It’s high stakes in the leadership race, but recent admissions of candidates about how they used to get on it highlights how poor people of colour face the brunt of drugs laws
The Tory leadership race has taken a trippy turn. Not to be outdone by his arch enemy’s admission that he’d maybe possibly accidentally once done coke – though then again, Boris Johnson conceded, it “may have been icing sugar” – Michael Gove decided on Saturday to reveal to the Daily Mail that he’d snorted the stuff “on several occasions at social events”. With an arrogance so astronomical it appeared Gove was still on a coke bender from the 1990s, Gove proceeded to make a show of his insouciance: “I don’t believe that past mistakes disqualify you.”
Weirder still, he was right. Gove’s competitors saw his confession not as an instant disqualifier but as opportune distraction from Brexit. Before the weekend was out, Matt “Homegrown” Hancock, Andrea “Lean” Leadsom and Dominic “Reefer” Raab had jumped on the B-Class bandwagon with all the effortless cool of a dad who, finding his teenage son hotboxing his study, breaks into a rendition of ‘Pass the Dutchie’. Theresa May’s much memefied “fields of wheat” moment made it possible to be too squeaky-clean; what better to take the shine off than a spot of pot? Suddenly, MPs whose party had spearheaded the war on drugs decided that they, too, were party girls who could do politics.
Yet Gove seems to be juggling partying and politics far less successfully than the infamous young Turning Points UK influencer Emily Hewertson. In the two days since his confession, the tide of opinion has turned against him, threatening to subsume his leadership bid. Yet what’s curious is the reason for this popular volte-face. It wasn’t that we decided Gove’s historic coke habit was unbecoming of a would-be prime minister, but that we discovered it was hypocritical. A quick Google and some simple arithmetic revealed that Gove had been arguing against liberalising drug laws as a Times journalist, while liberally inhaling them himself. As education secretary, he introduced regulations on lifetime bans for teachers convicted of drugs offences. Gove’s fall from favour shows that the public doesn’t care about what’s freely admitted, but instead relishes “gotcha!” journalism that hoists politicians by their own petard.
However, not everyone can be so free with their admissions. Much as it pains me to show solidarity with Sajid Javid and Sam Gyimah, it seems impossibly coincidental that the two Tory leadership candidates of colour should be among the three to have flatly denied drug-taking. Perhaps Javid and Gyimah were aware that the best that might come from following Gove’s example would be an M&S mojito-flavoured pile-on; the worst, a swift end to their political careers.
“Theresa May’s much memefied ‘fields of wheat’ moment made it possible to be too squeaky-clean; what better to take the shine off than a spot of pot?”
It is well documented that Nigel Farage lives in the pub; and yet the sight of Diane Abbott starting her bank holiday in style with an M&S mojito on the overground was declared “not a good look” by Talkradio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer. Of course, recreational drug use, like recreational racism, is a look on posh white people. Boris Johnson’s “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” and Rory Stewart’s Afghan opium pipe are straight out of a Rudyard Kipling novel; not just forgivable, but befitting of the old-worldliness both men embody. Of course, their behaviour would take on a decidedly unromantic aspect were Boris poor, or Rory black.
A 2018 report showed black Britons are nine times likelier than their white compatriots to be stopped and searched for drugs, eight times likelier to be prosecuted for them – all despite using drugs less. If you’re rich or white, it’s almost impossible to fall foul of the law: Gove broadcast his cocaine consumption to millions of people, but is probably still right to think he won’t be barred from the US. If you’re poor or black, you get snagged on the tiniest of legal loopholes: as did Shannoy McLeod, who thanks to the Home Office’s almighty Windrush fuck-up faces deportation to Jamaica, a country he hasn’t lived in for 22 years, after being caught with cannabis.
The reason why Tory candidates admit to using drugs themselves (as long as their suitably contrite) without reassessing their policy stance is because a prohibitionist approach to drugs control is only really meant to be for those deemed unruly, criminal and deviant anyway.— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) June 10, 2019
I don’t think any of the seven Tory confessants should be disqualified from the premiership for their drug use. But the fact that none will face any consequences for it (if Gove does, it will be for duplicity, not drugs) highlights not only the racial disparities in our drug policing, but the social perceptions in which those disparities originate. We don’t associate the Matt Hancocks and Andrea Leadsoms, Dominic Raabs, and Jeremy Hunts of this world with criminality, and are therefore happy to excuse their drug-taking as youthfully mistaken. And so it likely was. The thing is, if you aren’t white, your first mistake is usually your last.