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Leader: Time’s up for Assange

He should leave the Ecuadorean embassy without delay.

“Its anarchic methods may not be ideal, but WikiLeaks improves our understanding of the world and provides for more open and honest government.” That was our verdict on Julian Assange’s whistleblowing organisation in December 2010, days after the release of the leaked US embassy cables. It remains true. As Jemima Khan writes, the WikiLeaks cables exposed Washington’s lies and evasions over its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the corruption of US-backed regimes in the Middle East. The effect of its disclosures was felt not merely in Britain and the US, where the Guardian and New York Times published the documents, but around the world, adding fuel to the popular anger that led to the Arab spring.

More than two years on, what is the legacy of WikiLeaks? The first obvious point is that Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the leaked documents, has been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment while the legal process against him rumbles on. The second is that Mr Assange’s grand whistleblowing project is unlikely to shake the world again.

He has a knack for alienating his allies, from his earliest Wiki­­Leaks collaborators to the journalists who worked with him. Ms Khan, our associate editor, now joins that list: after supporting him by standing bail following sex assault allegations by two Swedish women in 2010, she did not receive answers to her questions about his decision to break bail conditions and seek refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London last year.

Mr Assange says that he is concerned about onward extradition to the US, where he could face the death penalty. But Sweden has shown more independence than the UK when dealing with US extradition requests. It would be outrageous for the US to attempt to extradite Mr Assange to stand trial for espionage but there is no reason he should be exempt from facing the sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden. He should leave the Ecuadorean embassy without delay.


This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.