Comment: The day Westminster gave up on science

The government has given up on evidence-based policy making. We're now firmly in the land of fairy tales.

By Ian Dunt

It's a staggering admission of guilt. It's like having a public argument with the murder victim hours before they find the body. The government has given up on the need for scientific advice before classifying drugs.

Last week's police reform and social responsibility bill contains a clause scrapping the requirement for the home secretary to appoint at least six scientists to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). So that's that then. They've admitted it. The drugs war has nothing to do with reality. It is now to be based entirely on fairy tales.

The mask has been slipping for a long time. When Jacqui Smith agreed, under Gordon Brown's orders, to reclassify cannabis as class B, undoing one of the only genuinely liberal acts permitted under the Blair regime, she did so with a ferocious disregard for fact. Cannabis use was falling and had been since decriminalisation. She did it anyway. For those of us who still value the idea that we might adopt a position on the basis of empirical data, this was practically a self-contained manifesto. It couldn't have been clearer. Facts were no longer relevant to policy.

But the crux came a little later, when Professor David Nutt was sacked as the chair of the ACMD for suggesting that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than riding a horse. This is merely a statistical fact. Nothing more. It is not an offence, or a witticism, or an argument. It is a statistical fact. It is understood by tens of thousands of young people in the UK every Saturday night, young people who now appreciate the gulf between what the government says about the world and what the world is really like. They might act stupid when they dance, but at least they're smart enough to realise that the country's leaders are the ones divorced from reality.

When Alan Johnson sacked Nutt, he was praised across the Commons. "Scientists should be on tap, not on top," he was told, borrowing an old Churchillian phrase. I like Churchill too, but I'm always rather put off by people who think that quoting the man automatically wins an argument.

MPs have a tendency to get rather hot under the collar with this stuff. They are the elected representatives - they don't like it when anyone gets superior around them. Their reaction to the ACMD was equivalent to their reaction to the Phil Woolas judgement. On the ACMD they didn't like a scientist appearing to overrule the home secretary. On the Woolas case, they didn't like judges appearing to overrule the election of the MP by his constituents.

The only way either one of these arguments holds is if you discount the role of truth in politics. The people of Oldham East and Saddleworth are entitled to accurate information upon which to base their decision at election time. Without it, they cannot make a valid decision. The home secretary can only make drug policy on the basis of statistical and medical facts. Without it, we're in the woods without a compass.

Plainly we must be vigilant against any threat to the authority of our elected representatives, such as the presidential administration of Tony Blair and the gradual decline of parliament as a check on the executive. But without an assurance that our representatives make decisions based on accurate information, their role is without meaning. We might as well blindfold them, spin them round, and get them to pin a policy on the back of a donkey.

The truth is, the ACMD's scientific requirement is being removed to prolong a drug war which has now been invalidated on every conceivable level - politically, strategically, morally and logically. Drug policy is based on tabloid headlines, not truth - or even a genuine concern for the young people of Britain. If the Home Office cared at all about young people it probably wouldn't have reclassified cannabis when its own data showed that decriminalisation had reduced use. If the Home Office cared about young people it would be honest about the relative dangers of drugs such as ecstasy, which tens of thousands take regularly without harm, so that they listen when they receive warnings about genuinely dangerous drugs, like crack cocaine.

A great deal has changed in Westminster over the last few months - but not this. Science is still considered a humiliating distraction by the British government. Anyone old-fashioned enough to still abide by the ideals of the enlightenment should feel let down - but not surprised.

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