Everyone loves Dopey Dave

David Cameron's schoolboy drug-taking appeals to those immature enough to still believe that smoking dope is rebellious.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics UK

Who’d have thought that drug-taking would be an opportunity rather than a liability for a British politician?

Last weekend, it was revealed that David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, had smoked cannabis as a teenager whilst at Eton. In a new book, Cameron: the Rise of the New Conservative, James Hanning and Francis Elliott tell how the future Tory leader was caught up in a drugs scandal at Eton in 1982, weeks before his O-level exams. Cameron was only saved from expulsion because, unlike seven colleagues, he had not sold the drug (1). Cameron interrupted his Sunday lunch to say we all do things we regret in our youth and we shouldn’t be judged accordingly today. Rather than being condemned for refusing to fully disclose what happened, or for the drug-taking itself, Cameron’s attitude that ‘everyone makes mistakes’ has been widely praised.

In a different era, the issue of drug use would have raised questions about someone’s suitability, or otherwise, for public office. After all, the ‘war on drugs’ posturing has often provided pretexts for broader law and order campaigns. In that context, leading politicians couldn’t be seen to have a sanguine approach to drugs of any description. Even former American president Bill Clinton, who played on having vaguely ‘counter-culture’ credentials, had to put a ‘smoke but didn’t inhale’ distance regarding cannabis. So why is a conservative such as David Cameron so blasé about his own ‘youthful indiscretions’?

On one level, Cameron’s response seemed reasonable enough. A spokesman for him said ‘David felt, and feels, politicians are entitled to a past before they come into politics. He had a past, and he’s not going to be talking about it’. It is also fair to say that ‘youthful indiscretions’ are generally not a reliable indicator of someone’s suitability for public office. Likewise, even politicians are allowed a private life, so long as what they do in private doesn’t appear to hypocritically jar with public statements and public policy (as so many Conservatives have done in the past). The reaction to Cameron’s cannabis days, though, has taken on an altogether different hue.

Judging by the acres of cheery press given to Cameron this week, it seems his ‘teenage toke’ somehow makes him ‘in touch’ with the ‘drug problems’ of Britain. Already Cameron has been making grand policy statements on the matter, as if he was talking with the authority of ‘someone that knows’. Far from Dopey Dave becoming an electoral liability for the Conservatives, on this occasion the party faithful cheered on Cameron’s media spin. Elsewhere, London’s free newspapers have been very keen to print reader’s responses on Cameron with one young woman saying ‘this will at least endear him to young voters and transform his image for the better’.

This is the kind of light-headed response that Cameron is gagging for. After all, high-profile trips to South Africa, publicly hero-worshiping Morrissey and the ‘hug-a-hoodie’ poses haven’t quite endeared him to the press or electorate. Cameron might say ‘judge me on my policies, not my past’ regarding this issue, but so far his ‘policies’ haven’t renewed interest in his ailing party one bit. Of course, since the late 1990s this has been a problem facing any leader of the Conservative Party. All too often, leading Conservatives interpret this as somehow lacking a ‘human face’ rather than a political project. Hence Michael Portillo’s cringing ‘confession’ that he had homosexual dalliances in his youth (as if we don’t know what goes on at public schools), William Hague’s baseball cap at the Notting Hill carnival, and Michael Howard’s ‘do you remember the first time’ short-film that was shown at the Tory Party conference in 2004, have all been knocked-back with gale-force winds of laughter.

It’s some measurement of the acceptance of dope use that even Cameron can garner some quick and easy mileage out of it. Of course, people should be free to ingest whatever they want, but the evangelical zeal with which dope is paraded around today is frankly embarrassing. It is no coincidence that Cameron smoked the stuff as a schoolboy, because it is only the immature that see dope as somehow ‘rebellious’ or a revelatory experience. In truth, dope appeals to the very young because the effect of the drug negates having to make conversation – unlike drinking alcohol in a pub. And whereas the latter tends to make people more boisterous and loud, dope renders people semi-comatose. So while there are on-going regulatory campaigns against cigarettes and alcohol, cannabis is quietly tolerated precisely because the effects appeal to middle-class sensibilities.

Far from ‘the weed’ being the antithesis of conservative middle-England, as Cameron has found out this week, it seems the distance between them isn’t so great after all.

(1) Tories back Cameron over cannabis claims, Guardian, 12 February 2007

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Topics Politics UK

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