Former Home Office Minister Norman Baker talks drugs, Theresa May and coalition

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As the current coalition cycle nears it five-year completion, it is the Home Office that has been indicative of the greatest rift and ideological adversary between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

In an exclusive interview for Palatinate, Liberal Democrat Norman Baker MP describes his time as Home Minister, before his resignation in November 2014 as “uphill all the way, and as I said at the time it felt like walking through mud”.

During Baker’s thirteen month-tenure, he repeatedly suggested more progressive drug reform and published the ground-breaking Home Office Drugs: International Comparators paper which drew on eleven models taken from foreign drug policy.

At the time of publication, Baker cited that the report had been suppressed by the Conservatives in delaying the publication for months.

The report rejected forty years of political rhetoric that has advocated the merits of stringent laws and punishments in order to curtail drug use.

In analysing the findings of the report, Baker comments: “I think it’s perfectly possible to get a better [drug policy] approach which minimises drug use and is better for the health of the population from adopting the health-based approach which we’ve seen in Portugal, for example.”

The Portuguese model presents drug use as a health problem and an administrative issue, as opposed to one of legality, as long as the quantity of drugs possessed is no more than ten days’ supply of that substance.

 

“We’ve got a situation where nothing much has changed since 1971 in the Misuse of Drugs Act”

“The evidence is that worthy of adopting that policy we’ve actually seen drug use decline over there. So it’s quite wrong for right-wing papers to suggest that in order to tackle drugs effectively you have to get harder and harder punishment- that seems not to be the case.”

Baker compares UK’s highly legislative approach to drugs to its approach to speeding: “Those who are handed a speeding ticket and given 3 points who carry on speeding until they get twelve points; against those who go on a speed awareness course and understand what it is to hit a kid at 35mph.”

“Similarly if we deal with drug use by addressing individuals in their own way and saying this is what it does to your body, this is its impact on your family. This is going to be more effective in my view than simply giving someone a fine and sending them to police station.”

Baker refrains from committing to legislation: “the jury’s out to whether legislation would have beneficial or detrimental effects”. However, in citing the cannabis legalisation policies of Uruguay and U.S. states, such as Alaska and Oregon, Baker adjoins that “I think we should watch and see what happens with that and draw lessons from it.”

Baker is convinced of the “very important” need for drug reform “because we’ve got a situation where nothing much has changed since 1971 in the Missue of Drugs Act that was brought in really as an establishment reaction- or indeed overreaction- to the so called swinging sixties.”

“We have to recognise that there are different ways of doing things that are probably more effective.”

Any drug reform has to be combined with a strong public desire for change, Baker interprets public opinion: “I think it’s coming round that way and it’s interesting that when I raise issues to do with medicinal cannabis and subsequently with the Portuguese model in touch of the comparative study, the world didn’t come down on my ears and they would of done 10- 15 years ago”.

Baker’s claims hold substance after an online petition, led by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, requesting an Impact Assessment on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 exceeded 134,000 signatures before closing.

“I think the public’s changed, the press has changed and I think the politicians haven’t yet- with the exception of the Lib Dems and probably the Greens.”

Baker identifies forty years of negligible political change in relation to drug reform as a product of the politics of fear.

“Politicians are stuck in this mind-set that they’ll say something and The Daily Mail will come down on them and say they’re soft on drugs. The Daily Mail didn’t come down and say that about me so I think they won’t say it about them so I think politicians need to come up and catch up with the public.”

“The Home Secretary didn’t want to accept that the Coalition was in place”

The Home Office is the government department where many argue the fewest similarities exist between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

Consequently the appointment of Baker, a member of the centre-left Beveridge Group, as the only Liberal Democrat in the Home Office has inevitably accentuated this divide.

Baker speaks regretfully of his departure from the Home Office and his inability to implement more progressive reform.

While he is critical of his coalition partners’ approach towards drug policy, much of his criticism is reserved for the Conservatives’ running of the coalition government and in particular, Home Secretary, Theresa May.

“It’s the case as when I said when I resigned that the Home Secretary didn’t seem to want to accept that the coalition was in place”.

Baker anticipates another coalition an imminent prospect after May’s General Election.

“Whatever it will be between Labour and Tories who knows, I don’t think either Labour or Tories will get a majority and therefore they will have to do business with someone else”.

It is difficult to predict how MP’s, such as Baker, would respond to the formation of another coalition government. However, he asserts “it’s for the British people to decide what the result is and if they produce a hung parliament, I will expect us to be the third party.”

In a somewhat ironic nature, it is the current First Past the Post electoral system that should enable the Liberal Democrats, who have campaigned for more proportional voting systems, to retain a reasonable magnitude of its current fifty-seven constituencies in order to still yield a considerable force in any coalition formation.

“Whatever the rhetoric is about UKIP and Greens, the reality is they’ll probably only get five seats because of the way the electoral system works if anything else.”

“You’ve got to get pockets of strength rather than spreading support across the country like UKIP do. They’ll be four major parties at next Parliament- the Tories, Labour, us and SNP with significant large numbers in Parliament. It’s that combination that will decided what the next government is in my views.”

It is impossible to foresee if Baker will return to a Coalition cabinet after next year’s election.

His description of being the only Lib Dem in the Home Office as like “the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert” suggests his presence in a future Conservative cabinet is improbable.

Yet, throughout his career as MP for Lewes, East Sussex, Baker has been one of the most prominent voices in Parliament.

He was a key component in the disclosure of MP’s expenses and his 2007 book The Strange Death of David Kelly, disputed the suicide, days after appearing before a Parliamentary committee, of the biological warfare expert employed by the Ministry of Defence.

Therefore it appears highly probable that Baker will continue his vocal offensive on the UK’s current drug policy if he retains his constituency.

As we approach May’s election, the current electoral campaign is dominated by the semantic fields of austerity, immigration and the NHS. Therefore it is unsurprising that drug reform is not at the forefront of most of the electorate’s demands.

However, the campaign for drug reform is absorbing considerable momentum that is directed towards reform as Baker concludes that the war on drugs, costing the UK government over £3 billion per year, has “self-evidently failed”.

A 2013, Ipsos MORI poll revealed that over half of the public (53%) support cannabis legalisation or the decriminalisation of possession of cannabis.

The rise of the Green Party includes support towards drug reform and in particular the decriminalisation of cannabis. The Liberal Democrats progressive stance towards drug reform enables it to differentiate from Labour and Conservative in the tussle for central ground.

Supported by a growing ilk of vocal campaigners, Baker appears assured that the time for reforming of one of our most out-dated law is drawing ever closer.

Photography: Dave Radcliffe 

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