Alan “You’re Fired!” Johnson, who appears to belong to the shoot-the-bastard, simple-but-effective school of ministerial authority, is now finding that, far from cracking the Nutt, he appears to have instead shot himself in the foot, and produced an outcome that is neither simple, nor effective. Or, for a minister, desirable.
By firing his chief drugs adviser for making critical remarks about government drugs policy, Johnson has not only failed to snuff Nutt, but he has also ensured that the right of scientific advisers to speak out has risen steadily up the news agenda. Nutt has continued to air his remarks, and so far two other advisers have resigned in protest; others may follow, possibly en masse.
Few would deny that advisers advise, and governments govern. But it does not follow that ministers can or should sack advisers who speak out against official policy. The advisers are, after all, only advisers. Those who receive the advice are not obliged to follow it. Other factors, outside the scope of a scientific evaluation, may hold greater weight, and cause policy to vary from that which would arise from science alone.
And so ministers who make decisions for sound – scientific or otherwise – reasons need have no fear of advisers who are critical of policy. They have the weight of their reasons behind them, and, if they are sound, they will stand up to any criticism advisers may throw at them.
Which begs the question: why fire Nutt? It is not the first time he has spoken out against policy, but on previous similar occasions he has survived. What has changed to mean Nutt goes phut?
Two things, and two things, what’s more, that are aligned in their effect. The first is that the Home Secretary has changed. The last time Nutt spoke out, in February, we had Jacqui Smith, one time cannabis smoker, and shortly to leave office; now we have Johnson – Teflon Man to some, but underneath the Teflon is a ruthless and ambitious politician – he has been tipped as Labour’s next leader – who will not tolerate dissent.
The second, and likely more important change is that we are now much closer to a general election. Labour knows the electorate are likely to do to them what Johnson did to Nutt. They are desperate for votes, and hope that pandering to the anti-drugs lobby – including the red-top press – will increase their chances. Why let a little science get in the way of the party – or Party, for that matter?
This afternoon we heard that the government had already ordered a review into the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the body chaired by Nutt, to “satisfy ministers” that it was doing its job properly, and represented “value for money”. We can already guess what the likely outcome will be when the review reports early next year.
If, that is, there is a Council to review. Could it be that Johnson – who must have know the Council would protest at Nutt’s sacking – knew exactly what he was doing? Crack Nutt, and the Council goes kaput. No more tiresome scientific advice getting in the way of policy. Perhaps shooting the bastard was, after all, simple but effective.