William Hague unveiling his waxwork at Madame Tussauds in 1997. Photo: Dave Gaywood/AFP/Getty
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You find out who your friends are when you’re following William Hague and Ffion round the States

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

There are many good reasons not to like someone. But sometimes it’s personal.

Once, you see, I was asked to follow William Hague around America. It was back in the mists of time when he was leader of the Tory party and he and his team were to go to the States to learn about this great newfangled idea, “compassionate conservatism”.

His press people cleared my presence on the trip.

I never understand why the Tories don’t just embrace “callous conservatism”. You cannot combine empathy with cold-bloodedness, any more than Hague could make himself lovable with a baseball cap and a blonde wife.

All were very keen that I get to see Ffion up close. Newspapers, even the high-minded ones, have an unhealthy interest in the wives of politicians, whereas I couldn’t care less if they’ve married a waste-paper basket.

So there I was in New York, embarrassed, really. No one in the States had a clue who Hague was. I stood outside a plush hotel as he went to breakfast with Henry Kissinger (Compassion Central) and all the American journalists were interviewing me.

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

It was the same at a school in what used to be called Spanish Harlem. There I saw what compassionate conservatism meant: rows of kids doing science under banners “Sponsored by Estée Lauder”, or English literature “Helped by McDonald’s”. The Puerto Rican girls were excited by the arrival of English people.

“Do you know the Spice Girls?” they asked me.

“No.”

Hague’s advisers attempted that dreadful fake interest in the schoolkids’ work.

The girls did their nails.

Two other journalists arrived. One had missed his flight and had an overstuffed suitcase: Boris Johnson. The other was Michael Gove, who was nothing but charming and helpful to me.

We had to go to Austin, to meet the then governor of Texas, George Dubbya Bush. All these guys were travelling together on some Tory transport. They could have easily let me on, but no, they would not.

One callow boy of 27 would not look at me, or let me near Hague. His disdain was apparent. He and the Tory journalists all got on the prearranged plane but he wouldn’t let me board. As a result, I had to trail around on my own, booking tickets and arriving at places alone in the middle of the night.

The young man who would not speak to me wrote speeches for Hague. They say you’re either on the bus or off the bus: he certainly did not want the likes of me near any bus he was on. I was not one of them. He didn’t even bother with the rudimentary courtesies of the well-born. For the few days he had any kind of power over me, he chose to make my life way more difficult than it needed to be. Making people’s lives more difficult turned out to be his life’s work. His name was Gideon Osborne. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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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.