Britain vs Europe, drugs edition

Last month it was immigration, now it’s drugs. But in each case it’s the same idea: the British government is pushing for greater controls while the European Union wants liberalisation. In other words, the complete opposite of the narrative that the eurosceptics want to sell you.

The issue this time is a proposed EU directive and regulation on “new psychoactive substances” – what the media call “legal highs”. The EU proposes limits on how easily they could be banned, and would provide “for the permanent banning and criminalization of only the most harmful substances.” It suggests that “20% of new psychoactive substances have a legitimate use” for commercial or industrial purposes.

I’m not at all sure here whether the “most harmful” category refers to the 80% that are not estimated to have “legitimate” uses (as usual in the drugs debate, providing people with enjoyment is not regarded as “legitimate”), which would seem an odd use of “most”, or whether there’s some unspecified middle ground. But in any case, the British government was having none of it.

The relevant home office minister, Norman Baker, told parliament yesterday that Britain would be opting out of the proposals, saying that they “take insufficient account of our national circumstances.” According to the Guardian, he maintained that they “would hinder rather than help because they would slow down action to ban harmful substances when they were identified.”

So it’s the wicked dirigiste Europeans who are actually trying to rein in prohibition, if only slightly, while the supposedly freedom-loving British are arguing (with, at best, debatable legality) for the freedom to ban anything that moves. Once again, the debate over the EU is not all that it seems.

The twist in this one is that Baker is not a Conservative, but comes from the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition government. (He has a rather interesting past as a conspiracy theorist.) Restricting people’s freedom comes naturally to the Tories (and, it must be said, to most of the Labour Party), but aren’t the Lib Dems supposed to be more, well, liberal?

The truth is, however, that Britain’s Liberals have always had a puritan streak to them. Historically, one of the major fault lines between them and the Conservatives was religion, with the Liberals being strong in the nonconformist community. The high Anglicans who backed the Tories, for all their faults, were more indulgent towards personal vices like drunkenness – it was a Liberal government that heavily regulated the liquor industry in 1872, and lost the subsequent election as a result.

Nowadays, however, standing up to Brussels is believed to be the popular course. Just don’t assume that personal liberty will be the winner.

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