Mehdi Hasan: "What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?"

They have sacrificed their distinctive beliefs and principles and received little in return.

"What is the point of the Lib Dems?" ask politicians, journalists, Lib Dem activists, Labour activists, students, taxi drivers and anyone else who has ever expressed a view on - or even a passing interest in! - British politics.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have been touring the broadcasting studios trying to defend the Lib Dems' position (well, what position? They u-turned - again! - between Friday and Sunday) on Cameron's Euro deal (or lack thereof).

But consider this: in my mind, the Lib Dems had five issues which made them so distinctive and appealing to progressives: support for immigration; support for the European Union; support for electoral reform; opposition to tuition fees; opposition to the Iraq war.

Let's look briefly at the record of the past 18 months:

(1) Immigration: before the general election, the Lib Dems backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants. An amnesty, for crying out loud! And what have they done in government? Backed a cap on net migration.

(2) Europe: the Lib Dems were the most Europhile of the three major parties and, upon forming their coalition with the Tories, claimed they could constrain the Tories' Eurosceptic tendencies. In office, however, Nick Clegg finds himself Deputy Prime Minister of the most isolated and marginalised British government of the post-war period, with the UK now looking like its heading for the EU exit door. Bravo!

(3) Electoral reform: for the Lib Dems, PR used to be the be-all and end-all of British politics. But what happened? They agreed to a Tory proposal for a referendum on the non-proportional alternative vote (AV) and then lost the subsequent AV referendum, thereby closing the door on electoral reform for a generation.

(4) Tuition fees: the Lib Dems, lest we forget, pledged not just to oppose any increase in university tuition fees but to scrap them altogether. In government, however, not only did they fail to scrap the fees but ended up tripling them. Good job!

So that just leaves, (5) Iraq, which the Lib Dems opposed but, given their track record, will probably perform an inglorious and screeching U-turn on sometime between now and 2015. Keep an eye out for the press release from Danny Alexander welcoming the fall of Saddam Hussein and reports of a "furious" Vince Cable said to be on the verge of quitting...

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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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.