What's fair about Private Manning's sentence?

Nicky Woolf is glad that there are still people such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning around.

Bradley Manning was young. Alienated by the ultra-macho culture of the US military, and horrified by what he saw the military doing. So he acted on his conscience; leaking documents to Wikileaks that highlighted systematic abuses by US military and security forces, igniting an inferno of outrage and debate in the public.

Yesterday, a military judge took less than a minute to sentence him to 35 years imprisonment for this single act; of this, he has already served more than three, much of it in solitary confinement in appalling conditions.

It sticks in the craw, doesn't it? Doesn't it feel wrong, deep down in the bone? In a nation where the average rapist – if convicted at all – serves fewer than three years, and the average time served for sexual assault is just 35 months, this man, whose crime was simply to show the public how badly their government was behaving, will not even be eligible for parole for another eight years (taking into account the three years already served). What's fair about that? How could this possibly be?

Here is the argument in favour. A government necessarily deals in secrecy a lot of the time. Diplomacy, security and good governance do need to be secretive sometimes to operate in a high-stakes world of nuclear weapons, rogue states, and terrorism. That government must inevitably then prosecute these whistleblowers, and prosecute them harshly, if the system is to stay standing. If Manning was to be pardoned, or given a lighter sentence, then it would send the message that whistleblowing of this kind is legal and sanctioned, and cause a free-for-all which would leave the security forces and diplomatic services completely unable to do their jobs. The recent leak of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, for example, is pointed at; a diplomatic disaster which made the lives of civil servants at the cutting edge of international politics much more difficult, and maybe endangered lives in the process.

So once Manning had been caught, the US government had to prosecute him, and prosecute him harshly. That, the argument runs, is simply how the game is played.

But that is only half the story. Inevitably, a government often oversteps the line of necessary secrecy. Its culture of secrecy can often become poisonous, self-propelling; a secret world which can undermine and sometimes overrule democracy for its own survival. It may claim to be working to protect us; but what could be so terrifying that our protectors must work so often in the dark?

When that happens, as arguably it has done in recent years in the United States and Britain, it falls to a whistleblower to step forward: an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning who are driven by their convictions to sacrifice their lives – as Manning has done – in order to shine a light on such abuses.

The relationship between journalists and governments is by nature antagonistic. It is the role of a newspaper like the Guardian or the New York Times or the Washington Post, or indeed an operation like Wikileaks to seek out such whistleblowers; and to protect them as much as they can afterwards, sometimes by keeping their identities secret for decades. Arguably, Wikileaks failed in its duty of care in protecting Manning.

Of course, a balance needs to be struck. Newspapers like the Guardian have become extremely proficient in working out which leaks are worthwhile, and which may put lives in danger. Smaller organisations like Wikileaks have not, and some leaks have happened that, arguably, did cause damage, diplomatically if not physically. But the world has changed. Secrets are harder to keep, and once out, harder to control. Governments must move with the times, not lash out when the combination of technology and conscience leave them embarrassed and exposed.

Whistleblowers know that they will probably pay a high price for their act of conscience. It is what makes that act so noble. Who did the outrageous and horrifying treatment of Manning deter? Certainly not Edward Snowden – though he has been forced to choose exile to avoid it. Still they take a gulp, square their shoulders, breathe deeply, and blow the whistle, because they believe that what they are doing is important enough to merit that level of sacrifice.

I, for one, am glad that there are still such people around.

Private Manning. Photograph: Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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