Moral and pragmatic considerations play a part in most policy making, and (when convenient) some policy may even be evidence-based. In formulating policy, the policy makers must decide how much weight to give moral considerations, practicality, and the evidence base.
Historically, British foreign policy seems to me to have been pragmatic almost to the point of being amoral. Even when the government has actually claimed it would have an ethical foreign policy, pragmatism seems to have overridden other considerations.
Readers may recall Robin Cook’s speech on ethical foreign policy. While stating that: “The first goal of foreign policy is security for nations”; Cook’s second stated goal was: “The prosperity of Britain”.
The latter goal seemed to me to take priority over the former in the case of Indonesia. In 1999, John Pilger wrote this:
Last week, on his pathbreaking Channel 4 show, the satirist Mark Thomas revealed a conversation he had recorded with Paul Greenwood, a director of Pains Wessex, manufacturers of CS gas, who said: ‘The UK government don’t care. I’ve had the DTI [Department of Trade] down… and I’ve spoken about it, and I said I can take the order [here] and get somebody else to make it and ship it, [and they said] yeah, that’s fine. . . Just as long as we’re not shipping it in the UK, they don’t give a toss.’
Attitude to Torture
Currently, the British government is having to face awkward questions regarding allegations of the complicity of British security services in torture:
The true depth of British involvement in the torture of terrorism suspects overseas and the manner in which that complicity is concealed behind a cloak of courtroom secrecy was laid bare last night when David Davis MP detailed the way in which one counter-terrorism operation led directly to a man suffering brutal mistreatment.
In a dramatic intervention using the protection of parliamentary privilege, the former shadow home secretary revealed how MI5 and Greater Manchester police effectively sub-contracted the torture of Rangzieb Ahmed to a Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), whose routine use of torture has been widely documented. […]
The officers from MI5 and MI6 who interrogated Ahmed should have known his detention was unlawful because he had not been brought before a court. Ahmed says he told these officers he was being tortured and that signs of his mistreatment would have been evident. [The Guardian]
British security services are currently being sued by six former Guantanamo Bay detainees. According to the Telegraph, the Foreign Office and the Home Office, who are being sued along with MI5 and MI6, are having to divert much-needed money and manpower to fighting the case.
Drugs Are Bad, M’kay?
Our drugs policy, meanwhile, is far from pragmatic – it appears to be based in large part on the view that (currently illegal) drugs are immoral and must be prohibited.
Transform believe that the classification system is fundamentally flawed. In this PDF, they outline a pattern in which the Council has been “treated rather contemptuously by the Government” when their outputs are perceived as threatening to the Government’s political programme:
This pattern has included, for example, Vernon Coaker making it very clear that the Government would not reclassify ecstasy regardless of the Council’s findings and recommendations, in public and before the Council’s evaluation (undertaken at the urging of the Science and Technology Select Committee) had even begun. Similarly, the Prime Minister was making unambiguous public statements that he intended to reclassify cannabis from C back to B, before he had received the evaluation back from the Council that he himself had ordered.
If drugs policy is not based on pragmatic considerations of harm reduction or on the evidence base, then it can only be based on the moral viewpoint of the government of the day. Or, perhaps, on the moral viewpoint of the newspaper editors and owners that the government of the day is generally keen to keep on side. As I argued here.
It could be argued that in formulating foreign policy, more weight should be given to moral considerations – selling arms to regimes of dubious character is, after all, a matter of life and death. Should the prosperity of Britain outweigh the slaughter of innocents? My view is that it should not.
I hold the position that torture is quite simply morally wrong. We should not condone – or collude with – torturers. The pragmatism of endorsing or condoning torture is questionable and the evidence base in respect of the efficacy of torture is lacking – but even if it were pragmatic and based on solid evidence, the use, condonement, or endorsement of torture would still be unthinkable to me.
For me, the immorality of drug-taking is less clear-cut than that of torture or selling arms to dubious regimes. Yet, of the three, this is the policy that seems to be based on a moral standpoint.
The morality that underpins government policy on drugs is also strikingly inconsistent. While some intoxicants are deemed to be sufficiently acceptable, morally, to be sold legally, others are seemingly arbitrarily classed as immoral substances that cannot be tolerated and must be prohibited.
We seem to have had, historically, a drugs policy based on an inconsistent moral fervour that certain specified drugs are “bad”. At the same time, our arms policy and attitude to torture have been governed more by pragmatic considerations than by the notion that selling arms to dubious regimes or complicity in torture are morally wrong.
This seems to me to be the wrong way round. Torturing fellow humans is a moral issue. Drug-taking and the harm it causes are practical problems. I think it is time for politicians to take a moral stand on torture – and time for us to have a pragmatic, evidence-based drugs policy that minimises harm.