Melanie Phillips

3 August 2009

Mixed messages and the British free-for-all

Published in: Daily Mail

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Holding the line is a key element of any military defence strategy. If the line is breached, the enemy can pour through.

So it is with the defence of civilised values. Both the law of the land and informal networks of social stigma or disapproval play a crucial role in holding the line for the values of a society.

By establishing certain acts as crimes, the law sends out a powerful message that these are activities a society deems to be beyond the pale.

Maintenance of law and order rests upon those laws and social signals being applied consistently. If the messages get muddled, the whole thing breaks down.

Since this Labour Government came to power, those messages have indeed become fatally confused, resulting in rising levels of crime and disorder.

Take illegal drugs, for example. It is widely believed that 'the war on drugs' through law enforcement has failed. But for many years now, there has not been a 'war' on drugs.

Law enforcement has instead been undermined by mixed and confusing signals. The latest such muddle surfaced last week in a report by a body styling itself the UK Drug Policy Commission.

This said that since the UK drug market can never be eradicated, police action against drug dealing should be focused on where it is doing the most harm. This is absurd, dangerous and just plain wrong on every level.

To see how ridiculous it is, just imagine a report which said that crime could never be eradicated, and so to minimise the damage the police should henceforth deal only with the most serious murders, assaults or burglaries.

Such a proposal would be laughed out of court as a recipe for anarchy. Yet when it comes to drugs, this absurdity is put forward with a straight face and given pride of place on the BBC's Today programme.

Now consider a similarly brilliant proposal, by academics at the University of London's Institute of Education, to allow 15-year-olds to drink alcohol unsupervised.

The reason? Official guidance that 'childhood should be alcohol-free', and that 15 to 17-year- old drinkers must be supervised, may be unachievable. So even though the volume of alcohol consumed by young drinkers is said to be 'amazing', these academics' reaction is not to suggest ways in which such control might be achieved, but that the adult world should no longer even try to do so.

Such daft ideas about both drugs and alcohol arise from the deep defeatism of an adult world that is no longer able or willing to control the behaviour of the young.

So it has given up trying to stop drug or alcohol use (which it has tacitly encouraged by slackening controls) and instead tries to minimise the damage that it causes.

But since self-restraint rests upon the unequivocal message that abusive behaviour is not to be tolerated, this approach merely ratchets up the misbehaviour to ever more harmful levels.

The progressive demoralisation over drug abuse stems from a policy driven aground by several false assumptions.

Failing to grasp that it was vital not to dilute the message that all drug use was wrong, police strategy was built on the mistaken belief that soft drugs were less of a problem than hard drugs, and that the main targets of law enforcement should be not drug users -- who were actually seen as 'victims' -- but the pushers and the dealers.

This was terribly wrong because -- apart from the belatedly-grasped fact that cannabis does terrible harm to the brain -- illegal drugs form one unbroken line. Users are often pushers; dealers trade in both soft and hard drugs; if the market gets flooded with cannabis -- as it did -- dealers move seamlessly into cocaine and other 'hard' narcotics.

Misguidedly, the British police treated drug-dealing as the problem while largely ignoring drug users. But demand for drugs pushes the supply. Only if demand is choked off can supply begin to be curbed.

These fundamental strategic errors were made worse in recent times by the arrival of the badly flawed Serious Organised Crime Agency, whose success rate in drug seizures has been correspondingly poor.

Now despairing officers complain that arrests and drug seizures have 'no apparent long-term impact' on reducing supply. But that's not because law enforcement is the wrong strategy. It's because the law has not been consistently and intelligently enforced to deliver one unswerving message.

With the police and politicians so de-moralised (in every sense), they have been all too susceptible to the siren song of the drug legalisers who use the defeatist camouflage of 'harm reduction'.

This holds that it is no longer possible to stop drug use, and so the best that can be done is to minimise the harm that drugs do.

The inevitable outcome of harm reduction is that drug use must be legalised so that its damage can be monitored and controlled.

Precisely such an attitude lies beneath last week's report. While carefully saying that the law should be enforced, it nevertheless says, in effect, that the harm done by some drug dealing can be tolerated in order that the police can concentrate on the really dangerous stuff.

This would merely mean, however, that the most harmful drug trade would promptly relocate itself in those areas the police had conveniently vacated.

And since one of the main reasons our drug laws are in such a mess is that the police already prioritise one type of drug-dealing over another, the proposal is likely to exacerbate the problem even further.

The fact is, moreover, that harm reduction is already government policy. Ministers stopped trying to eradicate drug use long ago. That is why our drug problem is out of control.

A similarly destructive counsel of despair over alcohol abuse -- that youthful drinking is unstoppable -- lies behind the Institute of Education's idiotic proposal.

The epidemic of drunkenness among the young is due to a relaxation of controls, from pubs opening all night to supermarkets stocking cheap booze and 'alcopops'. To relax the supervision of the young in such circumstances is to pour more alcohol on to the flames.

These dotty and irresponsible ideas are being pushed by people who set themselves up as authorities but are no more than collections of self-important busybodies, ideologues pushing dubious agendas and dodgy academics.

Given the damage the Institute of Education has done in our schools over the years by promoting one idiotic education theory after another, a period of unlimited silence from that quarter would be a blessing.

As for the UK Drug Policy Commission, which was described breathlessly by the BBC as 'authoritative' and 'respected', it is nothing of the kind. It is a self-appointed body comprised overwhelmingly of 'harm reduction' zealots.

Apart from further undermining drug or alcohol policy, such foolish people also help create the general impression that all authority is bunk and there are no limits to behaviour.

The result is increasing general disorderliness as all these mixed messages deliver the one unmistakable signal that the line of social order is not holding.

With rising levels of misbehaviour merely causing yet more barriers to collapse, the result is a progressive drink and drug-fuelled free-for-all as authority allows itself to be mocked and the nation staggers ever further down the road to social ruin.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie