Praise Ken Clarke could have done without

Reminders of 1993 European rescue will prove unhelpful.

In politics there are hostile and unhelpful interventions; friendly and helpful interventions. Sometimes, however, hostile interventions prove helpful and friendly interventions prove unhelpful.

Alan Milburn's description of the coalition's watered-down plan for the NHS as a "car crash" -- because it is not Blairite enough -- was undoubtedly hostile but is unlikely to do Nick Clegg and co any harm when it comes to Liberal Democrat grassroots. Similarly, Tony Blair's recent book-punting reappearance and his urging of Ed Miliband to stay the reforming course may not do the Labour leader much harm in the long run.

Today Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is the subject of praise he could probably do without. He's already under fire from the right of his party and from the mid-market tabloids for his apparently lily-livered approach to law and order, and now a Eurocrat from Luxembourg has just reminded everyone what fine European Clarke is, saving the continent's currency project from premature collapse in the early/mid-1990s.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the eurogroup and a veteran of nearly 100 EU summits, charts the intervention in the summer of 1993 when Clarke had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for just a few months. According to Juncker the European Monetary System (a precursor to the Euro) was in deep trouble and France was plotting to kick both Germany and Holland out of the system, when Clarke intervened.

Clarke came and organised [a] secret meeting. If you go, he told me, everything will collapse. You will never get this thing again. There will be no currency union. But I would like that we can join it one day

Today Europe isn't the politically divisive issue it often is for the Conservative Party but that doesn't mean it won't return as such. For example, there has been disquiet among Eurosceptic Tory MPs for six months over David Cameron's offers to bailout out single currency countries without holding a referendum. A taste of things to come, perhaps.

And a reminder, if needed, of what Clarke's brand of Europhilia does to his party is provided in "Decline & Fall", Chris Mullin's second volume of diaries, published in paperback next month. Mullin's entry for 18 October 2005 reads:

Walked in from Kennington via Courtney Street. A gaggle of photographers outside Ken Clarke's house, waiting for him to show his face. Later we heard that he had been eliminated in the first round of the Tory leadership election. From our point of view, a pity. From theirs, sensible. He would have split the party from top to bottom. It's beginning to look as though David Cameron is going to come out on top, which could give us a problem in due course.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.