Should we legalise drugs? Peter Paget MP thinks so.

But he’s only a lowly backbencher in a government whose ministers hardly notice him as they rush past on their important business.Should we legalise drugs - Charles Harris reviews Ben Elton's High Society

But one day Paget lands the golden chance of a private member’s bill and to the fury of his colleagues legalising recreational drugs is what he goes for.

Not just decriminalising. He doesn’t just want to stop prosecutions, he wants to fully legalise drugs. On sale in your local Sainsbury’s.

The tabloids rush to attack. Paget’s bill is toxic.

Ben Elton’s 2002 satire High Society could almost have been written today. If it weren’t for the fact that the government in question sounds suspiciously New Labour, hardly anything would need changing.

Since the novel’s publication the issue has been discussed regularly with features in the Guardian – one sparked by Prince William no less – and good old Auntie BBC.

Different shades of satire

Yet despite a tsunami of statements from experts over the intervening sixteen years, despite everyone from doctors to lawyers to senior police officers saying that the “war on drugs” is making things worse, a modern Peter Paget would be howled down in just the same way.

So far, so predictable. But then, in this far from predictable novel, Paget is accidentally stabbed with an addict’s needle and everything changes.

It wouldn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to detect that Elton probably shares his hero’s contempt for the anti-drugs laws. Page after page is filled with their hypocrisies and tragic results.

But Elton isn’t writing a manifesto and the facts never get in the way. This is indeed a fast-moving story. It is also both very funny and at times very dark.

There are many different shades of satire. This is not the savage vinegary satire of a John Niven – whose novel Straight White Male I reviewed previously.  Yet it’s not the gentler, warm satire of Ben Aaronvitch’s magical Rivers of London.

Vicious and forgiving

Elton places himself somewhere between the two – vicious at times but also surprisingly forgiving at times. And filling his story with an almost Dickensian cast of richly flawed characters.

Should we legalise drugs - review of High Society by Ben EltonAt the very opening, we meet pop superstar Tommy Hanson, at an AA meeting.

Elton pulls no punches here. Hanson is a self-proclaimed, self-obsessed, alcoholic, drugged-up, arsehole.

There is no attempt to make his drug-taking – legal or illegal – romantic or fun. He’s ill. And the law can’t help.

Then there’s young Scottish teenager Jessie, sucked by drugs into prostitution. The law only makes things worse for her.

Meanwhile, Paget himself is no saint – and his rather eager young assistant is rather too eager to assist him in ways that Paget’s loyal wife shouldn’t know about.

Writing with balls

Unexpectedly, Paget, a nobody with no spine, discovers parliamentary skills he didn’t know he had. And just as surprisingly, the tide begins to turn in his favour. Suddenly, his toxic bill has a following.

But with enemies that include the tabloid press and all the corrupt police and drug-dealers who stand to lose their profits, how far can he really be allowed to go? Dark forces are already massing against him.

Too few novelists have the balls to address the really big issues. And even fewer know how to do it in a story that remains grippingly entertaining from start to finish.

This is a joy of a book – whatever your views on the drug laws. It feels as fresh as it must have over a decade and a half ago. And as relevant.