31 August 2009

The long eye of the law

Last week saw a new government-sponsored ad campaign to draw attention to the hitherto underplayed dangers of driving while under the influence of illegal drugs. Speaking at the launch, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said "Whatever one's views on drug taking" it is imperative that drug-driving is made totally socially unacceptable.

While it is true that enormous strides have been made in the last 30 years in making drink-driving socially unacceptable (at least in the UK), this whole campaign seems a little half-baked. If the idea is to make drug-driving socially unacceptable, then that means influencing people's attitudes, making them see the consequences of their actions upon the lives they wreck. All laudable stuff, until you see the ad campaign they have used, which is answering a completely different brief. It would not be the first time the cleverness of an ad has masked its message, but either Lord Adonis hasn't seen the ad, or he has signed off the wrong brief.

The ad features young beautiful things driving back from a night out. I am meant to deduce they are probably under the influence of illegal drugs, but, at this stage, the banter is charming, the people are beautiful, it could actually be an ad promoting the use of drugs for a good night out. But then we notice that all the occupants of the car have massive eyes, like aliens from Communion heading back to the mother ship after closing time at Roxy's. And then they get nicked by the police because their eyes gave them away; the boys in blue, rather than regarding them as a car of genetic mutant freaks, choose to arrest them for driving under the influence of a few grams of whizz. Then we get the pay-off: "Your eyes will give you away. Drugs have an involuntary effect upon your eyes that you cannot control. The police are able to spot this."

So where's the 'socially unacceptable' part of this campaign? This is pure bogey-man stuff, "Heroin screws you up" for the new generation. It is a crass and obvious attempt to scare users into compliance, not to question their own behaviour. Anti-drink driving campaigners realised the futility of this approach back in about 1985, and their recent success in reducing drink-drive deaths has been a switch of tack to convince the public of the moral weight of their cause, not to scare people with breathalysers.

But if you are going to scare people, you'd better make sure your threat is credible - and this campaign is, frankly, laughable. Apparently the police can spot if your pupils are overly dilated or constricted, which is pretty impressive; I have a vision of traffic cops holding up a little ruler to measure the exact size of the aperture and make a judgement to prosecute on that basis on a dark roadside. "Well, m'lud, as soon as we shone the bright torch in his eyes, we could see his pupils were heavily constricted."

There is no "drug breathalyser" equivalent to accompany this slick advertising campaign, despite such equipment being standard in Germany - instead our police have to rely on the less-than-credible roadside tests such as touching your nose or walking a straight line. I cannot imagine such flimsy evidence would stand up if challenged in court, because it is just so subjective, and you may have any one of at least eight medical reasons why your pupils are constricted.

If I were in the habit of driving while high on drugs, far from being worried, I would take some comfort from the fact that, despite the government's claims to "create a national debate" (always the last refuge of the desperate), their ability to catch the guilty has not moved in twenty years.

24 August 2009

In defence of irony

As a nation, the British recourse to irony as a reflex reaction to any social situation can be both a source of national pride and irritation. It is also a weak point when it comes to those odd occasions when you are confronted directly, though this weekend I discovered that, even then, it has its place.

I was walking to my local supermarket, when I noticed outside was a galley of evangelical Christians performing "street healing", vocally and enthusiastically drumming up business outside the store in a very un-British fashion. It was friendly and harmless, but no less irritating for all that, and I prepared to run the gauntlet of unwanted attention familiar to all who have to confront "charity muggers" on London's streets every day.

Except I had forgotten I was wearing my T-shirt from The Onion, America's finest satirical news source (http://www.theonion.com/); a gentle mocking of a familiar U.S. bumper sticker, it reads "Are your cats old enough to learn about Jesus?" Our would-be healer stopped in mid-approach and was genuinely puzzled - not really knowing what to do. I could see him mentally calculating whether I was serious or not - and considering a level of proselytising beyond even his own comfort zone. I passed through without comment or molestation into the store.

Now, if I can devise a similar device that has the same effect on the charity-backed guns-for-hire that block my path every day en route to work, I may yet die a rich man.

