The political storm that has followed the sacking of Professor David Nutt seems set to intensify at present. What is lacking is a sensible middle ground perspective.
For those who (quite sensibly) rely exclusively on Cherwell for their news, the government’s chief policy adviser on drugs was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, after he spoke out criticising government drugs policy. In his lecture, he described cannabis as being less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol. He has previously suggested that ecstasy was less dangerous than horse riding.
Since losing his job, two members of the committee which Professor Nutt chaired have also resigned, and many others seem set to follow suit. Now the chief scientific adviser to the government has, diplomatically, suggested that he agrees with Nutt’s view on drugs, though he refrained from criticising Johnson for sacking him.
What we have here, is a divide between scientists and politicians, and it is quite plain that both are being unreasonable.
On one hand, we saw in the debate held in the commons, that politicians seem to have a certain degree of contempt for scientific expertise. One MP commented, “scientists should be on tap, not on top”. This view is disastrously unhelpful.
So too was it particularly stupid for politicians to assert that independent advisers have some sort of duty to avoid criticising government policy. Is that not the exact point of an independent adviser? To provide criticism, expertise and feedback on government decisions? A scientific adviser is not subject to the same sort of collective responsibility that cabinet ministers are, and the Home Secretary seems to have forgotten this.
Yet not everything said was totally without merit. As the Home Secretary argued, Nutt had gone public in criticising Government policy without informing his political bosses. Clearly, there were issues with the working relationship, and despite the fact that I would argue Johnson should probably listen to the expert advice, a breakdown of trust between the two seems a legitimate reason to seek someone else to do the job.
Even the chief scientist who shares Nutt’s views, John Beddington, points out that it would be difficult to see how the two could go on in such a situation.
However, we have to ask the question as to why Nutt acted as he did. There is a widespread, and seemingly accurate, perception, that the committee of which he was chair was, in effect, a rubber stamp for decisions that were in reality made for political reasons. Members of the committee itself have been raising such concerns.
The problem here is that, rather than being up front about the basis of drugs policy, which is that in reality the government wants to appear tough on drugs, the Home Secretary seems to be attempting to claim that policy is scientifically informed, whilst simultaneously ignoring the scientists.
Certainly, we can’t expect Johnson to admit he is merely politically motivated, but he could at least frame his decision based on a moral objection to drug taking, or some other point than the literal harm which the drug causes, because the evidence seems to be fairly clearly set against him.
Instead, he is somewhat ludicrously attempting to contradict scientific experts with anecdotal stories about his constituency, which, while emotive, are clearly not sufficient to inform drugs policy for the nation.
So, what is the conclusion? Simple – David Nutt could have handled the situation better, and because he didn’t he has lost his job. He has undermined an obvious opportunity to influence outdated and unhelpful drugs regulations. However, if the delivery of his message was off, the content was still bang on, and Alan Johnson should have listened to what he was being told a long time ago.