Tories Fail Tough Test on Drugs

Tories Fail Tough Test on Drugs
Posted by FoM on October 10, 2000 at 07:37:51 PT
By Warren Hoge
Source: New York Times
Fresh from claiming to have unified his quarrelsome party, the Conservative leader, William Hague, was obliged today to abandon a vaunted new hard-line policy on first-time drug offenders after seven leadership associates said they had smoked marijuana in their youth. The proposal, put forward at the upbeat Conservative Party conference last week, called for $150 minimum fines and criminal records for people caught with small amounts of soft drugs in their possession or even in their bloodstream. 
It was the centerpiece of a "zero tolerance" law- and-order approach that the party is adopting as strategy in the election expected in the spring. The plan was immediately attacked by police officials and social organizations as draconian and unworkable and by senior figures in the party, who feared that it would cost them votes from young people and their parents. But Mr. Hague said he had approved it in advance and would stick by it. The uproar exposed a dispute between authoritarian and libertarian branches of conservatism that appears to be replacing the issue of Britain's relationship with Europe as the party's main source of internal discord. The Mail on Sunday asked the 22 members of the shadow cabinet  the men and women who are the out- of-power party's counterparts to government cabinet officers  if they had ever taken drugs. Eleven, including Mr. Hague, said they had not. Two declined comment, and two could not be reached. But seven admitted that they had. The confessions were bashful ones, with the acts attributed to college- age curiosity and youthful interest in experimenting. "It was quite hard to go through Cambridge in the 1970's without doing it a few times," said Francis Maude, the shadow foreign secretary. "Some friends put dope in my pipe," said Oliver Letwin, whose responsibility is the treasury. David Willetts, the opposition's social security minister, said: "I was once offered cannabis at university. I had two puffs. I didn't like it."The pun-loving British press had a merry weekend writing of principles going to pot, careers going up in smoke and party members who, hoping to be perceived as compassionate conservatives, found themselves seen instead as High Tories.What was particularly damaging to the image of a freshly united party was evidence that the confessions had been deliberately planted by the liberal faction of the Conservatives in an effort to humiliate the leader of the hard-line wing, the shadow home secretary, Ann Widdecombe. The Mail on Sunday is a newspaper with an authoritative voice among the Tory rank and file.Miss Widdecombe brought cheering delegates to their feet on Wednesday with a stem-winding speech outlining the tough measures. Her address followed by a day a similarly bravura performance by Michael Portillo, the other well-known figure in the shadow cabinet, who set out a vision of the party's future as one more inclusive and tolerant of minorities, gays and other people marginalized by Tories in the past.When Miss Widdecombe was asked later whether she approved of this social tolerance approach, she appeared to draw a defiant line in the sand by saying she did not know what the phrase meant. Mr. Hague flew back from a long postconference weekend in Spain and promptly announced that the proposal "needs further consultation, discussion and debate." He said the drug proposals were back "on the table" and open to revision."We realize there are concerns about some of the proposals we have made," he said. "And so we are going to go to the police, to the medical profession, to drug rehabilitation workers, to teachers and to parents around the country and have this honest debate about drugs." Asked whether he had confidence in the seven officials, he said: "Of course. Any cabinet or shadow cabinet that faces up to these problems is going to include people who 20 or 30 years ago had some experience of drugs. It would be extraordinary if it didn't."To the extent that the dispute exposed shortcomings in Tory policy formulation and presentation, it undermined the central theme of the party convention  that after losing disastrously in 1997 and lagging far behind Labor in the polls until recently, the party was now "ready for government."Peter Ainsworth, the shadow culture secretary  who was among those admitting college-age drug use  expressed frustration with this aspect of the episode. "The policy needs to be looked at again," he said. "And it needs to be discussed. And that would be a help, frankly, when making policy." Source: New York Times (NY) Author: Warren HogePublished: October 10, 2000Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 Fax: (212) 556-3622 Website: Forum: Related Articles:Marijuana Policy Splits British Conservatives British Tories Admit Soft Drug Use Clash Over Cannabis - Government's Wacky Curb on Cannabis 
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