Joan Smith: Success is no antidote to addiction

What the west London siege tells us about class
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The Independent Online

When the police shot and killed a man in London on Tuesday evening, the news was greeted with disbelief. First, the siege happened in Chelsea, an affluent area of London. Second, the dead man was white and a barrister. Third – which got into headlines – he was an Oxford graduate. We have become used to hearing of black kids being shot in Kilburn or Brixton, but it just doesn't happen to people like Mark Saunders. Prosperous lawyers aren't supposed to become distraught and open fire across one of London's desirable squares; they're supposed to belong to the right clubs, make money and become QCs.

Anyone who doubts the continuing significance of class in this country should take a look at the responses to the violent death of Mr Saunders. A colleague spoke of him as a future judge and his family insisted that he had a strong relationship with his wife, describing them as a "golden couple". His father questioned the police's actions during the four-hour siege, saying he did not believe his son necessarily posed a lethal threat, even though he exchanged fire with them on three occasions; an unnamed firearms expert suggested the police should have exercised greater restraint, as they knew they were dealing with a "respectable chap".

In fact, there is no reason to believe that lawyers are immune to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse or domestic violence. They are almost certainly better at concealing it, and the affluent middle classes are less likely to come under scrutiny from the authorities; questions are being asked about how Mr Saunders, who was known by his family to suffer from alcoholism and depression, was able to keep his shotgun licence when police reviewed it last October. In that sense his death is revealing, not just over class, but over the double standards that apply to the subject of addiction.

Last week the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, ignored scientific advice on the effects of cannabis and raised its classification from a class C to class B drug on the grounds that a small number of people become psychotic from heavy use. A similar argument applies to alcohol, which is used by millions of social drinkers without acute harmful effects, but turns large numbers into addicts.

Accounts of Mr Saunders' rampage agree that he was drunk when he started shooting, and that he had been spotted two weeks earlier weeping in the street near his flat. Last week, his addiction to alcohol proved lethal. As he was a high-flying barrister, his problems weren't addressed in time, showing that alcoholism is regarded more tolerantly than other addictions.

The Home Secretary is happy to crack down on the hundreds of thousands who use cannabis socially. But is she going to criminalise middle-class people whose fix is available at bargain prices in supermarkets? Of course not, as long as booze remains the drug of choice of Mail readers. Not for the first time, a sensible discussion of addiction has been sacrificed to the worst sort of crowd-pleasing politics.