Getting the Assange issue wrong

Some illiberal thinking by well-meaning liberals.

The Guardian today publishes this letter in support of Julian Assange.

Most sensible and liberal people will find something to endorse in the letter. Although the moral certainty of some of those involved in or supportive of WikiLeaks can be off-putting – and I, for one, am glad that their fingers are on "To publish" buttons only, rather than any others – there is no doubt that they are facing sustained and hostile actions intended to undermine their activity.

But at the end of this letter of support come demands that are flatly, horribly wrong: "We demand his immediate release, the dropping of all charges . . ."

No. This is a person accused of sex offences and against whom there is a European Arrest Warrant. It may well be that he will be able to defeat the attempt to extradite him, or it may be that he will be cleared of the allegations, or acquitted of any charges if tried. But as it stands, he should not be treated any worse or any better than any other person accused of such offences who is subject to a live extradition process.

When the allegations first broke back in August, it was immediately clear that many of his supporters were rushing in to smear or dismiss the complainants casually. This was an ugly and unfortunate reaction which, if anything, has intensified. Many observers – and not only feminists – are rightly disgusted by this display of instinctive or intended misogyny (including a great piece today by Libby Brooks, also in the Guardian).

Just as in August, the complainants deserve to be accorded respect. Assange, in turn, should have the benefit of the presumption of innocence. And, unless there is a good basis for defeating the extradition proceedings, there should now be a speedy procedure that will either determine any guilt or clear his name.

All this is simply "due process" and, once upon a time, well-meaning liberals wrote letters to the Guardian in defence of this liberal value, too.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the 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.)

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.