Not Ben's Blog: The Sequel

Old age protesters are driving political dissent in this country

“Try and track down Mark Thomas while I’m away,” said Ben as he departed for the wilds of Cornwall in his Bentley, leaving me to perform the online equivalent of watering the cat and feeding the plants. “And good luck.”

In fact it proved rather easier to locate the elusive comic campaigner than I’d imagined. There he was on stage last Saturday, addressing the crowds that had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the latest anti-war/stop Trident demonstration.

Mark’s best gag was to wonder why we needed a deterrent when the last nuclear assault on this country occured in a central London sushi bar. As he wisely pointed out, any number of Union Jack-stamped warheads can’t counter the polonium-laced tuna and sashimi menace.

Anyway, Mark is back on newstatesman.com this week, inviting you to download a badge (surely a web first?) of the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

You should be aware that this could, strictly, count as “glorifying terrorism” after a parliamentary book launch for a collection of Ocalan’s prison writings was banned on just those grounds – but you can always claim it’s Borat, says Mark. Separated at birth? Read the article and make up your own mind.

Back to the subject of Saturday’s march, one thing that struck me was the average age of those on the streets. Public demonstrations are traditionally associated with youthful idealism yet judging by the number of OAPs (old age protesters) I saw, more of those involved had cut their political teeth marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s than on the great anti-war gathering of 2003.

Even the speakers are beginning to show their age. Tony Benn, that sacred totem of the left, recalled that he had first spoken in Trafalgar Square more than half a century ago at the time of that other misconceived British military misadventure, Suez. Livingstone, Galloway and the numerous veterans of Greenham Common are hardly new voices either.

Only Rose Gentle, speaking eloquently and emotionally about the death of her soldier son, Gordon, in Iraq, ensured the day did not simply become a nostalgic tribute to a golden age of leftie activism.

None of this is to belittle the efforts of those present or their contribution to the long and illustrious history of protest in this country, but it is to wonder where the next generation of political campaigners will come from. Four years ago Ms. Dynamite represented the yoof voice, but now even she is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, the Stop the War coalition has now hit on a fairly desperate scheme to try to engage the iPod generation, urging peace campaigners to download a new version of Edwin Starr’s classic “War (What is it good for?)” purporting to be by Ugly Rumours, Tony Blair’s former musical collaborators.

“Tony Blair’s band is back – You can send the Prime Minister into the charts,” says the website hopefully.

Even the song is old. And as if the kids care who's No. 1 in the pop charts anymore anyway.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.