American bullies and leggy Russians

Washington clamps down on the leader of WikiLeaks, spy paranoia in London, to Oldham for a by-electi

You don't need to be much of a conspiracy theorist to believe there is some connection between WikiLeaks's disclosure of American secrets and the incarceration of Julian Assange, its founder, in a British prison awaiting extradition to Sweden on what seem at first glance to be rather flimsy date rape charges. Technically, Americans always respect free speech, as their constitution demands. But Assange's fate, the freezing of WikiLeaks's bank accounts and the bar on payments through Visa, Mastercard and PayPal show they have other ways of dealing with dissenters and that they expect to wreak vengeance across international boundaries.

Without suggesting I have an ounce of Assange's courage or a fraction of his importance, I quote two examples from my own experience. First, when I wrote a New Statesman leader about the 11 September attacks that was judged anti-American, I received a message from the right-wing American economist Irwin Stelzer, friend of Rupert Murdoch - and, more improbably, Gordon Brown. He did not, he said, deny my right to express my views; it was just that, holding such views, I was unfit for my position as NS editor. He would therefore (I paraphrase) do his best to have me removed. I know from several sources that he was as good as his word. Whether he succeeded - I lasted nearly four more years - I leave others to judge.

Second, when George W Bush offered a reward for killing Osama Bin Laden, I published a column by the comedian Mark Thomas (then an NS regular) putting a bounty on Bush's head. The US embassy rang, demanding an apology for inciting the murder of their president. I declined, pointing out that Thomas was a satirist, not to be taken entirely seriously. "Very well, then," said the embassy man. "We shall take other steps." I heard nothing more, but perhaps the full story will be revealed when all 250,000 cables are posted on WikiLeaks.

Special relationships
It is regarded as strange that the Liberal Demo­crat MP Mike Hancock should persistently hire leggy, blonde, twentysomething, Russian women as his assistants. They must all be spies, it is said. Perhaps this is true. But the House of Commons crawls with American interns - many of them also leggy, etc - and nobody bats an eyelid. Given that, as WikiLeaks shows, US diplomats are encouraged to spy on key people in their host countries, it is surely not impossible that these young, poorly paid interns are suborned into similar activities.

This is one of many examples of how the British elite always treat America differently from any other foreign country. WikiLeaks reveals how William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, promised that his party would be pro-American - as though Labour, which took us into wars at America's behest, were anti-American - and how Liam Fox, now Defence Secretary, told the US ambassador that the Tories would buy their weapons from America. These occasioned little comment or indignation. Imagine the headlines, though, if documents had revealed a similarly obsequious attitude towards Brussels.

Get that party started
As the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election approaches - caused by the expulsion of Labour's disgraced Phil Woolas - a disquieting possibility occurs to me. When the government is unpopular, and the opposition, for whatever reason, weak, votes in by-elections are usually cast as "protests" for a third party, usually the Liberal Democrats (or, in Scotland and Wales, the Nationalists and Plaid Cymru). The Lib Dems have abdicated this role and I fear Ukip and, much worse, the BNP may pick up seats. We need a new centrist party that can advocate policies that nobody can quite remember, make promises it doesn't expect to keep, and conveniently adapt its views on, for example, immigration and student fees to local conditions. Perhaps it should be called the Liberal Party.

A real Test
The Aussies always hit back. Scarcely had the England cricket team completed its triumph in the Adelaide Test match than the latest education league tables are out from the Programme for International Student Assessment. Not only have we fallen to 16th in science, 25th in reading and a most shameful 28th in maths (worse than Estonia, as the newspapers lamented) but, most distressing of all, the Australians beat us in every subject, coming tenth, ninth and 15th respectively.

As a whingeing Pom, I am sceptical about the reliability of tests that compare children from widely differing cultures and school systems. But the Aussies will no doubt claim that they never had any real interest in cricket and that, in future, we should fight for the Ashes by sitting tests on differential calculus, figures of speech and laws of thermodynamics.

Over and out
Not that I am taking our triumph in the cricket for granted. Before the series began, I reminded overoptimistic readers of our 4-0 defeat in 1958-59, when expectations were equally high. That disaster won't now be repeated and I am as thrilled as anybody that victory in the Second Test was completed with such speed and efficiency that I could get to bed just after 1 am. To ward off premature celebration, however, I have unearthed more precedents. England have achieved innings victories in Australia on seven previous occasions since 1900. On six of them, the next match between the two sides (one of them in a different series) resulted in an Australian victory. The closest and most disturbing example is 1936-37, when an English innings victory in the Second Test (during which Wally Hammond, like Kevin Pietersen this time, made a double century) put England 2-0 up in the series. Australia went on to take the Ashes, winning the next three matches.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005