The puritans would purge the hippies

The masters now are not of the liberal generation. Sex 'n' drugs are out, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
It is not just the drugs. Dr Miriam Stoppard has landed herself in trouble with New Labour. Yesterday she found herself under attack by one of Jack Straw's underlings over her suggestion that eight-year-olds should be given positive information about the use of cannabis. "People smoke marijuana because it makes them feel happy," the tots should be told, according to her latest book, Questions Children Ask.

The good doctor, who combines agony aunthood with best-selling advice on health and parenthood, would like to see the law on cannabis reviewed. She is now working on The Drug Users' Guide, an instruction manual outlining to youngsters the safest methods of drug-taking, which she describes as a "how to take drugs safely and how not to die" book. She was swiftly lambasted by the Home Office minister George Howarth. "Drugs devastate those who take them, their families and their communities," he said. "I refuse to accept that drugs have become part of growing up. I don't believe it's helpful for prominent figures to make these sort of statements."

It was not the only such row. A consultant psychiatrist who prescribes heroin on the NHS to addicts at his clinic was attacked in similar terms yesterday when he opined that nowadays it is those youngsters who refrained from drug use who were the deviants. The comments of Dr John Marks were branded as "dangerous" by his local Labour MP who rejoices in the name of Derek Twigg. "This is totally out-of-order," the MP fulminated. The Labour Party was opposed to legalisation "in any form".

Indeed. But I reckon it was the sex which really got up the New Labour, New Puritan noses. "We must learn to trust our children," Dr Stoppard volubly told a Daily Telegraph interviewer. "My sons got used to talking about sex early on. Every one of them has been to me with really intimate stuff. I mean intimate," she said, and went on to recount the tale of how she was sitting at the kitchen table one day when her 17-year-old brought his girlfriend home and promptly took her off to the guest room for the night. "Well, I certainly didn't want them to have sex in the garden," Dr Stoppard reflected. So she restricted her reaction to delivering a lecture on contraception over breakfast the next morning.

A generation gap is opening up in British public life and it is not between Dr Stoppard and her offspring. Rather it is between the children of the Sixties whose post-hippie liberalism now dominates the nation's personal values and the scions of the Seventies whose new puritanism is setting the tone for our political life.

Marijuana is only a touchstone in this. Dr Stoppard, of course, has smoked it herself though she has not, of course, used it for ages. Indeed she "only ever smoked it at parties two or three times. One of the reasons I didn't go on was because it didn't seem to have much effect on me. Because I didn't smoke, maybe I didn't inhale, so it never made me feel woozy." No, it must have been the Incredible String Band album which did that. Or perhaps it was something to do with the shifting interior moral landscape of the beanbag.

By contrast those who were at university in the decade which followed Dr Stoppard's sojourn, like most of the original New Labour modernisers, obviously take their lead from Tony Blair. Avoiding the Clinton elephant trap ("I experimented with marijuana, but I didn't inhale"), the head of the New Labour New Model Army quipped: "I never tried marijuana, but if I had, I would have inhaled." Ascetic yet virile, you see: very Cromwellian.

Not that everyone in New Labour is so clear-cut. Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, is now quiet on the subject but it is only a few months since she declared that cannabis was "relatively harmless" compared to alcohol and suggested it might be time for a royal commission to look at the question again. (Her sporting colleague Tony Banks once suggested something similar.) "The poor lady stepped out of line and was rapped over the knuckles," Dr Stoppard recalls, "but I think she had a sensible point of view. Mine would be very close to that."

The Home Secretary, of course, believes no such thing. I remember Jack Straw at university. He left just as I arrived in those heady days of sit-ins and Santana so I have no accurate recollection of his attitude to drugs. Perhaps it was that of the Hard Left moralist: the historical objective of a movement representing the workers and the poor is to improve their conditions and not to drag them down into decadence and unemployability.

Yes, perhaps that was it. Which would explain why Mr Straw is now so often under attack for peddling "saloon bar prejudices" in the views of old liberals like Roy Jenkins who was Home Secretary throughout the most permissive of those years. Jenkins decries his successor' s populist approach to law and order, insisting he has a duty to lead public opinion and not follow it.

But other liberals of that era have reformed. "My generation were too tolerant," Philip Bean, Professor of Criminal Studies at Loughborough University, has said. "We are reaping the whirlwind now." Holland and Spain, which pioneered liberalisation, have found that a rise in the use of cocaine and heroin and accompanying social misery followed the decriminalisation of "soft" drugs.

The link between drugs and crime is well established, Mr Howarth insisted yesterday. "There are all sorts of difficulties associated with cannabis abuse. I admit they are associated with heavy use rather than occasional use, but cannabis is a gateway drug. Some of those who start with cannabis can go on to harder drugs."

Doubtless Dr Stoppard's parents would have approved. Orthodox Jews from the poorer side of Newcastle, their approach was highly repressive. So unprepared was the young Miriam for her first period that when it arrived she assumed she had cancer. And when they passed a cinema poster in the street depicting the buxom cleavage of Jane Russell, Miriam's father put his hand over her eyes. Thus was Cromwell damned to everlasting fame. Mr Straw's children had best avert their gaze before the parental fingers descend.