WikiLeaks and the liberal mind

Transparency is not the only liberal value.

The release by WikiLeaks of US government cables is a sheer triumph for transparency.

Transparency in diplomatic and governmental matters is important, for behind the cloak of secrecy and plausible deniability can lie malice, selfishness and incompetence. Open access to reliable information enables us to participate effectively in a democratic society: in particular, voters can get beyond the self-serving spin of politicians and media outlets. In the wise words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest jurists in American history, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.

For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.

However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".

Be that as it may: one must remember that such self-assumed moral authority is conceptually indistinguishable from the vigilante. If transparency is important, then so is accountability.

Another liberal value is legality: the belief that actions – especially those that affect others – should have a basis in law. The Guardian and New York Times quite rightly have taken the newsroom of the News of the World to task because of the alleged unlawful and criminal conduct of reporters and investigators in gaining unauthorised access to mobile telephone voice messages.

But legality is not just for tabloid newspapers: it (presumably) applies also to broadsheets. Transparency may well be trumping legality in this particular instance, but this does not negate that legality is also important in a liberal society.

A third liberal value is privacy: the belief that, in certain human affairs, private space is required. Here, it is important that people retain the ability to conduct some communications strictly on the basis of confidentiality. If there is no such assurance of confidentiality, there may be no flow of useful information. For example, even the Guardian and its journalists do not publicly disclose their internal legal advice.

In dealing with those who can provide useful information about illiberal and perhaps dangerous regimes sometimes such an assurance of confidentiality can be crucial. Privacy will be less important than transparency in most cases, but such a presumption cannot be an absolute rule.

The disclosure of diplomatic cables appears so far to have been a good thing, and no obvious harm has yet been caused. WikiLeaks has come out of this exercise rather well, notwithstanding the off-putting moral certainty of some of its supporters and their eccentric tendency to un-evidenced conspiracy stories.

Nonetheless, WikiLeaks remains a powerful but undemocratic and unaccountable entity that shows a general disregard for both the rule of law and the practical need for certain communications and data to be confidential. So, from a liberal perspective, there is a great deal to commend WikiLeaks, but there is also a lot that should cause a liberal to be concerned.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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