Drugs rows, Aids denial and the post

Legalising all drugs would raise billions in revenue

No more Mr Nice Guy, eh? One effect of Alan Johnson's decision to sack David Nutt is to shatter the carefully cultivated image that got the former postman talked about as a future Labour leader: a nice, moderate, sensible sort of guy who avoids unnecessary controversy and gratuitous offence.

Nutt is not, as newspapers keep calling him, the government's "drugs tsar" or "chief adviser". A professor at Bristol University and Imperial College, London, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, he is the unpaid, supposedly independent chairman of a statutory advisory committee. When he talks and writes about drugs, he is not, as Johnson claims,"campaigning", but going about his normal scholarly work.

The remarks that got him dismissed - about how cannabis and Ecstasy are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco - were made last July during a lecture at King's College London. Does Johnson believe that distinguished academics, if "advising" the government, should not only grin and bear it when ministers ignore them, but also stop publishing and lecturing? Or does he think Nutt should give lectures in camera and have them declared official secrets?

Johnson and other ministers are missing a trick. If they (like me) were what the journalist John Harris calls "swashbuckling libertarians" (thanks, John, I've never been called swashbuckling before), they would legalise all drugs and, within an appropriate regulatory framework, tax them. They would then raise many billions in revenue (some of it from cocaine-snorting City traders) and save billions more from the costs of policing, prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. The money would go a fair way towards repairing the public finances.

Science of politics

The Johnson-Nutt imbroglio also raises questions about the government's understanding of science. Though nearly all politicians now have a degree, most are in humanities and social studies. With the departure of Margaret Beckett (metallurgy), it will be hard to think of anyone now in government, except for the science minister Lord Drayson (engineering) and the local government minister John Denham (chemistry), with a science or engineering background. On the opposition front bench, only Liam Fox (medicine) comes to mind, though Adam Afriyie, the shadow science minister, has a BSc in agricultural economics.

Given the policy areas that involve scientific judgements - global warming, nuclear power and swine flu, for example, as well as drugs - this is worrying. One of the few reasons to lament Margaret Thatcher's overthrow was that, having taken a degree in chemistry, she brought some grasp of science to politics.

Face the facts

While we're on bad science, consider the following. In the early 1990s, the Sunday Times, under Andrew Neil's editorship, ran several articles, mostly by Neville Hodgkinson, then the paper's science correspondent, arguing that HIV didn't cause Aids, and that the disease was attributable to the kinds of lifestyle that Sunday Times readers would disapprove of.

Now the Spectator has revived the issue, praising, in a double-page article, a new American "documentary" called House of Numbers, which denounces Aids diagnoses as spurious and antiretroviral medication as a racket. The article described "the HIV/Aids industry" as having "the characteristics of a religion". (The magazine originally planned to screen the film in London, with a discussion, but cancelled it when several panel members pulled out.)

The article was written by one Neville Hodgkinson. The Spectator's publisher is Andrew Neil. Its editor is Fraser Nelson, who unexpectedly took over in August and is described on Wikipedia as "a contrarian with respect to several contemporary scientific issues", including HIV and global warming. Does this episode, I wonder, offer clues to the reasons for the unexplained departure of Nelson's predecessor, Matthew d'Ancona?

Return to sender

What clinches my view of the postal strike is the amount of wrongly delivered mail I get. Sometimes, I receive several letters a week that are addressed to other houses in the road, to the same house number in a different road, or to the same house number in the same road but in a different town. Likewise, a stream of people come to my door bearing letters addressed to me, but delivered to them.

I am sure I got nothing like as much misdirected mail a decade or so ago. I blame it on management schemes to speed up sorting and delivery, which inevitably lead to mistakes. Whenever you hear talk of "efficiency", in the public or private sector, it nearly always means bigger wages and bonuses for top executives, plus a worse service for customers. Unless the Royal Mail management is checked, it will inflict more of the same on us.

Thought crime

Scientists, it is reported, have invented a scanning device that reveals what goes on in our heads. By about 2020, I would guess, the government will be using it to "keep us safe" from crime, terrorism, paedophilia and other evils. Just to think about going on a demonstration against nuclear power, taking a neighbour's child to a football match or popping plastic bags in the green recycling bin will be enough to get you on a database. Thinking for a few moments about the injustices that turn Muslims into terrorists will probably prompt an immediate police raid. The trouble is, I can't think of a single political party I would trust to protect us from this scenario. Except the BNP, which isn't interested in our minds, only our skin colour.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro