In the run-up to the recent prime-ministerial election, there was a brief but highly entertaining respite from the endless dirge of British politics. With tabloid guns squarely pointing at them, four of the Tory-party candidates—Rory Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove—all fessed up that they had at some point, before taking political orders, done drugs. Stewart confessed to having smoked opium at a wedding in Iran; Hunt “thinks” he drank a cannabis-laced lassi while backpacking in India; and Michael Gove said he had done cocaine on “several occasions,” adding the caveat that it was “when I was working as a journalist.” The press had a field day.
Boris Johnson, our newly installed leader, had already spoken up on a 2005 episode of the satirical TV show Have I Got News for You, saying, “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed, and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.” But in an interview with British GQ two years later, he admitted to having tried cocaine and cannabis at university, adding that it had achieved “no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever.”
When he was asked to finally settle the question over his drug-taking during a BBC debate in the run-up to the vote for P.M., Johnson threw back: “I think the canonical account of this event when I was nineteen has appeared many, many times, and I think what most people in this country really want us to focus on in this campaign, if I may say so, is what we can do for THEM.” And there followed a lengthy, onanistic but cleverly diversionary rant about free-market capitalism, boring his audience into total submission.
When, in June, a journalist carried out a secret drug test, swabbing nine locations in the House of Commons, traces of cocaine were found not only in the disabled bathroom, but also in the loos outside the Strangers Bar, accessible only to M.P.’s and high-ranking public officials. Was there public outrage? Were the final four forced to resign? No, because this is England, and the abominable behavior of the great and the good has always been affectionately tolerated. Tory voters, particularly the well-born, public-school-educated ones, will have, forgive the pun, snorted with laughter—“Oh yeah, him too.” Why? Because cocaine, to Brits of a certain class, is in plentiful supply, around every corner, and frequently indulged, especially at celebratory events like weddings, birthdays, and now, it seems, after Speakers Questions, too.
A 2015 study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed that out of 70 European cities and towns, London had the highest concentration of cocaine in its sewage system. Meanwhile, police admit they no longer test bank notes in criminal investigations because almost all of them are tainted. And to cap it all, cocaine today is at its cheapest, and purest, since the early 90s. We have the Albanian Mafia to thank for that, who have taken over the U.K.’s cocaine market and negotiate directly with the South American drug cartels, cutting out the middlemen. Hurrah.
This is England, and the abominable behavior of the great and the good has always been affectionately tolerated.
The nonchalant and non-accusatory culture surrounding drug-taking is very British, and it’s why the country recently topped the survey as the biggest cocaine user in Europe. I remember, clear as day, the first time I was offered a line. It was at the house of a sculptor friend in Chelsea. There, lying on the drawing-room table, was a satisfyingly Al Pacino–like snow cone of cocaine, a credit card, and a £50 note arranged like cutlery by its side. I declined, but I soon became used to seeing it at parties and hearing the language of drug-taking and observing the rules and rituals of engagement. It wasn’t until four years later, at a wedding, that I gave in. I entered—and I hate to admit it, even now—a much more interesting world; not so much because of the drug-taking but because of the participants’ attitude to life. It was fun, glamorous, riotous—anything could happen. And as a partial voyeur, I lapped it all up.
Rare is the occasion where cocaine is not present at a social party in London or the country. Does it mean everyone does it? No. Does it mean that those who do, do it every time they go out? No. Inevitably, I have seen friends get hurt, end up in rehab, and/or with long-term mental-health problems because of it. Cocaine never leads to anything good. But on the British social scene, it persists, now more than ever.
An Egg Today, a Chicken Tomorrow
One of the reasons is the house party—highly organized and ritualistic weekends in grand country houses where all the traditions of old are indulgently observed. Once, when staying in Scotland on a shooting weekend, there was a knock on my bedroom door shortly before I was due down for pre-dinner drinks. A member of the household staff handed me a brown paper envelope with my name on it. I opened it, and two small plastic bags, the size of stamps, fell out—one contained a gram of cocaine, the other MDMA, or “Mudma,” as it is affectionately known here. Everyone in the house party had received the same. At a dinner in London, every guest had a Kit Kat chocolate bar placed by their name card, with the telltale little wrap hidden inside.
But that’s for amateurs. The very latest party must-have is the “drug concierge”—like a cross between a sommelier and a bartender, he or she is usually stationed in an anteroom and advises guests on the cocaine’s provenance, quality, and strength (Ecstasy and mushrooms are also popular), and then serves it (implements provided and sanitation assured) according to taste, constitution, and appetite. It was a very popular addition at a recent Cotswolds celebration, more crowded than the dance floor.
I opened the envelope, and two small plastic bags fell out—one contained a gram of cocaine, the other MDMA. Everyone in the house party had received the same.
At a wedding last year, the best man spent most of the reception fielding requests: “Have you got any?” guests would ask, to which he’d reply, “Chicken or fish?” If they said “Chicken,” he’d pull out some coke from his left pocket; if the answer was “Fish,” he’d grab the MDMA from his right. And who paid for these party favors? The groom. It’s become quite the thing now for hosts to take care of these needs. But the prize for most ingenious delivery must go to the attendees of a birthday party I went to in Greece last year. Knowing that drugs would be hard to score in a foreign country, they smuggled their stash in the empty plastic shells of Kinder eggs, inserted up their bottoms.
So there you have it. Just as the Brits reacted with mild interest, at best, and definitely amusement, to the news that their then future prime minister had taken cocaine, or “icing sugar,” they don’t raise much of an eyebrow when anyone else does, at least not in an overly censorious way. There’s one story in particular that always makes the rounds about a senior member of Parliament who tried to do a line on the top of a privately rented open-top double-decker bus on its way to a party. Just as he bent down, the entire weekend’s supply flew off into the wind. But it’s who he was off to stay with that has everyone falling about—undoubtedly while doing some “chicken.”
Anthony Sniffington is the secretary of state for substance abuse and sow affairs, appointed by David Cameron and somehow forgotten about by recent administrations. Prior to holding that post, he was the head of a drug-sniffing K9 unit at London Heathrow, and before that, a bathroom attendant at Annabel’s