Does WikiLeaks prove that the Yanks are “a force for good”?

David Aaronovitch must be having a laugh.

When I first read David Aaronovitch's column in the Times (£) today, I resisted the temptation to look up at the corner of the page to remind myself of the date. I know it's not 1 April. But is Aaro having a laugh? Playing a prank on us? Just being silly? His column is entitled:

The secret's out: the Yanks are a force for good

The standfirst says:

The WikiLeaks cables prove that the world's most powerful democracy is on our side, the side of liberty

David himself writes:

. . . the United States sometimes blunders, makes mistakes, corrects them and, in correcting them, makes more.

So the US, in his view, is just an innocent abroad – clumsy, mistaken, but well-intentioned; not mad or bad. Nice and convenient. He continues:

The cables prove again that the US, the most powerful democracy, is on our side. On Britain's side. On the side of those who think that democracy and liberty are important and need to be argued for and defended. They haven't been lying to us. They haven't been doing things that are against our interests.

What?? Let me check the date again. Are we sure it's not April Fool's Day? If not, then I'm not sure where to begin. Hold on, I know, let's start with the "first sets of disclosures of military messages relating to Iraq and Afghanistan" which David glosses over.

In the Iraq war logs, for example, we discovered that the "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished" and "a US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender".

In the Afghan war logs, for examples, we learned about Task Force 373, the "black" unit of special forces charged with hunting down targets for assassination or detention without trial and "in many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."

Is this what Aaronovitch calls democracy, liberty and truth? Let's turn to the latest batch of state department cables. Aaronovitch rejects Julian Assange's call for Hillary Clinton to resign from her post as US secretary of state on the grounds that (a) she is elected and he is not, and (b) she "authorised her spies to spy in the United Nations – as, one imagines, do the undocumented Chinese, Russians, Bolivians and Cypriots". But point (a) is irrelevant and, as for point (b), let me make two points of my own:

1) The fact that others break the law or engage in morally dubious behaviour does not justify the United States or, for that matter, the United Kingdom doing so also. Perhaps David was off sick the day his primary school teacher taught his class the rather basic lesson that two wrongs don't make a right; and

2) Clinton did not, in fact, authorise "her spies" to "spy in the United Nations", as he claims, but actually instructed her state department ambassadors, envoys and diplomats to do so, which, as the Guardian has noted, "appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying". That's what makes the content of Section 01 of 24 State 080163 so disturbing. Plus, I should add, the UN says that bugging the secretary general is illegal, under the 1946 UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Does US law-breaking not matter if the Cypriots are allegedly doing so, too? Is that really what Aaronovitch would have us believe?

And, yes, we've had gossip and tittle-tattle in some of these leaked US cables. But we've also had clear and depressing evidence of the "grand hypocrisy" on the part of the United States that Aaro is so desperate to dismiss in his column. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Berlin, for example, published by WikiLeaks on Sunday night, describes a meeting in which the then-deputy chief of the US mission to Germany, John M Koenig, urged German officials to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US" of issuing international arrest warrants for CIA agents in the shameful case of the German national Khalid el-Masri.

As the ACLU notes:

In 2003, el-Masri was kidnapped from Macedonia and transported to a secret CIA-run prison in Afghanistan where he was held for several months and tortured before being dumped on a hillside in Albania.

Charming. So I guess that's what Aaronovitch means when he refers to the United States, "the most powerful democracy", being on "our side", on the side of "liberty". Here's what the ACLU's Ben Wizner said in response to the el-Masri WikiLeaks revelations:

We have long known that both the Bush and Obama administrations have shielded perpetrators of torture and rendition from accountability for their illegal acts. We now know that US diplomats have also sought to shut down accountability efforts abroad. The United States' employment of diplomatic pressure to influence the legal proceedings of a democratic ally was improper and unseemly, particularly where the goal of that interference was to shield US officials from accountability for torture.

Even as many of our closest allies have acknowledged and addressed their official complicity in the Bush administration's human rights abuses, the United States has yet to reckon with its legacy of torture. The best way to restore our standing in the world, reassert the rule of law and strengthen our democracy is to support, not obstruct, meaningful accountability for torture.

Hear, hear!

On a side note, I must point out that it is ironic for a man who wrote, back in April 2003, that "if nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the [Iraq] war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again" to now write, as he does in the Times, that the Americans "haven't been lying to us".

Itis also worrying to see a man of David's intelligence, experience and acumen having failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war, and the associated WMD lies, deceptions and propaganda: in his column, he refers to the "possibility of the Iranian Bomb". Why the capital letters, David? Is that the Times's house style or the product of your own deliberate decision to fear-monger?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.