12 April 2019

Labour’s defence of Assange is risible, reprehensible and revealing

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Not for the first time, Diane Abbott has performed some service. Appearing on the Today programme this morning, she confidently told listeners that in the matter of the arrest of Julian Assange, “we all know what this is about”. Ms Abbott, who is projected to serve as Home Secretary if the Labour party forms the next government of the United Kingdom, reminded her audience that Assange’s arrest was “about Wikileaks and all of that embarrassing information about the activities of the American military and security services”.

This being so, the notion his arrest might have anything to do with Assange’s attempt to avoid facing a potential trial for rape in Sweden, far less his absconding from bail in this country, was absurd. Assange is instead, Abbott heavily implied, just the latest victim of American “imperialism”. On Twitter, Abbott confirmed this, arguing that “In this country we have protections for whistle-blowers, those who take personal risk to disclose wrongdoing in the public interest. Julian Assange is not being pursued to protect US national security. He is being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by US administrations”.

Diane Abbott is no freelancer. Her views are wholly consistent with those of the Labour leadership as a whole. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn argues that “The extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government”. George Galloway, of course, concurs, demanding that Assange — “a prisoner of empire, a truth teller, a man” — be freed.

Meanwhile, in a take that inches towards parody, Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, claimed that “If we fail to prevent the US extradition of Assange then we fail not only to defend press freedom but, in the age of Trump & Putin & Bolsonaro & Erdogan, we fail to defend the people against the tyranny of their leaders”.

Given the extent to which Wikileaks and the Russian state have cooperated with each other and, what’s more, increasingly appeared to operate from a common set of shared assumptions in pursuit of a shared goal, Lansman’s argument would be comically perverse if it weren’t also quite so serious.

It used to be possible to disentangle Wikileaks from Assange, noting that approving — or indeed disapproving — of one imposed no requirement to come to a similar verdict on the other. As the years have passed, sustaining that position has become increasingly difficult. Wikileaks and Assange have merged.

Wikileaks, too, has changed. A journalistic enterprise — whatever you felt about it or the public interest in its revelations — has become a political operation. The truth, to put it in terms that risk seeming pompous, takes no sides; Wikileaks does. The more it claims to be a disinterested party, the more threadbare that suggestion becomes when exposed to the reality of its record. As Oliver Kamm observed here yesterday, Wikileaks is no longer just a “whistleblowing operation concerned to uncover the crimes of the powerful but an instrument of repressive foreign governments and a conduit for their propaganda”.

That does not in itself justify Assange’s extradition to the United States any more than the suggestion he is being unfairly persecuted automatically means any such request should be resisted. Quite properly, this will be a matter for the courts.

But the reaction to his arrest — itself only made possible by the government of Ecuador finally revoking Assange’s request for asylum — remains revealing. The UK government has, quite properly, taken no position. The Labour party, however, is not so constrained.

And this, I am afraid, matters. The Labour party we endure today is not the Labour party of yesteryear. What matters is not justice or, indeed, even the British national interest; what counts is sticking it to the Yankee empire. Assange is wanted by the Americans, therefore Assange is on the side of justice, progress, and the angels.

To say this is simplistic claptrap of a sort an eight year old might be ashamed is to do a disservice to the intellectual prowess of eight year olds across the United Kingdom. Yet, disastrously, it is the mindset, and the worldview, of the people who might very well form the next government of this country. The merits of the Assange case do not matter; what counts is that he has the right enemies.

Again, none of this imposes any requirement on anyone else to support or even approve of the US government in the past or its present attempt to bring Assange to trial. But it is quite something to witness the shadow home secretary dismissing as an irrelevance the evident truth that Assange is guilty of a crime — absconding — in this country and that he may yet face serious charges of rape in Sweden.

And it requires a neck of brass as well as a head of wool to forget that Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid having to face those charges which, once again, are wholly distinct from the suggestion he might be extradited to the United States to face charges of a quite different and unconnected nature.

Such is the state of the Labour leadership these days, however. It is informed — which is also to say it is infected — by the view that anti-Americanism is the first, and often only, standard by which any actor on the world stage need be judged. If that means justifying Russian aggression in the Ukraine or the thorough immiseration of the Venezuelan people then so be it. What counts is the pose of anti-imperialism, not the reality of life itself.

In which light it becomes necessary to remember, once again, that Corbyn’s reaction to the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury was to demand the government collect the evidence and send it to Moscow with a note attached asking if the Russians recognised any of it. The verdict on an assassination attempt on British soil should be delivered by a foreign power, not the government of this country itself. From which one could reasonably deduce that Corbyn’s instincts were to trust the Russian regime more than the government of the United Kingdom.

This, it should again be remembered, is further evidence that Corbyn is an interloper and a usurper. No previous leader of the Labour party would think or act like this. He truly does represent a significant change in Labour practice; a break from the past that’s more radical in the areas of security, defence, and foreign policy than anything he proposes for the British economy.

The Labour leadership’s reactions to Julian Assange’s arrest are wholly consistent with all of this and a fresh reminder that a Corbyn government would take us into new, never-previously-charted territory. That seems much more important and significant than any questions about Assange himself or, indeed, the specifics of any of the charges against him.

Again, this does not require anyone to believe the American government has a coherent or plausible or justified case against Assange. That is a different matter and a different conversation. The automatic assumption made by the Corbynistas, however, is not based on any consideration of those matters either. Assange proclaims himself an “anti-imperial” actor, therefore he must be supported regardless of his behaviour and, indeed, precisely because he has all the right enemies.

You might think this the politics of the students’ union but these, I am afraid, are the politics of the people who may yet be running the United Kingdom by the end of the year. That seems something it is important to pay attention to. Far from being maligned in the press previously, there is an argument that the media has actually failed to catalogue just how thoroughly new, different, and out of the mainstream Corbyn’s views, and those of the people around him, really are. The Assange affair, like the Skripal case and so many others, is a reminder of how necessary that reminder, that scrutiny, really is.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.