Jock’s blog has concluded, not without cause, that I am a spambot, so rather than waiting for release I thought I’d reproduce my comment here, because it has several wider implications.

Jock is wondering (as he does with increasing frequency, I think) whether or not to leave the party which, to him, is a travesty to the name of liberal. The incident that has sparked this is as follows:

On Tuesday I noticed that at least three “Liberal Democrat” MPs, for the moment at least, Evan Harris, Chris Huhne and Greg Mulholland, bobbed up off those green benches to kiss the arse that is Alan Johnson via his Home Office junior minister as he answered questions on drugs classification relating to the recent moral panic on Mephedrone and related substances.  Well, to be fair, it was not all love and congratulations.  All three also wanted to criticise the Home Secretary and his predecessor Jacqui Smith for their handling of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, with all three complaining that if the crisis of confidence in that body had not been stoked by the government this ban could have been implemented long before now!

Before I go on, let the record show that I have been known to talk Jock down off the ledge before, but that was when the sparking incident was a handful of hate-filled commenters on Lib Dem Voice telling him he “didn’t belong” in the Liberal Democrats. I thought that the unquantifiable hatred of a bunch of pixels, most of them writing anonymously and under Cthulhu knows what imperative, was a silly and sad reason for anyone to leave any political party. And indeed, Jock quickly agreed when he reflected that the people at his most recent pizza and politics evening were all perfectly happy with him in the party, and they alone outnumbered the pixels.

But ideological reasons are not silly at all, although they may be sad. Ideological reasons are perfectly valid, and sometimes I wonder if the only thing separating Jock and I are ten years of being let down. I’d not want to anyone think I was trying to sway anyone’s ideology, because I wouldn’t and anyway, you can’t, not really.

That caveat in place, let’s tear Jock a new one (comment begins, with minor edits):

You are misrepresenting Evan Harris here. This is what he said:

Dr. Harris: If the ACMD has advised that mephedrone and other cathinones be regulated as a class B drug, I support that recommendation, but does the Minister believe that he or his colleague the Home Secretary are compliant with the newly published principles for the treatment of independent scientific advice, which the Government published last week? They state that the Government must give adequate consideration time for published advice, but the ACMD report has not even been published and the Government have announced legislation. If the Home Secretary received a verbal report yesterday from the ACMD chair, why was it not available at the same time to the media, since the public have a right to know, and indeed to Members of this House? Further, why was there no statement or written ministerial statement today, and why did it take an urgent question to bring the Minister to the House to make this announcement?

May I ask whether, beyond classification, the report contains any other recommendations to which the Minister will respond, and when does he intend to respond to them? Given that it was the actions of the Home Secretary that led to the resignation of six of the scientific members of the council-undoubtedly delaying the work of the council and resulting in it not being legally constituted at the time that this advice was given-how can the Minister be certain that the regulations that he is now laying are in order, cannot be challenged and will deal with the problem that we both agree exists?

So:

(1) He questions whether the recommendation of the ACMD is actually compliant with its own rules. His parliamentary tactic throughout has been to suggest that ACMD is not constituted such as to be able to legally pronounce. See here:

He added: “If it is necessary to act urgently to ban mephedrone then, in provoking this resignation by his refusal to respect the scientists who offer advice, the Home Secretary will now be forced to wait while the council is properly constituted.”

(2) He clearly does not complain that ” this ban could have been implemented long before now!” On the contrary, he queries how, given the state of the council (and leaving aside the legalities discussed at (1)), the Home Secretary can actually be sure the ban is the right decision at all and will “deal with the problem  that we both agree exists”.

I stress this last part because I reckon you’ve read the “agreement” bit as a sign of weakness – and if so, you’re just as prejudiced as the Daily Mail frothers. If you ask a medical doctor whether people ingesting plant fertiliser is a bad idea, he is going to say “yes”. The fact remains, he’s questioning how Johnson knows a ban is the best way to deal with it.

(3) He is on record elsewhere expressly pointing out the shortcomings of prohibition. I heard him doing so on the Jeremy Vine show a couple of weeks ago, and this is the Oxford Mail:

Dr Harris said: “Prohibition is a blunt instrument and can be counter-productive. It glamorises and gives exclusive trade rights to criminals.

“Therefore prohibition should only be used on scientific evidence, which the Government has previously rejected in respect of cannabis and ecstasy.

“Their history doesn’t fill me with much hope that this step will improve matters, since education about the dangers is the key thing.”

(4) If the only thing that will satisfy you is if he withdraws all support for the very idea of the ACMD and only ever stands up in parliament to lecture a Labour government with a 300+ majority on the dangers of prohibition and the essential wrongness of classification, you’re being very silly. He delivers the latter view in public quite happily. But he’s absolutely right not to bother trying to make that case to a government at parliamentary questions.

The only way declassification could ever succeed is if we establish the principle that government must act on impartial, scientific advice, which is why Harris spends so much time negotiating a code of conduct.  So when scientific advice is delivered to the government by an impartial body, he has to stand by it, while raising any legitimate questions about how competent (in the broadest sense) it actually is (which is what he’s done here). He can’t pick and choose what conclusions from the ACMD he supports, or he gives legitimacy to the government when they do it.

I mean, let’s just remind ourselves here that this government fucking ignores impartial advice based on conclusions reached by a scientific method. Some of these people he is dealing with are absolutely primitive, lawless, authoritarian morons. Getting them not to ignore science is currently the challenge. What I think you’re asking for is the equivalent of suggesting that two-year-olds would benefit from comparative philosophy training. In the long run, yes they might, but they’d derive more immediate benefit from being trained to stop shitting on the floor.

Throw what you like at Chris Huhne, and I’ve no idea what Greg Mulholland is like, but this is deeply unfair.

(comment ends)

I suppose I should have added that it’s deeply unfair not just because both content and context have been made free with, but because this is Evan Harris. He does have, you know, a bit of a good record in kind of this area. Argue with his parliamentary tactics if you like (and maybe we should), but you can’t argue with his record on science and evidence-based policy. Anyone who claims to be a rationalist but can contemplate with apparent equanimity the prospect of him losing his seat has gone badly awry in their priorities somewhere.

Anyway, all this has added impetus to an idea I had the other day, for a blog that simply pulls Liberal Democrat speeches from Hansard and either adds some commentary or at least puts them into a legislative context. How much of this could be automated, I’m not sure. I realise the speeches are there for us to read anyway, but I’m not always sure how much good that is if they can be misinterpreted and ellided as much as they sometimes are. What good is the principle of scrutiny if no-one actually does it?

This idea was partly prompted, as regular citizens may guess, by an affronted David Heath popping up here to point out that, in fact, he had asked the question in parliament that I was basically accusing him of not asking. The  internet’s response to the continuing trainwreck that is the Digital Economy Bill has been very instructive in this regard, underlining at a single stroke two hackneyed old sayings – that a lie will run round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and if you want something kept secret, announce it in the Houses of Parliament.