now, as Davis admits, is turnout – something which may well determine whether he returns to Westminster with his heavyweight reputation enhanced or eroded. This campaign has had the feel of an American primary with issues of national importance being discussed at a local level, something that Davis himself has encouraged. "They are being asked to speak for Britain. This is a referendum," he says.

Yet many on the street express bemusement and reluctance at their involuntary conscription as foot soldiers in the fight for civil liberties. Davis admits that some have not cared for the subtleties of the 42-day debate, equating "terrorist suspects" with "terrorists".

Some say they are more concerned by economic issues and express disapproval at the costs of an "unnecessary" by-election.

And others are just plain rude. "I don't care what he thinks or what he does," says a man in a Howden cafe. "I think he's a dickhead."

Davis' cause has not been aided either by the vapour trail of candidates running in his wake – a 25-strong list ranging from serious-minded opponents such as the Greens' Shan Oakes, the anti-rape campaigner Jill Saward and political reformers such as David Pinder of the New Party to Miss Great Britain, the Monster Raving Looney Party and the Church of the Militant Elvis Party.

Then there is David Icke, whose supporters accuse Davis of banning their candidate from public events and seem to have set out to ambush him wherever he goes. It is an event that has rendered a rich vein of British sature from Monty Python to the League of Gentlemen largely redundant, at times feeling less like a referendum for Britain than a referendum for Little Britain.

But former independent MP Martin Bell for one believes it is a process that has strengthened politics rather than trivialised it, describing the by-election as "a little festival of democracy."

"Anybody has a right, so long as they are a citizen of good standing, to stand for the House of Commons and I think it's admirable that 25 people should do so," Bell told newstatesman.com.

"I suppose what really drives me to come up here is that here is a man who puts his principles before his career and that is so unusual in politics. I accept the fact that people are probably more exercised about the price of petrol than they are about their civil liberties but civil liberties still matter. I think David will come out of this hugely strengthened as a politician."

Bell later takes the stage alongside Davis and filmmaker Chris Atkins at a well-attended village hall event in Eastrington. It is an idyllic summer's evening amid this rolling countyside with a gentle game of cricket forming an elegiac backdrop in the late evening light.

The last Englishman to fight a battle for Anglo-Saxon liberties over this terrain was King Harold, who defeated Harald Hardrada's Viking invaders not so far from here at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Every good school boy and girl knows what happened next.

But David Davis insists he is gearing up for more battles ahead. "This by-election has lasted 10 days. We will be talking about these issues in 10 years," he tells his audience. But will those constituents turn out to back his cause on Thursday?

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.