Abortion. Drugs. Gays. Transsexuals. We're not a progressive nation, are we?

Share

Here's one that David Blunkett does not need to agonise over. Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, upheld Christine Goodwin's right to be a woman. The judges unanimously ruled that her country – Britain – had breached her right to privacy and her right to marry by refusing to accept that, though born a man, she was now a woman. Incidentally, the other three countries who are in the same boat as us are Ireland, Andorra and Albania.

You can just imagine, however, what would have happened had there been no Strasbourg court and had the Home Secretary proposed action himself. Various newspapers would have declared that this was "political correctness gone mad", phone-ins would have asked how such legislation could be a priority at a time when policemen are crumbling and there aren't enough hospitals on the street. Then the legislation would have been held up for a thousand years in the Lords while Baroness Young argued that it was bound to lead to thousands of impressionable young men getting carried away and becoming young women.

This is not a country to be bold in, as evidenced by the reaction to David Blunkett's decision, announced on Wednesday, to reclassify cannabis from a Class B (Bad) drug to a Class C (be Careful) one. Immediately Brixton was scoured for bobbies who thought it was a disaster, newspapers that – six months ago – thought reclassification was a neat idea suddenly got a fit of the vapours when confronted with real action, and the drugs tsar upped and resigned.

Changing the drugs laws is complex enough. Changing them in Britain is a labour of Hercules. Look at what Mr Blunkett feels forced to say. The journalists ask him, of cannabis: "Is it bad for you, and is it wrong?" To which Labour's own Hercules answers: "Yes and yes." But what he really means is: "A little bit and no, it isn't." How can it be "wrong" per se to smoke or eat cannabis? The missing question, though, was: "Is it pleasant?"

In the House, the admirable Conservative home affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin understands the logical flaw in Blunkett's public reasoning. Well, who doesn't? If you let people consume a product, but make the selling of the product illegal, you hand supply over to criminals. QED. Letwin's answer to this conundrum, however, is obscure. Does he choose vigorously to prosecute cannabis consumers, or does he take the opposite logical course and legalise the sale of spliffs? Um, no.

We have only got to this point because: (a) the police have, effectively, demanded it; and (b) cannabis-taking is pretty universal among the young in this country. It is, partly, the change in public opinion that emboldens a Home Secretary who is more than usually sensitive to shifts in the popular mood.

His incremental pace, however, is dictated by a determination not to do the right thing before enough people realise that it is the right thing.

Look back at the history of social reform in this country, and you can see that Blunkett's carefulness is typical. In 1861 the Offences Against the Person Act made it illegal "to procure a miscarriage" (ie carry out an abortion). The penalty was life imprisonment. It took another 75 years before the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was formed. In 1938, Dr Aleck Bourne, a gynaecologist, invited the police to prosecute him for performing an abortion on a 14-year-old rape victim. Bourne was acquitted on the grounds that he had acted to prevent the girl from becoming a "physical and mental wreck".

A year later, a government committee recommended changes to the abortion laws, but nothing was done. It wasn't until the thalidomide tragedy in the early 1960s that abortion became a matter of wide public controversy. When – at last – in 1967 a Bill liberalising the law passed though the Commons, it was a young Liberal MP who sponsored it – not the Health Secretary. It was a rough ride. And even then the new law did not apply to parts of the UK.

Gay law reform has taken even longer. After a series of scandals, largely caused by police overzealousness, the Wolfenden Committee was set up in 1954 to consider the laws on homosexuality. In 1957 the committee recommended liberalisation, and the first parliamentary debate on the subject was held in December that year. The then Home Secretary parked the Wolfenden recommendations, arguing that they wouldn't enjoy the support of the general public. More research, he said, was needed. That's the way it stayed for another 10 years, until the Sexual Offences Act was passed. Even this put the age of gay consent at 21 and made homosexuality a criminal offence if more than two people were present.

Some Labour ministers feared the public reaction. Richard Crossman, in his diary for 3 July 1967, wrote of the Bill: "It may well be 20 years ahead of public opinion; certainly working-class people in the north jeer at their Members at the weekend and ask them why they're looking after the buggers at Westminster instead of the unemployed at home."

Just last year, the Lords were refusing to accept an equalisation of the gay age of consent, and the right of gays to serve in the armed forces was only upheld by a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights. In all cases it was argued that liberalisation of the law was running ahead of public opinion.

The abolition of capital punishment was even more tortuous. In 1908 it was abolished for people under 16; in 1922 for maternal infanticide; in 1931 for pregnant women; in 1933 for the under-18s. In 1957, following the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans, the ultimate penalty was restricted to murder in the course or furtherance of theft, murder by shooting or causing an explosion, murder while resisting arrest or during an escape, murder of a police officer or prison officer and for two murders committed on different occasions. So if you strangled two people at the same time, you were OK, as long as you weren't robbing them and they weren't police officers. Not until 1969 was the death penalty abolished for murder altogether.

In each case, necessary action awaited the creation not of a majority for change, but of a critical mass of law-makers, enforcers, professionals and a progressive section of society. And in each case the progression was uneven and met by hostility.

So, one day (round about the same time as Andorra) we will legalise marijuana and drugs such as ecstasy, regulate their quality by law and then launch education campaigns to persuade youngsters not to use them in school hours, drivers not to take them, and spliff-smokers to find a less harmful way of ingesting their jollies. Gradually, over time, we will cease the demonisation of pushers – not because they are a fine upstanding group of men and women, but because drugs are about demand pull not supply push. The problem with drugs is pullers, not pushers, and they need education, not punishment.

d.aaronovitch@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high