Libyagate: The Stark Face of ‘Britain plc’ Revealed

Gerry Hassan
30 August 2009

The idea that the British government and the Libyan government would sit down and somehow barter over the freedom or the life of this Libyan prisoner and make it form part of some business deal ... it’s not only wrong, it’s completely implausible and actually quite offensive.

Peter Mandelson, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council (quoted in the Sunday Times)

Nobody doubted that Libya wanted BP and BP was confident its commitment would go through. But the timing of the final authority to spend real money on the ground was dependent on politics.

Sir Richard Dalton, former British Ambassador to Libya (quoted in the Sunday Times)

The al-Megrahi affair has just entered a new phase – revealing the character of the British state, its brutal pursuit of realpolitik defined by the promotion of what it sees as UK business interests, and a shameless perfidy whose accompanying protestations of propriety scarcely veil its ethical vacuum.

The British Government has been shown to be more than willing in bending over to Libyan and British commercial interests and the business of doing business, putting this well above principle, human rights concerns and even any sense of consistency in its own position in negotiations.

The leaders of the British state have been exposed as cynical and debased. The events which have been revealed today should shock a genuine democratic system, lead to a national outcry, high profile resignations, and an inquiry motivated by the recognition that things need to change. This being Britain where its political, media and corporate classes have a brazen shamelessness, none of this will happen.

Jack Straw has shown in two letters five months apart the ability of the UK Government to stand on its head in pursuit of corporate interests. According to the Sunday Times:

In a letter dated July 26, 2007, Straw said he favoured an option to leave out Megrahi by stipulating that any prisoners convicted before a specified date would not be considered for transfer.

On December 19th 2007 Straw wrote to the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill:

I had previously accepted the importance of the al-Megrahi issue to Scotland and said I would try to get an exclusion for him on the face of the agreement. I have not been able to secure an explicit exclusion.

The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and in view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed in this instance the [prisoner transfer agreement] should be in the standard form and not mention any individual.

Within six weeks, on January 29th 2008, the Libyans and BP reached an agreement in a deal which had previously been stalled over Libyan sensitivities over al-Megrahi. The deal, which is worth £545 million in exploration rights alone, could be worth as much as £15 billion.

The denials of the British Government that it agreed to exchange the Libyan intelligence officer as part of the bargain is less than categorical. Also it has a track record, which recently has become more pronounced and apparent.

This is a state which has colluded in aiding and then covering up BAE Systems seismic culture of bribes, corruption and multi-billion pound slush funds, all in order to win and lubricate huge military contracts. (See openDemocracy's coverage of the subject.) Tony Blair pulled a Serious Fraud Office (SFC) investigation on all this as one of his last acts of office – rather like one of those late Presidential pardons. The SFC inquiry was beginning to show results, revealing the scale of corruption and monies involved, and because of this Blair pulled it citing ‘the Shawcross procedure’ which allows the government to halt a criminal investigation if the Attorney General deems it in ‘the national interest’.

The Saudi Arabian connection goes back several decades to the mid-1980s and the Al-Yamamah I and II deals over 120 Tornado fighter planes and Hawk jets, involves Margaret Thatcher and her errand son, Mark Thatcher, who along with then BAE chief Richard Evans was found to be living in residences in London paid for by one of the main Saudi beneficiaries of the slush funds.

Across the globe, the UK arms industry reaches far and wide, but even the supposedly ethical Department for International Development (DFID) is not immune to all of this. The UK under a Labour Government has vigorously promoted water privatisation to dozens of African nations with taxpayer monies funnelled to the right-wing, pro-privatisation Adam Smith International to take its very strange idea of ‘development’ across the continent.

The British state is far removed from the Gordon Brown ‘official’ narrative of a progressive state doing good at home and abroad. To Brown, Douglas Alexander, Peter Mandelson and their colleagues in the party and the civil service, there is a direct link between what the British state does lifting those in need and poverty to higher ground and giving them hope in the UK and across the globe; it provides a lineage of history, of past triumphs with current priorities, and is part of the moral mission that they see as an integral part of their DNA.

Maybe this always was a delusional story, given the British state and the Labour version of it was built on empire and collusion with imperialism, but it has reached the point of caricature.

Delusion just doesn’t stop there. British political scientists seem all too happy to serve, if by conveniently limiting their investigations, the larger interests of the state. Two recent books by eminent ‘constitutional experts’ Vernon Bogdanor (The New British Constitution, Hart Publishing 2009) and Anthony King (The British Constitution, OUP 2007), do not address in detailed, supposedly comprehensive overviews of the constitution the nature of the state, and leave unexamined the encroachment of the state by corporate power. (See my OurKindom review, Breaking Out of ‘The Golden Thread of Liberty’: Understanding and Interpreting the United Kingdom.) They fail to give even the smallest mention of the BAE Systems investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, and its pulling by Tony Blair, a decision which had international consequences for how the UK is perceived.

The alignment of state, corporate interests and the military and arms industry is one which Bogdanor and King, as establishment academics, just decide to leave outwith their analysis.

In all of this the Scottish Government can at worst be accused of a degree of naivety in their dealing with the UK Government. The Scottish Government, Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary, and Alex Salmond, First Minister, have acted with respect for due process and shown a diligence which has baffled Westminster. Fortunately, they have declared their intentions of publishing their Independence Bill to give the Scots for the first time in their history the right to decide if they wish to be independent or part of the British Union. Hopefully it will raise the level of debate above the sordid hypocrisy of the al-Megrahi affair.

This leaves us with the question of the strange story of the United Kingdom. The political classes and wider establishment of these isles have embarked on a project of self-delusion and self-deception about the nature of this state (cf. Christopher Foster, British Government in Crisis, Hart Publishing 2005). I have no doubt that Gordon Brown gets up in the morning with a sense of moral mission and believing in the good story of Britain bringing hope to the needy of the world.

Unfortunately for them this story which once carried resonance and power at home and abroad, is only really believed in the hermetically sealed world of the Westminster classes and nowhere else. It isn’t believed in the worlds of their ‘partners in crime’: the corporate and media elites, the BPs, BAEs and Murdoch empires who promote their ‘global’ interests while slamming those who don’t fit into their world or get in the way: the BBC, the NHS or people on benefits.

We have to recognise what the United Kingdom has become, how it has become this and what we do about it. The choice is between the continuation/restoration approach, which following on from Thatcher and Blair, under Gordon Brown briefly and then David Cameron if he is elected next year, is about the continuation of the pursuit of making ‘Britain plc’ into a Rupert Murdoch privatised, atomised fantasy playland. This will be a land of wonder and plenty for the winners and the global classes who stay here, and misery, anxiousness and lack of security for the majority.

The alternative involves recognising that the British state no longer acts in our interests, and has to be utterly transformed. This might sound like a wild, hopeless outburst of desire. But in fact the story is already underway, below the stunted radar of Whitehall and its political outriders, with the emergence of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast as alternative political centres. What we are looking for now are the English radical and progressive voices to address the need for a democratic imagination in England, and take on the UK elite in its heartland.

This is a project for a post-socialist, post-labourist radical politics. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have killed off the last illusions of ‘the good Britain project’ and said the final rites over the corpse of the Great British social democratic ideal. They have in many ways done us a favour, although it doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst whose latest book is ‘The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power’ (Edinburgh University Press, October). He can be contacted at gerryhassan.com

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData