It’s the story that has dominated the last few days: Tory leadership contender, and potential next prime minister, Michael Gove admitted that he had taken the class A drug cocaine “on several occasions at social events more than 20 years ago”.
Debate has raged across the press and on social media about whether the revelation rules him out of the most powerful job in the country, or he deserves praise for his honesty.
But for many people, particularly black, the debate itself was mired in privilege and hypocrisy.
Cast your mind back to April when the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, was forced to apologise publicly after a photograph was circulated of her drinking a can of mojito on London public transport.
Londoners aren’t allowed to drink alcohol on the tube (or the overground train Abbott was on), and she was criticised by social media users, fellow politicians and the media.
Off the back of the incident, the Daily Mail gleefully reported ’Comrade Diane Abbott earns merciless mockery from Shadow Cabinet colleagues’. The Express went with ‘Diane Abbott SAVAGED [...] over alcohol controversy’. Her former broadcasting colleague Andrew Neil mocked her on the BBC.
There were also calls for the Hackney MP to resign.
Fast-forward to the past week, and it’s starting to feel like a sheepish drug confession is essential for standing to be Conservative party leader. As well as Gove saying he “deeply regrets” trying cocaine, Rory Stewart said he took opium when it was passed round at a wedding in Iran, Andrea Leadsom admitted she had tried cannabis at university, and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Times: “I think I had a cannabis lassi (drink) when I went backpacking through India.”
There is something that unites those politicians, aside from their political allegiance and their desire to be prime minister: they are white. And for many people who aren’t, it doesn’t seem they like would be getting such an easy ride for admitting they had dabbled with drugs if they weren’t.
Nels Abbey, a media executive who wrote a satirical self help book on being black in western societies called ‘Think Like A White Man’, says the racial disparity over drugs use has been laid bare.
“If Sam Gyimah [the former higher education minister, who is running to be Tory leader – and is black] confessed to taking cocaine he’d be finished today. If Michael Gove confessed to taking crack cocaine (a drug widely stigmatised as something poor and black people take) as opposed to powder cocaine (the white middle class drug of choice): he’d be finished today,” he told HuffPost UK.
“If Michael Gove was black, stopped and searched and caught with cocaine 20 years ago he’d be known as ‘Iron Mike Gove’ today, an unemployable, socially and economically castrated, totally stigmatised ‘criminal’ today. Chances are he’d be in and out of the system for much of his life.”
Abbey believes that UK drugs policy “is built upon the quadruple evils of hypocrisy, hysteria, racism and class-ism. The biggest victims of our drug policy have been black people.”
That sense of a double standard is echoed by anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole. “If you’re Diane Abbott, drinking a mojito on a train, it’s a scandal,” he said. “If you’re Kate Osamor and your 29-year-old black son has a drug conviction, you lose your job. However If you’re a Tory working to protect the privileged and you took drugs in your thirties, it can help you become prime minister.”
And it’s not just those who work in politics who have watched this unfold with concern. Speaking to HuffPost UK, Belinda from south London said she “shudders to think what would happen to Diane Abbott if she admitted to drug use”.
“How Diane was treated over the mojito was blatant, textbook racism. It is her being ‘too big for her boots’. It isn’t just that people dislike her for being a black woman - they dislike her for being a black woman in parliament.
“She can do the most trivial thing and it would be a huge fuss. If she was in Gove’s position, the government would probably try to get her deported to Jamaica.”
She says she believes people have done far worse than Michael Gove and got into far more trouble – but with one important caveat. “By people I mean black people.
“I don’t feel that this is directly a racial issue, however the opportunities to get caught are significantly higher for black working class people than for white middle class people in their flats in Mayfair.”
Simba Mbandaka, a 31-year-old teacher, told HuffPost: “As a black man, I could lose my job if I am found to have a bit of weed in my system.”
Dr Maria Augusta Arruda, a Nottingham University Research Fellow who focuses on drug discovery, said: “The upper classes’ consumption of class A drugs, not only in the UK but around the world, leaves behind a thread of death and shattered futures.
“It is easy to condemn troubled (black or mixed-race) kids for joining gangs and being stabbed from the comfort of their grade II-listed properties while laughing about their wild years [...].
“Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that Michael Gove, as many of those in positions of power, performed a morally reprehensible and, as the law stands today, criminal offence. It is naïve to assume that they abide by the same laws as we do.”
Duwayne Brooks, a former councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and friend of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was with him when he died, says any comparison between Abbott’s treatment and Gove is a distraction from the ‘real issue’ at hand.
“The question should be this: what was it about [certain] behaviour that didn’t attract the police? They are not the ones who are profiling the youths on the streets - the police are; with the huge number of unlawful stops for black people.
″The reason why they didn’t [attract the police] is because they’re white. It is what we see it today; there’s no difference. Numerous black youths are stopped and searched.
“I wouldn’t even call this a ‘double standard’ because they weren’t caught taking drugs. The question is why weren’t they caught?”
I wouldn’t even call this a ‘double standard’ because they weren’t caught taking drugs. The question is why weren’t they caught?Duwayne Brooks
As one UK Black Lives Matter activist, Nick, told HuffPost, “I don’t take drugs but have been stopped and searched many times. I suspect Gove has never been stopped. Black kids are getting stabbed daily supplying drugs to these white middle class idiots; they have the blood of these young black lives on their hands.”
On Sunday it came to light that Michael Gove himself had written an article in 1999 slamming middle-class drug use.
In the article in The Times, Gove – who was then a journalist – criticised “middle-class professionals” for taking drugs and calling for legalisation, arguing that while it may be easy for them to control drug use, “it is a little less easy to cope with the consequences of illegal drug use, or family breakdown, in South Shields than it is in south Hampstead”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday about whether his cocaine use made him a hypocrite, Gove denied it.
“No, I think anyone can read the article and make their minds up,” he said.
“The point I made in the article is if any of us lapse sometimes from standards we uphold, that is human. The thing to do then is not necessarily to say that standards should be lowered, it should be to reflect on the lapse and to seek to do better in future.”