This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy

The real story of the Megrahi affair is not the duplicity of the British government, but its utter cluelessness.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

In their rush to uncover evidence that Britain made a shady deal with Libya over the release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the British press and opposition politicians have missed the real story here: not duplicity, but naivety.

The widespread belief that there was ‘something fishy’ (in Conservative leader David Cameron’s words) about the decision to release the man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing gives the impression that British ministers consciously and slyly entered into a deal with Libya and effectively exchanged Megrahi for oil and financial gain. In truth, the Megrahi affair has been driven by the disarray rather than the dastardliness of the British elite, and stands as clear evidence that Britain’s current rulers are far more adept at doing things that go against their interests rather than further them.

Everyone is trying to sniff out evidence of deception and double-dealing. Sounding more like an SWP leader-writer than a former Conservative foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind says the whole thing was a ‘conspiracy’ motivated by New Labour’s desire to ‘enhance trade [with Libya] and help BP in particular’ and triggered by the Libyan British Business Council’s warning to British ministers ‘of the “grave concern” to its members’ interests if Megrahi should die in prison’ (1).

Others have written of the government’s ‘dirty secrets’ in the Megrahi affair, while in the US journalists describe the Megrahi release as an ‘oil-for-terrorist deal’ (2). One Democratic senator has asked Congress to probe the alleged ‘oil deal’ made over Megrahi’s release and to ‘uncover whether justice took a back seat to commercial interests’ (3).

All of this gives an impression of a British ruling elite sitting down behind closed doors to work out how they might include Megrahi in a secret deal that would boost Britain’s oil-buying capacity; of a coherent group of people pursuing their interests by any means necessary. If that had been the case, then it would be par for the diplomatic course: double-dealing has long played a key role in international realpolitik. But the Megrahi affair is a symptom of something new and different. Anyone who bothers to look at the existing evidence – which, as one journalist points out, might be ‘much less exciting’ than the various conspiracy theories but is nonetheless revealing (4) – they will see that this debacle demonstrates that New Labour is the very opposite of how it is being presented by conspiracy-obsessed observers, and that Britain’s rulers in fact seem incapable of foresight, of diplomatic seriousness, of working out what will work in their interests and what might damage them, and of taking responsibility for their decisions and actions.

All of the things that are held up as evidence of a double-dealing conspiracy in fact reveal the discombobulation of the New Labour government. So the fact that New Labour ministers in London continually said it was up to the Scottish Executive to take the final decision on Megrahi is cited as proof that they wanted to create a fake sense of distance between Megrahi’s release and their oil-deal gains, to make it look like this was an innocent Scottish decision when in fact they were pulling the strings behind the scenes (5). In reality, New Labour’s treatment of this as a ‘decision for the Scots’ illustrates both its diplomatic cluelessness (it really seemed to have no idea that the release of Megrahi might cause an international stink that Gordon Brown would have to answer for) and its aversion to taking responsibility (it preferred to hand authority over a major diplomatic event from the Foreign Office in London to an immature Executive in Scotland).

The most striking thing about the correspondence between London and Edinburgh regarding Megrahi’s status – which was published on the Foreign Office website this week – is how often New Labour ministers insist on Scottish authority over this matter. As one journalist says, the one thing the correspondence makes clear ‘over and over again’ is that Megrahi’s release is a ‘matter for the sovereign Scottish legal system’ (6). This is extraordinary – not because it proves some fantasy theory that the Scots were being scapegoated by a wicked British-Libyan conspiracy – but because it reveals that New Labour’s lack of political foresight and desire to outsource authority have reached new heights. Incapable of working out that Megrahi’s release might impact on Britain’s reputation and its standing in Washington in particular, and unwilling to exercise judgement on a key foreign-policy issue, New Labour insisted ‘over and over again’ that the Scots should decide.

Even New Labour ministers’ silence following the explosion of controversy over Megrahi’s release has become part of the evidence for a conspiracy. In his list of ‘fishy’ things about the Megrahi release, Cameron cited ‘Gordon Brown’s stunning silence on the issue’; some have even suggested that Brown was waiting to speak with Colonel Gaddafi, his fellow conspirator, before making a public announcement (7). In truth, the reason it took Brown longer to comment on the Megrahi affair (119 hours) than it took him to comment on reality star Jade Goody’s death (six hours) and to inquire after reality star Susan Boyle’s health following news of her breakdown (18 hours), is because, once again, he wanted to avoid taking any form of political or diplomatic responsibility for as long as possible, and also because he simply did not have the words, or any coherent thoughts, with which to comment on the affair.

One of the most extraordinary things in the Megrahi affair was when – four days following his release, as Washington and others began to ask awkward questions – Brown sent his spokesman to tell the media that Megrahi’s release was ‘a uniquely sensitive and difficult decision’ and thus the prime minister would not be commenting on it. ‘This was a decision taken by the Scottish justice secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland’, said the spokesman, again offsetting responsibility for a major event from the PM’s office to a comparatively lowly Scottish official (8). Foreign secretary David Miliband – who is ostensibly in charge of all foreign matters that pertain to Britain – also insisted, Bart Simpson-style, that the release of Megrahi had nothing to do with him (9).

This points to a New Labour government that is pathologically incapable of assuming responsibility for serious decisions. It is partly this avoidance of responsibility, this willingness to let things simply happen under the jurisdiction of minor political players, which has fuelled the conspiracy theories. Gobsmacked by Brown’s disappearing act over Megrahi, and by his government’s continual insistence that this is solely a Scottish issue, numerous observers automatically assume that there must be something bigger, more coherent, more dastardly going on here – and Brown is now reduced to insisting that there isn’t. ‘There was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no deal on oil’, he says (10). So what was there? The truth is actually scarier than the conspiracy theories: there was the ruling party of Britain behaving like a politically naive student union, avoiding hard decisions and proving itself utterly incapable of working out potential political consequences, far less devising a strategy for dealing with them.

But it isn’t only the government that has shirked its responsibilities. So have the British media. Rather than coolly analysing the Megrahi affair, and asking awkward but important questions about governmental disarray and incompetence, too many observers have indulged what are effectively conspiracy theories, linking together disparate and often unconnected meetings and comments in order to explain an admittedly strange affair as a straightforward money-grubbing conspiracy. In reality, the real hold-the-frontpage story, as Frank Furedi argued on spiked, is what the Megrahi affair has revealed about the pathetic ‘intellectual, moral and political resources possessed by those individuals who are formally responsible for ruling Britain’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume said the US-UK ‘special relationship’ has turned into a ‘special needs’ relationship. Frank Furedi argued that the British government’s mismanagement of the al-Megrahi affair showed its lack of political and moral authority. 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.

(1) Megrahi’s return has been a sorry, cocked-up conspiracy, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(2) Oil for terrorist?, Chicago Tribune, 25 August 2009

(3) US Senate asked to probe Lockerbie ‘oil deal’, The Times, 3 September 2009

(4) The absurd Megrahi conspiracy theorists, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(5) The absurd Megrahi conspiracy theorists, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(6) The absurd Megrahi conspiracy theorists, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(7) Cameron on the Megrahi affair, Sun, 2 September 2009

(8) Scots rally behind justice secretary, SNP, 24 August 2009

(9) See Megrahi and the crisis of political leadership, by Frank Furedi

(10) Brown: I respect Scottish ministers’ decision on Lockerbie bomber, Guardian, 2 September 2009

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

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