The dismissal of Professor Nutt is something of a perfect storm. Resignations, public criticism, front-page news. Every one of the Government's desperate efforts to move beyond the story seems to simply bury it deeper in it. Some exquisite schadenfreude is being enjoyed.
Beyond the pleasure of seeing arrogance getting its just rewards though, does "Nuttgate" (to coin a phrase) tell us anything deeper about how Government operates, and in particular the relationship between ministers and the quangos which they manage?
Let's start with some background. Professor Nutt was, until recently, the Chairman of the 'Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' (ADMD), the quango set up to the give the Home Office the best scientific advice on the relative harms associated with narcotics. If we at the TPA had to pull out an example of a useful quango, the ACMD would be it. It costs very little - as its members give up their time voluntarily - and it enables policy to be more than just the distillation of political calculations. Exactly what a quango should be.
Last year the ACMD was asked to give its advice on the proposed reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C, with all the criminal implications that entailed. After consideration of the scientific evidence, Professor Nutt and his committee recommended that the drug should remain at Class B. The science did not merit its reclassification, as the associations with mental illness (being made strongly by some pressure groups) were not robust.
Now it its important to note here that the ACMD does not and never has set drugs policy. It advises, and that advice can be ignored. Last year that is exactly what Gordon Brown and Jaqui Smith did, rejecting the ACMD's advice, and reclassifying cannabis. It was this decision which really set off the sequence of events that we are seeing the result of now: Professor Nutt accepted the Government's decision but disagreed with it, he went on lecturing on the scientific argument against tough criminal sanctions on some drugs (he has to make a living after all) and again and again clashed with minsters. Eventually Alan Johnson decided enough was enough. Nutt would either shut up or get out.
Going back to the orginally decision to reclassify cannabis, the decision which set this train in motion and pitted Nutt against the Government, let's be clear that the Government were entirely within their rights to make that call. Drugs policy is a matter for the Home Office and its elected ministers. The process in which it is formulated sees many groups contribute, one of which is the ACMD. Whether one agrees with the decision or not, it is the Government's to make, not the panel, and Professor Nutt is wrong to suggest (as he does in today's Times) that drugs policy should be set by a genuinely independent panel. Drugs remain a political and social issue, not just a health one, and therefore politicians must still decide policy.
But while the Government is completely within its rights to reject the recommendations of the ACMD, it is duty bound to listen to its advice, and explain the public why it is not accepting that advice. We the taxpayer are paying the rail fares for the country's leading experts to get together and make recommendations, and therefore our Government must listen, even if the advice is not want they wanted to hear. If they only want a rubber stamp, let Parliament be the advisory body.
Of course, last year the Government didn't make the effort the explain why they were rejecting the ACMD's advice. Instead they briefed furiously against it (typical of the bunker mentality) and even cast aspersions on Nutt himself. Unsurprisingly he took up the cause against them, and here we are today, with experts now distrustful of the Government they advise, and Government furious at the scientists they elevated to advisers.
But if you are going to pursue 'evidence based policy', then experts you must have. And if you are going to reject their advice, you must make your case. The irritation that was Professor Nutt as Chairman of the ACMD was handled so badly by Johnson and the Home Office that he is now Professor Nutt the aggrieved and unfairly treated, with a platform on every news channel to rubbish the Government's drugs policy. As more expert advisers quit today, Johnson may start to think that a quick smoke might not be a bad idea.
End note: In his letter the Guardian (see here), Johnson wrote that ' He [Nutt] was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy'. Reading between the lines, does this mean that one can only be Government adviser if one agrees with Government policy, or at least keeps their opinions to themselves? The Government of course has no problem paying people who are not experts (see the Sustainable Development Commission) to campaign for Government policy. But obviously when it comes to getting advice from experts, who are paid in biscuits to give the best scientific opinion, the standards change somewhat. Such troublesome people, those with opinions that aren't our own. Henry II knew what to do. So to it seems, does Alan Johnson.