Mystic Martin

My powers as a soothsayer looked a little bit wobbly on my return from holiday. In my first column after the break I suggested that Tony Blair could announce the timetable for his departure “well in advance” of party conference. Oops! Such are the risks of political prophecy. In Thursday’s Times the PM made it clear he had no intention of doing anything quite so sensible. Instead he had decided to allow civil war to break out in the Labour Party.

Sorry, but even I didn’t think he would be quite so silly. More significantly, nor did my ultra-Blairite source, who thought it would be madness not to announce the timetable before Manchester. Although he was wrong to be so convinced Blair would outline his plans, he was right in two significant ways: firstly he said that if the PM left it too late “the situation will become intolerable and it will be impossible to push through new reforms”. That is quite possibly already the case. And secondly, he siad that that it would be entirely in character for Blair to delay the decision, which he duly did.

The Prime Minister is becoming an increasingly islolated figure and is now flying virtually solo. The idea that the week’s events were a closely coordinated Blairite plan are fanciful. Even his closest political allies recognise that Blair himself is becoming a serious problem and even a potential block on the reforms necessary to secure the new Labour legacy.

In today’s papers, Francis Elliott’s reporting and analysis in the Independent on Sunday is spot on as usual. As Francis says, many Labour MPs up to cabinet level now believe Blair is seriously deluded in refusing to commit to a timetable. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer is also correct to suggest that even Blair’s closest allies agreed that he would have to agree a timetable before party conference “if the gathering in Manchester was not to turn into a riot of speculation and agitation”. That is now what we will have at the end of the month: all the more interesting for the commentariat, but devastating for the party.

Having made the Labour Party electable, Tony Blair seems intent on reducing it to the state in which Neil Kinnock found it in 1983.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

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.