Al-Megrahi and the crisis of political leadership

The British government’s mismanagement of the al-Megrahi affair exposes its utter lack of intellectual, moral and political authority.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

Sometimes the news catches me unaware, hits me in the guts, and forces me to ask: ‘Just how low can they go?’

I had one of these ‘What is the world coming to?’ moments last Friday while driving and listening to the news on the radio. A politician’s voice emerged from the airwaves. At first I could not make any sense of why this platitudinous Scottish person was droning on and on instead of simply getting to the point.

Even after it became clear that the voice in question belonged to the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, and that he was informing the world of his decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted for his part in the Lockerbie bombing, it was far from evident why he felt the need to make a 25-minute theatrical statement. Perhaps he is simply another ambitious provincial official hoping to make the most of his 25 minutes of media fame?

Like Sheriff Moose, who became the public face of the hunt for the Washington-area snipers in the US in October 2002, MacAskill has gained fame only because higher-up officials do not want to face the cameras. What really bothered me was not the ineptitude of a local Scottish official playing at being a world statesman (MacAskill managed to get the Libyan prisoner’s name wrong just three minutes into his statement), but rather the cavalier manner in which an event of major international significance was turned into a reality media programme.

As someone with a deep respect for the Scottish Enlightenment, and for the legal tradition that arose from it, I found it depressing to hear an individual claiming to be this nation’s justice secretary moralising about how his prisoner would now face a ‘sentence imposed by a higher power’, referring to the fact that al-Megrahi is likely to die soon from prostate cancer. A legal culture that produced the likes of James Dalrymple, David Hume and John Erskine now communicates an enormously significant judicial decision through cheap moral statements at a hastily arranged press conference!

But, of course, MacAskill’s bit of legal farce is not the real problem here. The most sordid thing about the tawdry al-Megrahi affair was the public role – or rather the lack of public role – played by the British government. It is worth noting that, in recent years, Western governments have loved conducting their foreign policies in front of TV cameras. Labour PM Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair before him, seldom misses a photo opportunity that might demonstrate that he is a global leader solving the problem of Africa or the world economy. So why such shyness over Libya and the al-Megrahi affair?

Here was an issue of global significance that directly touches upon the so-called ‘war on terror’ and on Britain’s relationship with the Muslim world and the US. Yet instead of taking direct responsibility for managing this complicated issue, and its potentially serious implications for Britain’s diplomatic and economic position in the world, Whitehall decided it was a matter best dealt with by a faceless local dignitary in Scotland.

Such outsourcing of diplomatic authority from Whitehall to Edinburgh is a clear example of opportunistic and institutional responsibility-aversion. The outsourcing of diplomatic power to a lower jurisdiction indicates that even foreign affairs have become subject to the narrow-minded, short-termist outlook that also characterises the Labour government’s approach to domestic political issues.

Brown’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, said the suggestion that the release of al-Megrahi was influenced by economic calculations – by Britain’s desire to keep sweet with oil-rich Libya – is a ‘slur’. He insisted that the Scottish government acted independently. His explicit attempt to distance his government from a decision of vital national importance only exposes the government’s incoherence, and its confusion about where the line exists between serious diplomacy and everyday public relations. In a different era, a British foreign secretary would have been embarrassed to acknowledge his government’s non-involvement with the pressing diplomatic issues of the day. In the past, the government might have pursued its foreign-policy objectives largely in secret, but it would still have felt accountable for them, responsible for their execution and for their consequences. Today, the foreign secretary himself can effectively say about a major diplomatic event: ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’ In keeping with this approach, Brown’s spokesman has said in the past few hours that: ‘[The al-Megrahi release] was a decision taken by the Scottish justice secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland.’ He also said that this was such a ‘uniquely sensitive and difficult decision’ that it would be inappropriate for the PM to make any comment on it!

At the same time, the way that this story has grown in importance quite slowly over the past few days – gathering more and more steam and ratcheting up tensions between America and Britain and between Britain and Libya – captures the disorientation of the political class. None of them seems to have had any inkling that the decision to release al-Megrahi would have diplomatic and political consequences. All of them seem to have been surprised by the controversies that ensued, and now find themselves responding day by day to the latest developments in the affair. The failure to predict the diplomatic fallout, far less to put in motion a series of meetings or assurances to help manage it, reveals a political class cut off from reality and unable to act in its own interests.

Many commentators have questioned Miliband’s claim that Whitehall was not involved in this affair. Observers have suggested that Brown discussed al-Megrahi’s return home with the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi. It is also claimed that a Foreign Office minister, Ivan Lewis, wrote to MacAskill to nudge him into taking a favourable view of the Libyan prisoner’s application to be released. Commentators are also puzzled as to why Gaddafi thanked Brown rather than MacAskill for being so helpful.

Perhaps they are right to be puzzled by these things. But the real issue here is not any act of deception on the government’s part; deception has always played a significant role in diplomacy. No, the real problem is the government’s celebration of its own irresponsibility. By letting the local Scottish government handle the public management of this affair, Miliband is telling the world that Britain is not a serious global player.

And of course, there is deception and there is deception. Did the Brown regime really imagine that the outsourcing of authority to Scotland over this affair would convince the world that the release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber had nothing to with London? Did Miliband really believe that this was an extremely clever way of bypassing the taking of a difficult decision? If they did, then their naïveté is even more worrying than their reluctance to face up to the responsibilities of office. Such PR exercises in blameshifting might work when ministers seek to blame a quango for the farce of the school exams system, for example, but in the sphere of international relations these see-through attempts to outsource decision-making are clearly a symptom of incompetence.

There is a debate to be had about whether the release of al-Megrahi was morally responsible or a just decision. However, the whole affair raises a far more fundamental question about the intellectual, moral and political resources possessed by those individuals who are formally responsible for the direction of this country. The evasion of responsibility by this government is a key problem of our time; it occurs almost every time there is a major debate or political controversy. The government’s failure to engage the public in a grown-up discussion of a very difficult military engagement in Afghanistan is probably the most disturbing example of its responsibility-aversion. And yet, sadly, critics and commentators appear to be far more interested in how much ministers spend on their travels than on how much time they devote to providing leadership.

Frank Furedi’s next book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, will be published by Continuum Press in October 2009. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons noted that international politics always trumped the truth over Lockerbie. Brendan O’Neill attacked the political cowardice of Gordon Brown. Frank Furedi described how the political crisis behind the War on Terror and described how Europe’s political elites are lost for words. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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