Interview: Julian Huppert

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In the face of the recent Liberal Democrat wipe-out in the European and local elections, Julian Huppert seems to have lost no optimism or spark. Originally a Cambridge don, having read natural sciences at Trinity College Cambridge, he became an MP in 2010 after eight years on the Cambridgeshire County Council. I ask him how his experience in government had changed his views on the nature of politics. “It’s really interesting to see how it works while you are actually there, especially being in government. I was leader of the opposition on Cambridgeshire county council, and opposition is much easier as all you have to do is say is ‘I wouldn’t have done it like this. Here is how I would have done it, and better.’ The challenge of being in government is you have to make decisions. Compromises are necessary because you are in government. There is a limited pool of money, if you are responsible in government you can’t just promise to spend it on everything.”

However, he does not hold Westminster in high esteem, saying, “the way that our parliamentary system works is not very good. We have this idea of collective ministerial responsibility where every minister has to say that they agree with everything. It’s a silly idea; it wasn’t true when Blair and Brown were having massive disagreements over everything, it isn’t true now that we have a coalition of two different parties. The other thing that is really bizarre at the moment is the fact that to change your mind is considered a really bad thing.” 

“We have these famous moments; Thatcher’s ‘the lady’s not for turning’, Tony Blair’s ‘I have no reverse gear’ and so on. Well you wouldn’t buy a car that didn’t have a reverse gear or couldn’t U-turn. Instead you have politicians who will never ever change their minds. Instead you get things like Tony Blair being unwilling to change course when a million people march against invading Iraq. I’d love to see a system where ministers are able to say ‘we thought this policy would work; it didn’t, we were mistaken so we are going to try a different approach.’ We all make mistakes. I trained as a scientist, so to me, the idea of proposing a hypothesis, testing it and then rejecting isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s something to be positive about.”

As Huppert had been speaking in a recent Union debate in favour of ending the War on Drugs, I ask him how this stance squares with his resentment towards David Cameron’s U-turn on drugs policy; from being a lukewarm supporter of drug policy reform to becoming much more hard-line, recently ruling out a royal inquiry into reform of drug policy or of decriminalising any currently scheduled substances, “Cameron is a really interesting character, and part of this is that he really doesn’t have much of an ideology at all. He’s got some views; he thinks he’s the kind of person who should be Prime Minister, he’s pro ‘marriage’, he likes the English countryside but isn’t very ideological unlike, say, Michael Gove or Margaret Thatcher. While he was persuaded to do something different with drugs policy in 2002, I think he was happier not to have to worry about it or spend political capital on it; he didn’t take the issue particularly seriously.”

The real obstacle to sensible drugs reform, he tells me, actually comes from the left. “The thing that frustrates me most about drugs reform is that the Labour leadership is so adamantly against doing anything sensible and are always authoritarian, time and time and time again. We saw this plenty of times when they were in power. But even recently, we had a discussion quite recently around issues to do with child sexual abuse and the Labour shadow spokesperson said ‘well why are we requiring proof to the criminal standard to convict someone of such a heinous crime!’” He tells me of an amendment Labour proposed to ban all psychoactive substances other than alcohol and tobacco, which would have criminalised coffee, tea and nutmeg amongst other things.

I was slightly sceptical at first, but decided to look it up, and there it was, an amendment to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill from July 2013, proposed by Labour MP’s Mr David Hanson, Gloria De Piero and Phil Wilson. “It is an offence for a person to supply, or offer to supply, a psychoactive substance, which… is likely to be consumed by a person for the purpose of causing intoxication.” He goes on to tell me more about his problems with the Labour Party, including the potential difficulties of forming a coalition with them. “Some of Labour’s authoritarianism comes from a decades-long fear of never wanting to be seen as soft on anything. It was Labour who locked up thousands of children for immigration purposes for months on end in order to look tough. We do see far too much of this posturing, tabling and arguing things just to show how tough they really are, which is very disconnected from what we are trying to achieve.”

“Regarding a coalition, we did go into talks with them, and amusingly one of the things they wanted was us to agree to increase tuition fees with them, which is a small historical issue I’m sure they’re quite glad to forget about now. I voted against tuition fees; when they first came in there was a Labour MP for Cambridge who promised she was against fees, and then voted for them, so I’m quite proud to be the first MP for Cambridge to ever vote against tuition fees.”

The tuition fees issue seems to have sunken the Liberal Democrat election prospects for the near future, and so I ask to what extent he thinks this issue has overshadowed their achievements in government. “There are plenty of things the Tories want to do that we would never let them away with. The Tories want to absolutely savage welfare benefits, for instance. One of the things I’m proud to have had a big hand in killing off was the idea of scrapping a housing benefit to people under twenty-five. I love the idea that every single under twenty-five year-old has a loving stable family they can go and live with. I like that world, but we don’t live in that world.”

“Tuition fees are a fascinating case, and I think it’s because of a fundamental issue people associate with trust. But I don’t see why they don’t associate the policy with Labour. It was Labour who swore not to introduce tuition fees, and then did, while tripling them. It was Labour who supported the Browne review, which recommended unlimited fees. It’s clear from Mandelson’s account that if Labour had won the last election, they would have massively increased tuition fees.” 

Rather, his regret is not expressing Liberal Democrat discontent with their Conservative partners strongly enough, with them instead trying to present a united face in order to preserve the idea that a coalition could be a viable form of government. “In the very early days of the coalition, we were much worse about explaining where there had been rows. But we kept these entire row in private. So what people saw was ‘oh look, there’s a complete about face.’ That was a huge error. I think people expect us to fight for what we believe in. But they don’t expect us to win every fight.”

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