JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 21.7.07
IF YOU CAN REMEMBER THE Sixties, they say, then you weren’t there. It’s one of those throwaway lines about that decade of tremendous social change that makes some people laugh knowingly, and drives others wild with irritation, both at its unpleasant in-group smugness, and its blatant inaccuracy. For myself, I can remember the Sixties pretty well, and I was certainly there, in all the ways that mattered to me. I was a hard-working schoolgirl, a fully paid-up Beatles fan, and a keen and sometimes anxious TV addict, gazing open-mouthed at all the huge political developments of the decade, from the Cuban crisis of 1962 to the thrilling student protest events of 1968.
I knew, as all observant kids knew, that for some people involved in this growing anti-establishment counter-culture, the use of illegal drugs – mainly, at the time, cannabis and LSD – was part of the picture, part of the rebellion against old ways; and by the time I arrived at university in 1970, it wasn’t hard to identify the students who used those drugs, and had access to them. Like Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander – and perhaps for similar down-to-earth Presbyterian reasons – I never used any myself. But I was conscious, like most of my generation, of living across a weird but hugely significant cultural divide. Behind us was a world in which drugs like cannabis, LSD, cocaine, heroin were completely unknown to the vast majority of people, foreign, strange, and frightening; ahead of us, a world in which experimentation with at least some of these substances would become much more normal and widespread.
And it’s against this background, I think, that we have to understand this week’s small but distinct media fuss over the confession by some members of Gordon Brown’s new government – currently nine of them, and counting – that they experimented with cannabis in their youth. At one level, this piece of news is so unremarkable, and so statistically predictable, that it can hardly be classed as news at all; today, almost half of British teenagers and twentysomethings will experiment with cannabis at some time, and the percentage among undergraduate students is probably far higher. Nor, as any good anti-drugs campaigner will tell you, is there any scientific reason to regard cannabis consumption as a greater moral evil than the routine consumption of alcohol, a much more damaging form of addiction which our society continues not only to tolerate, but to indulge and promote.
Yet somehow, despite the passing of 30 years or more, this experience of experimentation with cannabis still represents a kind of watershed in our culture; and one we cannot easily forget or leave behind. For many of those born before 1945, for example – a large and influential slice of the electorate – the Sixties shift in attitudes to drugs symbolises a whole raft of social change, notably in sexual mores, that has left them feeling stranded in a world they barely recognise, and which they sometimes bitterly resent.
Worse than that, though for a Labour government, is the way issues of age, in this area, are compounded by issues of class. Illegal drug use may be common in some working-class communities now. But back in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was an experience far more common among the small minority who left home for higher education; hence the sharpest line of criticism against Gordon Brown’s confessing ministers, that they are a bunch of middle-class hypocrites, who think drug experimentation is all right for privileged university types like themselves, but all wrong for kids from council estates. There’s no doubt that Britain went through a social revolution during the 1960’s and 70’s, in other words. But even today, the effects of that revolution remain so unevenly distributed, so widely feared, and so enduringly controversial, that governments dare not change the law in ways that fully reflect those changing attitudes.
And where does that leave us? It leaves us, I think, sadly trapped in the same old psychodrama of rebellion and reaction that I first observed when I arrived at university more than 30 years ago. In some moods, we play the nation of grunting old reactionaries, demanding an end to all this hippy-dippy nonsense about the legalisation of dangerous substances. In other moods, we like to see ourselves as smart young rebels, sniggering knowingly over every feeble joke about dope-growing or cocaine-snorting uttered on television or on stage, and thoroughly enjoying our own naughtiness in defying the law. Over more than a generation, in other words, this growing schism between the reality of life in Britain, and the letter of the law on drugs, has corroded relations with the police, encouraged a widespread culture of sniggering collusion with criminal behaviour, and invited a whole generation, as they grow older, to develop an attitude to the issue which is not so much consciously hypocritical, as downright schizoid.
And now, unsurprisingly, we have a cabinet of men and women who, like any contemporary group of professionals aged between 35 and 60, more or less perfectly reflect this cultural division and confusion. They are, in other words – at least in this respect – exactly the government we deserve; and it hardly becomes us to feign surprise at their revelations. It is difficult to say whether we will ever recover from the culture-shock of the 1960’s, to the point where we can realign our drug and alcohol laws to 21st century realities, including genuine changes in the type and strength of drugs available. But to judge by the puritanical tone of the Home Secretary’s apology, this week, we would be well advised not to hold our breaths; or to expect any return to a more healthy balance between social reality and the law, any time soon.
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