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MPs just don’t want to engage with voters, says Deborah Orr

Move along, now. There’s nothing to see. That’s the command that the debate police always manage to get across. The tragedy is that Parliament is the debate police, when it is supposed to be the cradle of informed and formalised discussion. This time last week, the nation was in the throes of a massive pile-up of diverse and often highly sophisticated opinion about illegal drugs, triggered by the Government’s sacking of the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. Already, its participants are being moved along, and already, there is little to see.

unjust cannabis lwasDr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science advisor, is hanging on in there, pressing for home secretary Alan Johnson to correct the errors he made in a reply to a parliamentary question, and apologise for misleading the House. He is also arguing that ministers need to “abide by a code of practice when it comes to dealing with unpaid independent scientific advisers”.

Good for Dr Harris. He has refused to let the matter lie. Yet considering the enormity of what the Government has done – sacking an expert of world renown because he does not acquiesce to its political agenda, and then offering feeble and mendacious excuses in order to justify this – Dr Harris’s stand is puny.

He reflects the policy of his party – which believes like Professor Nutt that cannabis should have remained a class C drug, and that ecstasy should be downgraded from class A to class B. But essentially the Liberal Democrats have a policy no different to the other main parties. All like to concentrate on degrees of illegality, as if the fine-tuning of category really “sends a message” that has a great impact on how people behave in the real world of drug use.

Yet all of those involved with drug and drug use know that they are breaking the law, and also that the law is unlikely to catch up with them unless they are extremely unlucky. Mainstream political debate ignores this, and concerns itself mainly with how best to maintain an elaborate illusion of strict and punitive control, usually citing especial concern about “young people”. The real, necessary and challenging debate needs to be about the possibility of constructing a system that offers adult users the genuine option of safer, more responsible purchase, in order that those dealers selling drugs to minors, and using minors in their distribution networks, can be economically, morally and legally isolated.

But a political system that sacks an adviser merely for affirming that the Government’s previous decision on cannabis classification was correct, and with little demur from the Opposition, is bent on stifling that debate, not promoting it. The Lib-Dems are only marginally less impractical. The debate police has moved us along, told us that there is nothing to see, and returned to its favourite private pursuit: Wondering, baffled, why they are not “respected”.

Not that the electorate is innocent. It is far too easily moved along and convinced that there is nothing to see. Take the expenses scandal. Earlier this year, party leaders ordered their MPs not to take part in debate about the Telegraph’s revelations as soon as they were published, on pain of political death. They announced that investigations were to be made, and reports were to be written. Then they sat back while the rest of the country indulged not just in a festival of MP-bashing, but also in an optimistic outpouring of ideas and hopes about how Government could be made more responsive, cleaner, more effective, more attractive, and simply better. What has come of it all? Virtually nothing.

MPs have been told again that they must toe the line, and accept any strictures offered by the authors of the two reports. Sir Thomas Legg’s scrutinised claims already made, and Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommended new rules to be followed in the future. According to the official line, these two are paragons of wisdom and virtue, and are absolutely infallible. Actually, between them they have got a lot wrong, and have brought in many rules that will have poor unintended consequences. Yet nobody, whether an MP or not, can presently make any headway in picking the decisions and recommendations apart because this is always seen as defending corrupt MPs.

By Deborah Orr © Guardian News and Media 2009

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