IN scrutinising the body politic over a few decades, I have frequently been struck by the uneasy balance between pragmatism and principle.

Plus of course the personal advantage of individual politicians which will ever predominate, to some extent, in the pursuit of votes.

Setting that aside, in the core balance, I lean towards the pragmatic: what works.

To be clear, the pragmatic must be underpinned by a bedrock of principle. I am not remotely advocating a quasi-Machiavellian approach.

Rather I am suggesting that sensible leaders need to be alert to the real, practical consequences of policy decisions rather than measuring them against some Platonic ideal.

Let me illustrate with an apocryphal anecdote. In 1968, Glasgow was assailed by a great storm. As well as the tragic loss of life, the citizens were appalled at the damage caused to roofs and buildings.

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In the Commons, Scottish Office Ministers were under pressure. There were demands for a statement. One apparently replied: “We don’t need a statement. We need slaters.”

Quite. There is a time for elegant discourse. And a time to fix the roof.

In comparable vein, I appreciate the protest that food banks should not be necessary in a relatively prosperous country like ours.

I know the argument. I get the concept. I simply feel that, on balance, food banks have the edge on starvation.

Turning to my main topic, is it possible that Scotland may be nearing a more pragmatic approach to the troubled question of drugs?

This week, the First Minister and the leader of Scotland’s largest Opposition party teamed up to visit a Glasgow centre which helps people whose lives have been blighted by drugs.

One headline queried why the pair were undertaking such a project.

The cynic deeply buried within my generally positive outlook suggested an easy answer. They were both seeking publicity.

But it turned out that there was more to the visit than a photocall. Both leaders expressed a willingness to consider policies advanced by the other.

Firstly, a little credit is due. The Scottish Tories have pursued the topic of drug abuse for a prolonged period, beginning with persistent warnings about an over-reliance upon methadone.

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To be frank, there are few votes in this topic for the Tories. Their Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, knows that. Yet, driven presumably by anxiety for his fellow humans, he sustains his interest in the topic. He it was who issued the challenge to the FM to undertake a joint visit.

This is a tricky topic for Nicola Sturgeon. During the election campaign earlier this year, she conceded that her government had taken their eyes off the ball with regard to Scotland’s grim record of drugs deaths.

Tactically, that was an unwise confession. The voters tend to prefer their elected tribunes to stay focused.

But she has sought to remedy the slip since. Each time she is questioned about drugs, her demeanour is purposefully solemn, her words pointed and precise.

Down the decades, there have been sundry attempts to convey political consensus on the subject of drugs. Remember the cross-party photocalls in 1996? Forsyth, Robertson, Salmond and Wallace? With baseball caps back to front?

I empathise with them. It was an effort, one supposes, to engage with youth. It did not work. Nor has much else since.

If we are in a war against drugs, then we are palpably and miserably losing.

Look at the BBC report this week about significant increases in Scottish prison drug seizures during the pandemic. That might reflect increasing success in detecting contraband but it still made for grim viewing.

And yet, and yet. There are also signs of changing attitudes, of new approaches.

Note in particular the announcement by the Lord Adovcate Dorothy Bain that people caught with Class A drugs might be given a police warning, instead of facing prosecution.

That extends the approach already adopted with regard to lower category drugs.

In effect, this recognises that many drug abusers are motivated by medical, psychiatric and social issues. They are not, in the first instance, criminals.

I entirely understand why the Conservatives demurred. They equated it with decriminalisation. That is of a piece with “war on drugs” rhetoric and probably reflects public opinion.

Yet they seem ready to rethink. Drug abuse has both a personal and community dimension. Personal in that it can ruin an individual life. Community in that it can result in social fragmentation and in crime to feed an expensive habit.

The state should seek to preserve the wider community from harm. Arguably, the way to do that is by offering assistance to the user, rather than automatic punishment which may simply immerse them in a rougher environment still, where drugs are seemingly endemic.

Certainly, that is the aim of Douglas Ross’s Bill to provide a Right to Recovery for drug abusers.

Again, I understand and applaud the motivation. However, I am sceptical. It could be a structured and legalistic response to a notably chaotic and haphazard world.

Other attempts to provide fixed rights, such as in the field of health and hospital care, have simply resulted in the statute being routinely broken while the system struggles to cope with the challenge of delivering a pragmatic response to an honourable principle.

His Bill is out for consultation until the 12th of January. Nicola Sturgeon is unpersuaded but has pledged to study the idea. It seems likely to me that she will announce government action in the direction of Mr Ross’s broader objective.

Mr Ross says he will look at the notion of allowing drug consumption in specified premises, under supervision, with attendant help.

In certain circumstances, this could be useful although perhaps of limited value. It remains, strictly, a policy in UK Government control.

Finally, this. Drug abusers are not a distinct species. They are people, capable of sensible choice, if sensibly guided. Not necessarily culpable, perhaps, but personally responsible.

I have nothing but contempt for those who profit from the misery of others. I have nothing but huge admiration for those social workers and volunteers who seek to relieve that misery. They are the true pragmatists.

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