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One of the many low-lights of the London 2012 closing ceremony was Russell Brand’s performance of I Am The Walrus by the Beatles. What the organisers should have done instead was to recreate the spectacularly bad-tempered Newsnight debate that had recently taken place between the anarchic comedian and Peter Hitchens (watch it here).

Chaired by Stephanie Flanders, the topic up for discussion was the treatment of drug addicts. On his Mail Online blog, Hitchens provides an account of the proceedings. A partial transcript (partial in the sense of only covering some of the debate), reveals a less than grown-up attitude on the part of Brand, which should come as no surprise. More surprising – and less excusable – was Flanders’ failure to stop the constant interruptions and personal abuse hurled at Hitchens throughout the exchange. 

Despite the provocation, the Mail on Sunday columnist maintained his composure and was, just about, able to make the point that denying the moral agency of drug addicts does no good to anyone.

This is the way he puts it in his blog:

  • “The other undercurrent is that one can only be kind and compassionate if one accepts the view of drugtaker as victim. The possibility that the other view, of allowing the person to have responsibility for his own actions and encouraging him to take responsibility, might be, in effect more compassionate, and derives from a desire to help one’s fellow man just as much if not more, is excluded.”

Unfortunately, there are two sides to Peter Hitchens: on the one hand, a fearless and fluent advocate for the principles of conservatism; but, on the other a polemicist who, in some ways, retains the ideological rigidity (though not the ideological content) of his Trotskyite past.

This is on show when Hitchens describes his motivations for participating in the debate:

  • “Later on it emerged that there would also be a chance to point out that the Tory Party is useless. It seemed worth giving up an evening for.”

The reference here is to David Burrowes, a Conservative MP who also took part in the Newsnight debate.

When, in the course of the discussion, Burrowes agreed with Brand on a particular issue, Hitchens immediately seized upon it as proof positive of Tory decadence. However, what he failed to notice or acknowledge was that the point of agreement was that addicts, when treated, should be taken off drugs altogether and not parked on methadone or other chemical substitutes. In no way does this support for abstinence-based treatment imply that addicts should be treated as ‘victims’ – if anything, it suggests the opposite. So, in his impatience to bash the Tories, Hitchens missed an opportunity to build agreement around what is an authentically conservative approach to addiction.

Conservatives should never be afraid of confrontation. Bad ideas should always be exposed for what they are. But when it comes to good ideas – and putting them into practice – confrontation is not enough. Co-operation is also required and, sometimes, compromise too.

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