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The al-Megrahi Case, ‘Britain plc’ and the Scottish Government

The approach of the first anniversary of the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi has reopened sensitive feelings and wounds in the United States and UK and nearly derailed David Cameron’s first Washington trip as Prime Minister.
Gerry Hassan
21 July 2010

The approach of the first anniversary of the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi has reopened sensitive feelings and wounds in the United States and UK and nearly derailed David Cameron’s first Washington trip as Prime Minister.

Only nimble footwork by Cameron offering his ‘violent agreement’ with Obama on the wrongness of the release averted what could have been a major row. Nearly one year on from al-Megrahi’s release on ‘compassionate grounds’ by the Scottish Government following medical advice that he only had three months to live, American opinion has become inflamed with senators insisting on meeting Cameron and a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation beginning next week.

Deep anger against BP for the Gulf of Mexico disaster and cleanup – which is heading to be a casebook example of one of the worst PR disasters in living memory (comparable to Pan Am’s dealing of the Lockerbie bombing) has been exasperated by the gathering storm around BP’s possible involvement in the al-Megrahi release.

Numerous questions remain unanswered. What was the role of the UK government in all of this? Were they happy to do BP’s bidding to aid opening up Libyan markets? And have Alex Salmond, First Minister, and Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Justice Minister, been left taking the wrap for the decision of releasing al-Megrahi?

Alex Salmond has in the last two days been everywhere in the UK media, explaining the actions of the Scottish Government, and commenting that any inquiry into al-Megrahi’s release should address ‘the geo-politics of the Lockerbie case from start to finish’.

He has pointed out that when Tony Blair undertook his ‘deal in the desert’ in May 2007 right at the fag end of his premiership with Colonel Gaddafi, the resulting Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) was debated and opposed by the Scottish Parliament in June of that year. And as David Cameron pointed out to Barack Obama, there has already been one parliamentary inquiry by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament which found al-Megrahi’s release ‘a legal and moral one’.

The PTA between the British and Libyan authorities was always about only one person – al-Megrahi – despite the fact that his release was not in the jurisdiction of the UK Government. This proved a major plus for everyone involved: making the Libyans think that movement would happen on releasing al-Megrahi, while removing a difficult issue for the UK which stood in the way of Libya becoming ‘open for business’.

There is the nature of the BP-Libya deal and the role the British Government played in facilitating this. Last year, Lord Mandelson, then Business Minister, denied that the UK Government had ‘bartered’ the freedom of al-Megrahi, stating this was ‘wrong’ and ‘completely implausible and actually quite offensive’. At the same time Sir Richard Dalton, former British Ambassador to Libya stated ‘Libya wanted BP and BP was confident its commitment would go through’, but that ‘the timing … was dependent on politics’.

The ‘revolving doors’ practice of senior civil servants moving into the corporate world saw Sir Mark Allen, formerly of MI6, join BP and became a central player in making the Libyan-BP deal happen, twice phoning and lobbying Jack Straw, Justice Minister, as the PTA got delayed in negotiations. BP knew there was linkage, as did the UK Government. This was a deal which in some estimates was worth up to £15 billion to BP over the long-term, and even more to the West strategically.

For more than a century UK governments and oil companies have played fast and loose in the Middle East. One country BP doesn’t operate in is Iran because of the company’s role – as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – in the 1953 CIA backed coup against the government of Mohammed Mosaddegh.

The controversy illustrates the widespread ignorance of Scots law, Scotland’s constitutional status, and the nature of the UK. We can excuse such ignorance among American public opinion, media and politicians, but this is also widely evident closer to home in the London media and Westminster politicians.

When al-Megrahi was released last year, ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘The Sun’ ran numerous pieces which showed their lack of understanding of Scotland’s judicial processes. This year, Daniel Kawczynski, Tory MP and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Libya has demanded Kenny MacAskill ‘apologise or resign’ for his decision.

Kawczynski then called for an examination of what he called ‘the constitutional aspects of this case’. When pressed on what aspect of MacAskill’s decision was ‘unconstitutional’ he answered that the decision impacted on ‘UK relations with the Arab world and the United States’ (1).

Much of this kind of commentary does not seem to understand the fundamental nature of the United Kingdom. Scotland has had a separate judicial and legal system for centuries which long predates devolution. Scots law is not in any sense subordinate or less than British law; they are equals.

Numerous liberal and centre-left commentators have disparaged the decision that MacAskill made last year, but have widened their argument onto their dislike of devolution or the SNP. Magnus Linklater, no friend of the Scottish Nationalists has called MacAskill’s decision ‘a political blunder’, which ‘is more than embarrassing, it is humiliating’ and one that he ‘should, and could, have seen coming’ (2).

We can agree or disagree with Kenny MacAskill’s decision last year. We can disagree or not with the grounds of that decision. Yet what is really at the centre of all of this is how the UK Government does business, how it advocates for ‘Britain plc’ whether it be oil companies, weapons manufacturers or otherwise, and how at its highest levels, from the Prime Minister to senior civil servants, British Government is happy to run roughshod over ‘due process’.

British Government always did this sages will observe – Iran 1953, Suez 1956 – but under Thatcher and Blair this morphed into something fundamentally different – the debasement of our values as a democracy and society in the advance and conflation of British corporate, financial and military interests. That’s an appropriate subject for an independent inquiry – exploring how we untangle all of these complex webs and conflicts of interests, and how we understand and represent the so-called ‘national interest’ of the United Kingdom.

Notes

1. Newsnight Scotland, July 19th 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00t4pvd/Newsnight_Scotland_19_07_2010/

2. Magnus Linklater, ‘A humiliation ministers really should have seen coming’, The Times, July 21st 2010.

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