Alistair Darling at the RSA

January 15, 2008

Saw Alistair Darling – stocky, box-suited, occasionally wry, surprisingly nervous-looking – speak at the RSA today.

Benedict Brogan has managed to draw some juice out of it, calling it “thoughtful and uncharacteristically personal”, a declaration of political independence from Number 10. I guess seasoned political observers can spot this kind of thing.

So far as I could tell, it was just the usual ideas: economic growth as a way of achieving social ends; building an entrepreneurial culture; fostering aspiration; the challenge of globalisation and climate change. We got one titbit – “in a few weeks time sustainability will be at the heart of the budget”. It was fine.


The real star of the show was Peter Riddell, who made a response. Reflecting on his 30+ years covering the Treasury, he compared Darling to Dennis Healey, his Labour predecessor as Chancellor as one. The aspirations were the same, he said, but the way of going about things had changed completely.

In the 1970s, the Treasury was solely a macroeconomic department – it didn’t even have a housing policy, let alone a child poverty one. Now, it is primarily a microeconomic department – and, through the tax credit system, a large public spender to boot.

Apparently the key turning points in this transformation were a report by Jeremy Heywood after Black Wednesday, and of course the Chancellorship of a certain G. Brown, notorious for poking his nose into everyone else’s business.

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the tendency to economise everything – education as a functional method of economic advancement; the fact that we need the Stern Report to wake us up to climate change.

I’ve always tended to attribute that to widespread social and cultural forces. Riddell gave an insight into its high political beginnings.

UPDATE: Peter Riddell’s political briefing in The Times today.


The problem with automatic organ donation

January 13, 2008

BBC News: Gordon Brown says he wants a national debate on whether to change the system of organ donation. He believes thousands of lives would be saved if everyone was automatically placed on the donor register.

I see the use of default options becoming an increasingly common trend in coming years – it has already been suggested as a remedy for pensions problems, and may well end up being the way we fund our political parties.

It is undeniably effective. But I can’t help wondering if it is really the best way to go about things.

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Drugs (mis)treatment 2

October 24, 2007

A postscript to my post of 18th October about the BBC’s story on drug treatment.

A mate who works in the drug treatment world went down to visit the Plymouth Drug Action Team today. They were the people who were fingered in particular for supposedly giving “rewards” to drug users, and were featured in all the news bulletins.

He sent me this email.

“Plymouth was very interesting. Apparently the BBC spent a lot of time talking to users there and then didn’t show any of it because the users resolutely refused to say what they were supposed to say (or rather they showed it, in the sense that they used visuals, so the viewers could register what a drug addict looks like, but not sound – just a disapproving voice-over.) The interviewers kept asking what rewards they got for presenting clean urine samples and the users kept saying things like ‘staying clean’, ‘making progress’, ‘feeling better’. Poor fools, no sense at all of what makes a good story…”

Drug (mis)treatment

October 18, 2007

New drugs story: the BBC are congratulating themselves for having discovered that heroin and cocaine addicts on the government’s treatment programme are being given methadone and antidepressants as a “reward” for clean urine samples (listen to Mark Easton being smug about it on the Today Programme).

This is very clever, except for the fact that it’s absolute rubbish. The National Treatment Agency report that Easton found this information in was a report on the management of users addicted to both heroin and crack cocaine. This makes for a totally different story.

Crack is a much nastier drug to be addicted to than heroin, and crack addicts rarely stay in treatment. It is also much harder to treat, because there isn’t any methadone-like substitute. If someone is using both crack and heroin, and you can retain them in treatment by giving them methadone, then you stand a chance of being able to stabilise what Drugscope call “other aspects of their chaotic lifestyle”. In other words, you can get them off the streets and stop them screwing themselves up.

Mark Easton has a generally good record on this sort of thing, I’m told. So what he’s doing with this I’m not entirely sure…

The true face of drug crime

October 17, 2007

Here is an article by on drugs and crime by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA and former Blair strategist, in today’s Guardian.

Noteworthy not only for its exposure of the fallacy that drugs and crime are irrevocably and directly linked (ref. any government document 1997-2007), but because it was written by me.

The two or three people who obviously know what they’re talking about have left interesting, supportive comments. Otherwise; well, it is Comment is Free…