Prof. Nutt, Kelly’s report and too many wars.

In the last few days we have had the unedifying spectacle of a senior minister and a senior scientific advisor at very public odds over the meaning of figures. The suggestion has been made that ‘scientists should be on tap but not on top’ or that ‘advisors advise and ministers decide’ – neither aphorism stands much examination. It is axiomatic that ignoring or acting counter to objective evidence will result in poor quality decision making and worse legislation. The real world is not all about politics and politicians delude themselves and harm us when they forget that.

Legislating to control social ills (drug usage, prostitution, gun crime etc.) is fraught with difficulty and unintended or unforeseen consequences.

The horror and loss, the grief and lasting desolation that followed Hungerford (1987) and Dunblane (1996) can never be overstated. The subsequent outlawing of all handguns (1998) may have been reflexive and have matched the public mood but only today have I come across the outcome.

In 1988 there were 1,484 crimes involving handguns, in 1998/9 there were 2,687 and in 2007/8 there were 4,172. In 1969 there were 173 deaths and injuries from illegally held guns, in 1988 there were 410 and in 2007/8 there were 2,203. Only for shotguns, probably the most widely legally held firearm category, has there been a noticeable decline in homicides – 19 in 1999/00 and 3 in 2007/8.

It isn’t what you would expect or hope for is it?

Furthermore, these figures should be read in conjunction with the knowledge that since the late 90s the number of firearms licenses has decreased by approximately one third.

Banning things outright or introducing draconian control legislation may not be the best approach after all. A more deliberative approach, calmer, balanced reasoning and the piloting of proposals would be likely to achieve more, I suggest.

If legalising and regulating drug usage and prostitution were properly considered and implemented, even for a trial period, information would be gained and legislation could be refined or changed wholesale. That’s the way to run a country – not having running brawls between gimcrack politicians, questing after votes and column inches, and official advisors, all in plain view of a sullen and restive electorate.

The general public, although not all of the broadcast and published media, are much more grown up than politicians fear. The political class would gain credence by sharing the evidence and their lines of thinking in more detail with the public. This is not a development I foresee with the existing parties.

Just as I was about to climb aboard, the Westminster gravy train has hit the buffers. Timing was always my strong point too.

Even now MPs are squirming on the hook and indulging in a certain amount of shroud waving. I am reminded of Ken Clark and his comment about the BMA – [when ever reform is mentioned] “they feel for their wallets”.

If MP’s pay becomes too low there will be problems of recruitment but how low is too low?

A similar dilemma affects doctors. There was a time in the early years of the NHS and before when most doctors, especially GPs, were poorly paid. The inception of the NHS improved matters somewhat but by the mid 60’s things had deteriorated and the development and modernisation of the general practice was severely hindered by low pay.

The mid 60’s Charter helped and then, whether by cock-up or conspiracy, GPs in the last few years have had a large pay rise and some have been earning vast sums by exploiting the system and their colleagues quite ruthlessly.

It has been suggested that there is a trade off between the high esteem in which doctors were generally held and the modest pay they received. Now this balance has been reversed and for the first time in a long time doctor’s esteem is falling in surveys.

There is a message here for MPs. Here’s another:

It has also been suggested in the professional press that doctors who are preoccupied with making money are often not very nice people and not much good as doctors either.

What are we to do with all the wars in which we are presently engaged?

Just before sitting to write this piece came the news that an Afghan trainee policeman had killed five UK soldiers and several of his police colleagues. Also mentioned was the fact that of the nine thousand UK soldiers in Afghanistan only about a third are actually routinely engaged in combat – the size of the logistic tail for a modern military is not widely understood.

Iraq is now almost entirely a USA theatre but the problems encountered by our troops are fresh in everyone’s mind. It is worth noting that the Iraqi insurgents, with hand held weapons or improvised munitions, have managed to destroy more than eighty Abrams tanks – these are a superpower’s main battle tanks that are claimed to be the best there is.

A friend of mine was caught in a roadside bomb incident in which one of his colleagues was killed. I suspect that most people will know someone who has been killed or injured in warfare over the last few years.

It’s looking more like Vietnam every day. The chief difference being that Harold Wilson kept us out of that one. Today a senior MP has been more outspoken than many in saying that the time has come to disengage militarily and approach the problem from a different angle.

Vietnam is now developing economically and is increasingly well integrated into the world at large. Can Afghanistan and Iraq do likewise?

The cultures are radically different and the circumstances too, that may represent a major stumbling block. In approaching a solution it is important to have in mind that those who oppose us are, by their own lights at least, rational actors with legitimate aspirations.

Violence almost never accomplishes anything of lasting value for the instigators. It’s time for “jaw, jaw” again. Not engaging in meaningful negotiation, without preconditions, is sure recipe for prolonged conflict. Can anyone provide historical evidence to the contrary?

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