The al-Megrahi release: Britain, Libya, Scotland and doing business


by Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, February 12th 2011

The al-Megrahi release may come to be seen as one of the defining moments of the early years of the Scottish Parliament.  It was certainly a defining point for the SNP Government – a rare occasion where the world stopped and took notice of Scotland.

There is the central role of the British Government whose actions have been examined in the report of Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary published this week – which found that it did ‘all it could’ to secure al-Megrahi’s release.

There is continuity and difference in how the British government has behaved.  In the Middle East the British have a proven record of intervention: two invasions of Iraq before Tony Blair was even born, the overthrowal of the Iranian Government in 1953, the humiliation of Suez in 1956, and the Aden intervention of 1967 of Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, who improbably went on to become Tory MP for Aberdeenshire West.

Tony Blair’s ‘deal in the desert’ with Gaddafi in May 2007 was at the end of his premiership and is only mentioned in his memoirs as part of his ‘farewell tour’.  The resulting Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) between Britain and Libya was only ever about one person – al-Megrahi – despite the fact that his release was not in the jurisdiction of the UK Government.

This allowed the Libyans to think movement would happen on al-Megrahi’s release, while removing a difficult issue for the UK which stood in the way of Libya becoming ‘open for business’.  In January 2008 the Libyans and BP signed a deal which had previously stalled over al-Melgrahi.  It was a huge deal, worth £545 million in exploitation rights and potentially £15 billion overall.

The British Government actively tutored the Libyan Government on how to get al-Megrahi home.  A Foreign Office memo of January 2009 said ‘We do not want Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail’.  O’Donnell’s report states that the UK Government were ‘facilitating direct contact between the Libyans and the Scottish Executive as a key part of our game plan on Megrahi’.

Labour ministers said one thing in public; Lord Mandelson as Business Minister said that it was ‘completely implausible and actually quite offensive’ to believe the British Government had ‘bartered’ the release of al-Megrahi.  This was at a time when the Foreign Office was doing just that.  Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Libya said ‘Libya wanted BP and BP was confident its commitment would go through’ and that ‘the timing was dependent on politics’.

This is in Malcolm Rifkind’s words, ‘a shoddy business, one of the most foolish and shameful decisions in recent years’.  We have grown accustomed to New Labour’s evasions and deceits, but this is a new low even for them: to have dragged the name of the British Government and its diplomacy down to this level.

The role of BP has to be put under scrutiny in this.  They have long ago sewn up the senior echelons of the British Government.  There is a revolving door between senior civil servants and companies such as BP, with Mark Allen, formerly of MI6 joining BP and becoming a central player in the Libyan-BP deal.  And BP have a track record.  In their former colours as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – its proposed nationalisation was the reason for the 1953 coup against Mohammed Mosaddegh’s democratic government.  BP was also one of the reasons we were in Aden in 1967.

Then there is the role of the SNP Government.  Kenny MacAskill, Justice Minister made the original decision to release al-Megrahi on ‘compassionate grounds’ and along with Alex Salmond endured huge criticism from Westminster and the US Government.

Until now no smoking gun or claim of malpractice has been levelled at MacAskill, but now O’Donnell’s report suggests that in discussions with UK ministers he linked al-Megrahi’s release to negotiations on firearms legislation and compensation payments on ‘slopping out’ in Scottish prisons.

We don’t need to take an official inquiry of the British state for its word, but if this were true it would be a significant misjudgement by MacAskill and challenge his and the Scottish Government’s reputation and integrity.  More incontrovertible, we do know that the SNP Government unwittingly ended up playing the role of the deal clincher in the British state’s shoddy global ambitions; somewhere in the SNP they have to ask themselves why they allowed themselves to be cast as the fall guy?

An entertaining sidestory to the actions of the British and Scottish Governments is the sad plight of Scottish Labour, Iain Gray and Richard Baker.  The latter, Scottish Labour’s Justice spokesperson suffered a painful humiliation at the hands of the BBC’s Isobel Fraser on Newsnight Scotland, proving unable to answer the most basic questions.

Did Scottish Labour know that their British Labour colleagues were pushing for al-Megrahi’s release?  Or were they kept out of the loop?  The choice is between deception and humiliation: a choice Baker could not answer or get out of.

Some old sages will say about all of this that the actions of the British Government might look a bit unprincipled or talking one way in public and another in private, but isn’t that what governments do? Governments represent all over the world business and corporate interests.  This is what ‘the national interest’ really means.  That’s what the Americans, Chinese and French do, so are we not naïve to think it could be different?

This ignores the nature of the British state.  The British Government has since time memorial seen itself first and foremost as the defenders of trade, commerce and the City, and has been prepared to use force to uphold this in days of old.

Since the end of Empire, this set of relationships has remade the character of the British state at home, turning it from one supporting the welfare and well-being of its people to one promoting the narrow interests of the winners and powerful in British society, and in turn been changed at its core by this, with accountancy, consultancy and the big legal firms at the heart of government.

This is the long backstory.  There are still questions about what the British Government has got up to in our name over al-Megrahi and Libya.

However, the questions raised go much further.  They extend to the strange nature of the British state and what it has morphed into in recent decades.  This is an institution which tells itself a familiar tale that it is a force for good around the world, when in actually fact in everything from advice to poor countries to international aid it is an advocate for widespread privatisation and deregulation.

This is a kind of grubby British crony capitalism, of the type we associate with Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes.  We need to take a sharp intake of breath and take a look – beyond the myths and Afghan and Iraq wars – and really see how the British Government uses its influence and reach around the world.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.
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