Volteface Comment: What does this general election result mean for drug law reform?

by Liz McCulloch



It had been difficult general election to call but not many would have expected the landslide victory declared in the early hours of last Friday morning. Marking the largest majority since 1987, Boris Johnson now has the mandate to deliver his vision for the country, whatever that may be. So what does this election result mean for drug law reform and what can we learn from the first week of Johnson’s administration?

With the scale of his majority, Johnson will no longer be held hostage by his backbenchers and will have the freedom to adopt a progressive approach to drugs. And it is encouraging that we now have a Prime Minister who is a social liberal at heart, with an Evening Standard editorial revealing that Johnson was a backer of cannabis legalisation in 2001:

“Yes, cannabis is dangerous, but no more than other perfectly legal drugs. It’s time for a rethink, and the Tory party- the funkiest, most jiving party on earth- is where it’s happening”. 

But Johnson will do whatever is politically expedient, not what he believes in, which is why we should focus our attention on his new influx of voters. 

This general election was won by doing what no conservative campaign had done before, breaking the Labour barricades of Northern post-industrial towns that were decimated during the Thatcher years. 

“You may not think of yourself as a natural Tory … your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box and you may intend to return to Labour next time round. And if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me, and that you have put your trust in us. And I, and we, will never take your support for granted. And I will make it my mission to work night and day, flat out, to prove you right in voting for me this time, and to earn your support in the future.” Boris Johnson victory speech, 13 December 2019

Johnson will do all he can to keep these new apprehensive voters who are more socially conservative than their city dwelling, ‘remainer’ counterparts. As David Skelton writes in Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns, “openness’ and ‘mobility’ meant little to people who actually yearned for security and control over their lives”. Priti Patel, a Home Secretary who wants criminals to “literally feel terror” at the thought of breaking the law, was deployed in the election campaign to convince them that a conservative government will offer that security. Her ‘tough’ approach to criminal justice has been felt in the Tory manifesto and Queen’s speech, which promised longer sentencing, more police powers and new duties on public agencies to reduce serious violence. 

For drug reform to secure the backing of Brexit town voters, it must be framed in a law and order context.

Within Johnsson’s inner circle there are known advocates for cannabis legalisation, a line up which surprisingly includes election loser Zac Goldsmith. Goldsmith lost his Richmond seat to Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, but it has been announced that Goldsmith will be given peerage so that he may continue to act as environment minister. Goldsmith will be a key ally for cannabis reformers. 

With all UK demographics and political affiliations now in favour of legalisation, cannabis reform could well be one of Boris’s legacy (or vanity) projects, which he is known to be so fond of. 

The Scottish result brings another important dimension into this election analysis. With 48 out of 59 Scottish constituencies voting in SNP MPs, the political map has been divided and Nicola Sturgeon has used this as a mandate to call for another vote on independence. 

Johnson has already ruled out a second referendum, saying that that the result of the 2014 referendum must be respected. However, polling expert John Curtice has warned that “the Conservatives can no longer assume that simply saying no to another referendum will be sufficient to ensure Scotland’s position in the Union.” Concessions may have to be made. 

In its manifesto, the SNP has made the case that that the UK government is “actively preventing Scotland tackling vital issues that are a matter of life and death to some of the most vulnerable people in our society”, by refusing to allow Glasgow officials to open a safer consumption room, healthcare facilities where illicit drugs can be taken under the supervision of trained staff. The SNP are thus calling for the devolution of drug policy. 

By allowing the introduction of drug consumption rooms, Johnson could dismantle a case for independence or devolution and reduce the high rates of drug-related deaths which have disproportionately affected Brexit towns. The Tory manifesto does leave scope for this, alluding to a ‘new approach to treatment’ that will reduce drug-related deaths. 

There are no doubt challenges that lay ahead with this new government, but there are also ample opportunities to work with a leader who is a known maverick, unafraid of breaking political convention.

Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface, Tweets @Liz_McCll

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