To get Julian Assange to face the Swedish allegations, America should back off

If the US promises not to extradite him from Sweden, Julian Assange may be able to put an end to the saga

For 15 days now, Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The WikiLeaks founder, whose 41st birthday is today, is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations and has requested political asylum. Assange fears he will be held incommunicado in Sweden and ultimately handed over to authorities in the United States, who have confirmed they are continuing to investigate WikiLeaks for publishing thousands of classified government documents in 2010.

This latest bizarre episode in the Assange saga has sparked fiery arguments between supporters and critics of the divisive WikiLeaks frontman. Some have dismissed Assange’s fears as paranoia and accused him of attempting to dodge justice by seeking refuge in the embassy. Others have likened Assange’s plight to that of dissidents in countries like China, arguing that he is right to seek asylum given that there are continued calls for his extradition in America, where the vice-president has branded him a high-tech terrorist.

But what the supporters and critics do not seem to realise is that most of them share a common ground. Very few of Assange’s opponents, aside from a handful of rabid right-wing commentators, believe WikiLeaks should be prosecuted for its involvement in publishing classified documents. Even former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who has savaged Assange on several occasions, has said he would back WikiLeaks if a prosecution were to go ahead.

So the solution here seems obvious. Given that at the core of Assange’s asylum application are his fears that the US Department of Justice would like to lock him up, people on all sides of the debate should be calling for the Obama administration to give an assurance that it will not try to extradite Assange for his publishing work. Why? Because if the US government stopped pursuing Assange, he would go to Sweden. Then the prosecutors there could question him face-to-face, lodge formal charges if there is a case to be heard in court, take the thing to trial and let the judicial process run its course.

Assange has concerns that he will not get a fair trial in Sweden, in part due to what his legal team have argued were prejudicial comments made by the country’s prime minister about the case. But at least without fears of a US extradition hanging over his head, once the Swedish case was in motion Assange would have little else to worry about. Equally important, the women who made the allegations against him would get their chance to be heard. The conclusion, whatever the outcome, would bring closure to this long-drawn out affair which has now become nothing short of a complete fiasco.

It is worth recalling that when Assange was first arrested in London over the sexual assault allegations in December 2010, the US government was pleased. Then-defence secretary Robert Gates, visiting Afghanistan at the time, was asked for his reaction. He smirked and said: "sounds good to me." Gates’s off-the-cuff comment spoke volumes about how senior officials in the Obama administration had very little interest in the particulars of the Swedish case. There was a real sense at the time that they just wanted Assange to disappear, and that has not changed.

To top officials in the White House, Assange is undoubtedly seen as a threat, an agitator, a dangerous opponent they would like to see neutralised. But if the Obama administration, which has pursued a uniquely aggressive anti-whistleblower policy, was actually to launch a formal prosecution against Assange in a bid to extradite him, there would be counter-productive consequences. It would radicalise swathes of young people and be condemned by newspapers and NGOs around the world as an outrageous attack on press freedom. It would damage America’s standing in the world and fundamentally undermine Obama’s personal legacy as a president.

Let us not forget that Assange has helped expose war crimes, breaches of international law, and other questionable actions on an unparalleled scale. Obama has already lost a great deal of support due to his secret kill list, his out-of-control drone programme, and his failure to close prison camp Guantanamo Bay. An unjust prosecution against Assange would symbolise the political death knell of Obama – the man who, just four years ago, galvanised millions with his promises of hope and change.

Right now, Assange is in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy, sleeping on what one man who visited him said was an inflatable mattress. His situation currently is not far from a kind of imprisonment, and all because he fears being handed over to America. Whether or not US authorities are foolish enough to actually attempt to prosecute Assange at some point down the line, they will be happy to see him face this crisis. In a sense, by refusing to rule out an extradition attempt they are punishing him by proxy.

Almost 7000 people have signed a petition calling for Ecuador to accept Assange’s asylum request – yet regardless of what the country decides, Assange can still be arrested by the Metropolitan police the moment he sets foot outside the embassy. And even if he somehow made it to Ecuador, he would be forced to live a life in exile for years to come, shadowed constantly by a cloud of fear and restricted in the countries he could visit.

It would make far more sense for Assange's supporters to join forces with some of his critics, shifting focus by lobbying the US government directly. Whatever your opinion of Assange's personality, that does not matter in the broader scheme of things. The US government’s desire to pursue a prosecution against him is an attack on principles of press freedom, principles that any democratic society must strive to defend.

Alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning was held in conditions described by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" in a military prison for ten months. It was public indignation over his treatment that helped move him to a new prison, where he is now treated more humanely. There is no reason why a sustained and well-organised campaign, headed by some of Assange’s many high-profile backers, could not have a similar impact. An assurance from the US government that it will not seek to extradite Assange as part of its WikiLeaks investigation is the only way this saga can have a desirable ending.

Julian Assange, arriving for a hearing in the Supreme Court. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation