“There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”
Victor Hugo said ‘there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.’ All political movements’ success depends on many factors outside of their own merits. Those in power have to be receptive, as do the gatekeepers who control access to those in power. Public opinion is crucial, now more so than ever with social media, rolling 24 hour news cycles and immediate reaction, and nothing is as effective at fanning the flames of public opinion as much as outrage and emotion.
With that in mind, it’s instructive to look back at the last major campaign to legalise cannabis in this country: the one begun by the Independent on Sunday newspaper in September 1997. The timing is important, it was less than five months since Tony Blair had been elected Prime Minister with perhaps the greatest surge of popular goodwill in modern British political history. Today, Blair is mostly discussed in almost totally unflattering terms, but back then he was a young, fresh, charismatic and dynamic leader.
Most of all, he seemed in touch with public sentiment. His ‘People’s Princess’ line about Diana, who had been killed only a few weeks before this campaign began, may now be used as the butt of jokes, but at the time it caught the mood of the time in a way that only a consummate political operator could have managed. ‘Cool Britannia’ was the buzzword for every opinion-former and cultural commentator in town. Where John Major had harked back to a Fifties idyll of cricket on village greens and maiden aunts cycling to church, Blair promised a hip, confident nation for the 21st century.
Copyright Ben Brooksbank
If ever there was a time and an administration which would put the cannabis issue back on the political agenda, this was surely it: and The Independent on Sunday’s editor Rosie Boycott explicitly played on this regained sense of social tolerance in her rallying cry piece.
‘I rolled my first joint on a hot June day in Hyde Park. Summer of ‘68. Just 17. Desperate to be grown-up… My first smoke, a mildly giggly intoxication, was wholly anti-climatic. The soggy joint fell apart. I didn’t feel changed. But that act turned me – literally – into an outlaw. I was on the other side of the fence from the police – or the fuzz, as we used to call them. So were a great many of my generation.’ 1
Although Boycott anchored her own experience in the summer of ’68, her article played on the universal tropes of youthful rebellion and the embracing of a culture as exciting as it was alien, the rueful admission that most teenage ‘first times’ are more notable for what they represent than for the quality of the experience itself.
The article went on to quote William Rees-Mogg’s ‘legendary leader’ in The Times in reaction to the heavy fine given to Mick Jagger for possession of cannabis, where he spoke of breaking ‘a butterfly on a wheel’ and maintained that ‘the law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.’
Boycott then pointed out that cannabis’ much-discussed ‘gateway’ status, opening the door to harder drugs, was a matter more of dealers’ demographics than of physiological or psychological dependence. She wrote: ‘If alcohol is a tiger, then cannabis is merely a mouse… The truth is that most people I know have smoked at some time or other in their lives. They hold down jobs, bring up their families, run major companies, govern our country, and yet, 30 years after my day out in Hyde Park, cannabis is still officially regarded as a dangerous drug…. Since my first joint, I’ve smoked a good many more, although I hardly smoke at all nowadays. The habit has given up on me. But I don’t see why people who share my earlier enthusiasm should be branded as criminal.’ 2
So began The Independent on Sunday’s campaign, endorsed by an eclectic and almost hilariously typical British mix of bigwigs, boffins, broadcasters and businesspeople. Few would have been surprised to see, say, the Marquess of Bath and Brian Eno among the signatories, but there were also neuroscience professors Steven Rose and Colin Blakemore adding some scientific heft, consultant psychiatrists Judy Greenwood and Philip Robson weighing in for the mental health community, Richard Branson and Anita Roddick flying the flag for business, and Burke’s Peerage publisher Howard Brookes-Baker proving that the Establishment was by no means a homogenous or entirely reactionary entity. The generation who had been Sixties rebels with Boycott were now being marshalled by her in support of the cause. They may have been counter-culture once upon a time, but they were emphatically mainstream now: the people who ‘run major companies [and] govern our country,’ as she’d written.
For the next six months, The Independent on Sunday ran a series of pro-legalisation articles and pushed readership over 300,000 as a result. The climax of the campaign was a ‘Decriminalise Cannabis’ protest in central London in March 1998. The newspaper invited people to ‘roll up’ in Hyde Park for a march to Trafalgar Square. Interestingly, given the way in which the US has forged ahead of the UK on the issue since then, the demonstration was seen as groundbreaking by US activists. ‘I cannot conceive of a demonstration like this in America just now,’ said Professor John P. Morgan of the City of New York Medical School. ‘I wish you success. The eyes of the western democracies are upon you.’
Attendance figures were estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 supporters. Before the march, Boycott had emphasised ‘it is important that everyone remembers that we are out to change the law, not break it. We must not provoke police reaction. We want to change the law on cannabis by legal and democratic means.’
Although many of the protesters were openly smoking cannabis, the police let this pass without trouble. Their orders were crowd control and ensuring that the day passed off peacefully, not inflaming the situation by random arrests. Contemporary accounts of the march talk of a friendly atmosphere and the police smiling along with protestors. Boycott, Howard Marks, Paul Flynn MP and Italian activist Marco Pannella all addressed the crowd.
The march seemed not just a success in its own right but a springboard to greater things. As it turned out, however, it was the high water mark of the campaign rather than a stepping stone in the stream of progress towards regulation. Why did this happen? Why did the campaign fizzle out?
There are three main reasons. The first is that Boycott left The Independent on Sunday not long after the march and to take up the editorship of the Daily Express, a paper as unlikely to call for cannabis regulation as you could find. The extent to which the cannabis campaign had been her baby only became clear in her absence. Without her at the helm, no other senior executives at The Independent on Sunday kept the flag flying.
Secondly, the size of the march was insignificant when compared to turnout for other issues, notably the 400,000 marchers for the Countryside Alliance in September 2002 and the 2 million for Stop The War in February 2003. And even these high turnouts failed to influence the final decision taken on their respective causes.
Finally, The Independent on Sunday’s campaign gained no meaningful traction in the corridors of power. Although grassroots support was strong, the campaign lacked the backing of lobbyists, think tankers, special advisers and all the other players in the Westminster circus. Policy changes may not happen even with their input, but they rarely happen without it. It was still Blair’s first term in office, and despite his administration’s ravenous appetite for reform, Alastair Campbell dismissed Boycott and her fellow Independent campaigners as a ‘bunch of old hippies still living in the Sixties’.
Want to comment or contribute?
Join the debate on twitter @VolteFaceHub