Matthew Norman: Alan Johnson, casualty of a dangerous addiction to power

The Home Secretary has become dependent on something very nasty

Share
Related Topics

Something so weird has happened to Alan Johnson lately that, despite the evidence of his own mouth, you have to suspect him of being reliant on a mind-altering drug.

The old Mod has never touched anything illegal, whether Class A, B or C, so he claimed a few years ago during one of those sporadic bouts of conflated hysteria about politicians and dope. As a young guy he did the sex and rock 'n' roll, he said, but never the middle element of the holy trinity.

Now here he is, less than six months into his tenure as Home Secretary, and his personality has palpably changed in the way many of us will have observed in an addicted friend or relative. The sweet-natured, laid-back darling we remember is replaced by a capricious bully of the sort who instantly jettisons someone from their life for telling them a truth they'd rather not hear.

Much has been written about his brutal dismissal of Professor David Nutt for having the impertinence to inform the public about the science of which he is a world-renowned expert. The argument about the comparative dangers of cannabis, ecstasy, alcohol and tobacco is so old that I won't give it what the Newspaper Columnists (Arrestable Punning and Imbecile Word Play) Act, 2003, precludes me from calling a rehash.

The debate will rumble on for a few decades, you'd optimistically imagine, until the self-defeating idiocy of "the war against drugs" – the lunacy of wasting untold annual billions on policing and prison places by driving those who need medical help to crime – becomes apparent to all.

Until then we must endure the perpetuation of this insanity by governments in unceasing thrall to right-wing newspapers and columnists whose malevolence is surpassed only by their scientific ignorance. This is Britain, shining beacon of political duncery to the world, and no amount of railing about the lunacy will change the weather in a climate zone where a man who has spent 30 years poring over peer-reviewed research papers is silenced for sharing his knowledge.

The only surprise in this latest eruption is to find Mr Johnson donning the Jacqui Smith Memorial Dunce Cap. Frankly – and this cannot be said of any cabinet colleague – we expected better of him. We expected, at the very least, that he'd find exhibitions of the brittle, reflex authoritarianism that cracked the Nutt beneath his dignity. But then dignity is invariably a casualty of dangerous addiction, and Mr Johnson has become dependent on something really nasty. He is hooked on ambition for power – something else he claims never to have inhaled – and no drug is more destructive to the personality than that.

With hindsight, the clues were there long ago, when alone among trade union leaders he supported scrapping Clause 4 a few months before Mr Tony Blair repaid him with a safe seat in Hull; when this worshipper of John Lennon's lyrics voted strongly to invade Iraq; when as an education minister he single-handedly rescued the top-up fees that would close off the university escape route to so many born into poverty and urban deprivation like himself.

What changed Mr Johnson's life, he once said, wasn't education (famously he left school at 15 without an O-level) but the Beatles. When adolescent Al was supporting his first family by stacking Tesco shelves, John, Paul, George and Ringo were his idols and inspiration. At the same time, they were campaigning for legalisation of the cannabis without which so much of that life-changing music would never have been created.

Now no one travels the long and winding road from school drop-out, via postman and militant trade unionist, to uber-Blairite fixer without a measure of ambition. But my guess is that he thought he could handle it. It's the biggest cliché in the Class A lexicon, is it not? They always think they can enjoy the odd line or crystal or ministerial promotion without falling prey to dependency. Eventually, of course, the craving takes over until they will steal anything (the sentiments of certain leader columns) and sell anything (their political souls) for a fix.

Exactly when Mr Johnson realised he needed the ultimate hit that is the leadership of his party and possibly (timeframe permitting) his country, is impossible to pinpoint. But judging by two other recent interventions, it happened during the last few months.

As recently as July, he actively courted the fury of the right-wing media by proclaiming himself a supporter of mass immigration. "I do not lie awake at night worrying about a population of 70 million," he elegantly rebuked the Home Affairs Select Committee. "I'm happy to live in a multicultural society where we ... welcome those coming to live and work in this country." In July, he was just as happy for the United States to welcome Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker with Apserger's, into a state penitentiary for the crime of embarrassing the Pentagon.

Now he has suffered one of those infamous druggie mood swings on these issues, both especially dear to the campaigning heart of sections of the press. Quite suddenly – rightly, I believe, but for absolutely the wrong reason – he has "stopped the clock" on Mr McKinnon's extradition. And he has issued that unilateral mea culpa on New Labour's behalf over the policy of barely checked immigration. Given that the evidence hasn't changed a jot about either issue since July, the confluence of these U-turns must be read as unmistakable evidence that he is ever more urgently positioning himself to succeed Gordon Brown.

That Alan Johnson would be a better leader of party and country than Gordon is hardly the point (the same goes for Katie Price, Pete Doherty and Kai Rooney), and electorally he may well remain Labour's second best hope, after Mandy, of restricting the Tories to a slim majority. By no means is his abrupt conversion to such retrograde right-wing verities his banana moment, because it doesn't make him look geekily and sensationally ridiculous.

What it does make him look is just as venal, opportunistic, vacuous and unlovable as the rest of them. That seductive image of the chilled rocker who talked about ultimate power as if it were a fungal infection, whose music biz son insisted his old man would much rather be in the Super Furry Animals than Number 10, has been shattered. Where before he suggested an engagingly louche minor associate of Arthur Daley, he now looks more like a cousin of the Krays.

Disloyalty is the lifeblood of politics, and no fan of this captivating combat sport would have it any other way. But self-betrayal is much darker, and the vista of someone who spoken eloquently of growing up on a rough London estate beset by alcohol-fuelled violence and domestic abuse pretending to regard cannabis as the greater social ill to ingratiate himself with newspapers is particularly dismal even in a government so suffused with professional turncoats.

"I haven't got the ambition and I haven't got the self-confidence and I haven't got that real aching desire to lead." Mr Johnson told Desert Island Discs listeners in 2007. Who knows, maybe back then he really did think he could use Red Box without getting hooked. If so he knows even less about drugs than we thought, because on the addictivity scale, as Professor Nutt himself learned only last Friday, that one gives heroin and crack more than a run for their money.

m.norman@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: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Neo-Nazis march in London  

I'm taking my Jewish kids to a vile neo-Nazi rally in London this weekend because I want them to learn about free speech

Richard Ferrer
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map