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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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