21 August 2009

Bravehearts required

It would be safe to say that England and Scotland have enjoyed a turbulent relationship these last 1,000 years or so. Neither country realised its full economic or political potential until they decided to bury their differences and become a single country some 300 years ago. And ever since there have been those who have sought a divorce from this marriage of convenience.

It could be argued such voices are in the ascendant, given that the Scottish National Party now rules the recently-devolved government, usurping the Labour Party from its century-old position. And those who long for the days of full independence, when Scotland can bestride the world stage once again as a Nation To Be Reckoned With have been granted an insight into the grubby reality of Realpolitik this week.

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may or may not have murdered 270 people (and I must say, the evidence I have seen looks pretty thin), but this week the Scottish government had to make an uncomfortable decision about his future, with the world, and America in particular, watching. How Jack Straw, sat in the safety of the Ministry of Justice in London must have enjoyed saying: “nothing to do with me, guv”, when asked about Megrahi’s future.

Messy compromises and uncomfortable decisions have been the stock-in-trade of the British (not to say English) government for many years. Worldwide revulsion and outrage at the sometimes necessary defence of self-interest can be a mixed blessing for those who carry the British passport and the southern English accent around the world.

Contrast this with the worldwide affection for all things Scottish, nurtured by a wide diaspora and rivalled only by the Irish. Turn up at any city, from Bombay to Badajoz, and you’ll as likely as not find a Scottish pub (next to an Irish bar), clad in all things tartan, and misty-eyed occupants (though that might down to the whisky). Free from the burden of self-government, they fear neither recriminations nor hostility from a world brought up on Braveheart. This week has been a lesson in the often uncomfortable responsibilities of self-government, but a price to be paid to all those who would one day carry a Scottish passport.

14 August 2009

Sticking plaster solutions

President Obama's decision to re-open the debate over Healthcare is certainly brave, and one that has had a surprising impact on this side of the Atlantic. Watching the US debate on "Socialised Medicine" from the UK, we have been presented with soundbites from a series of right wing commentators pouring a non-stop stream of abuse upon our hapless National Health Service. No doubt that perception is just as lopsided as the "facts" being promoted by those opposed to Mr Obama's project.

Until this point I had no idea that our system of healthcare was evil. Not just evil, but akin to the Nazi Final Solution. It will probably come as something of a surprise to those hard-working nurses at my local hospital when they realise they are latter-day Joseph Mengeles. It feels a bit like your neighbour is having an argument with his wife over which car they should buy, and so he takes a picture of your car, and shows it to her saying: "Is this the awful piece of shit you want to drive? Only a psychopath would drive such a car. You are such an idiot for wanting this car". When his wife can't even drive.

Leaving aside the idiocies of the arguments over how long it takes to get a hip replacement in the UK, I have been intrigued by two main aspects of this debate. The first is: why the UK? Almost all countries have some form of government-backed collectivised healthcare support, why pick on the NHS as the worst? I'm not an expert, but I am willing to believe that the NHS can provide a better standard of care than, for example, North Korea (I'm assuming North Korea has a state run health service). I note Fox News didn't try uncovering horror stories from Sweden, France or Germany where things run rather well, even if they do cost a lot of money.

The second is this false opposition generated by the debate: free market healthcare vs. socialised medicine. To caricature the debate, if the government starts to pick up the tab for healthcare like in the UK, the days of Sodom and Gomorrah will be upon America. Now I've been to many parts of the USA, and I have never seen anyone dying on the streets. Or even slightly injured, begging for medicine. In fact, if you do get ill and have no health insurance, contrary to popular European perception, you don't get thrown in a bin and taken away. A hospital will treat you, and the government will pick up the bill via one route or another.

In fact, if you have a moment, the US government spends a greater proportion of national income on healthcare provision for its citizens than the UK does - a little above 7%. According to Federal Government projections, by 2019, at the current rate of spending, Medicare (the US government programme for retirees health provision) will absorb one quarter of all US Federal income taxes. Therefore the answer to the question "do you want socialised medicine?" is actually "we've already got it, thanks".