Julian Assange arrest: why both sides are wrong

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The arrest of the WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has prompted two distinct reactions. Some, such as the Telegraph's Will Heaven, point out that the rape charges are entirely unrelated to the release of the US embassy cables. Others, such as a group that describes itself as "Justice for Assange", echo his lawyer Mark Stephens's claim that his client is the victim of an international "smear campaign".

In fact, these two positions are not as incompatible as they appear. There is no doubt that Assange's opponents have exploited the allegations against him for political gain. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, did little to dispel this suspicion when he said of the arrest: "I hadn't heard that, but that sounds like good news to me."

It is also doubtful that Sweden would have pursued an average alleged rapist with such persistence. As Stephens rightly points out: "It is highly irregular and unusual for the Swedish authorities to issue [an Interpol] red notice in the teeth of the undisputed fact that Mr Assange has agreed to meet voluntarily to answer the prosecutor's questions."

Yet all of the above has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of the rape allegations. For all their protestations, none of Assange's acolytes knows what happened on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. Stephens has summed up the issue as a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex". For good measure, Claes Borgstrom, who represents both of Assange's accusers, has argued: "This is a redress for my clients, I have to say, because they have been dragged through the mud on the internet, for having made things up or intending to frame Assange . . . There is not an ounce of truth in all this about Pentagon, or the CIA, or smear campaigns, nothing like it."

There is now no reason why the allegations should not be put before a court of law. Should the charges be trumped up, as Assange's lawyers suggest, they will not bear legal scrutiny. What does he have to fear? He should take this opportunity to clear his name.

UPDATE: Sweden does not, as I incorrectly suggested, have a jury system. The line in question has been amended.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.