Dominic Lawson: If the Megrahi deal is justice, then we're all bananas

As ever, New Labour is obsessed with politics before government, and image before substance
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The Independent Online

On the magnificent vaulted ceilings of the Old Bailey, Britain's central criminal court, one inscription stands out. It reads "Fiat Justitia, Ruat Caelum": in colloquial English, let justice be done, whatever the consequences. It is not a motto in which the New Labour Government believes.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered his Attorney General to tell the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to abort its long-running investigation into alleged corruption by British Aerospace over sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had threatened to withdraw intelligence co-operation unless the SFO hounds were called off. That was enough for Blair; the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, carried out his political orders (while protesting that this action "would send a bad message about the credibility of the law ... and look like giving in to threats").

So we should not be too surprised that the Government has now been similarly exposed, by documents leaked to the Sunday Times, as allowing the terms of imprisonment of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to be altered for reasons that have nothing to do with justice. It was already assumed that this is "all about oil" – based on the fact that a month or so after the British agreed to make Megrahi eligible for repatriation, the Libyan Government signed a deal giving BP a long-stalled oil exploration contract.

The leaked December 2007 letter from Justice Secretary Jack Straw to his Scottish opposite number, Kenny MacAskill, states that "the wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in view of the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance, the [Prisoner Transfer Agreement] should be in the standard form and not mention any individual". Previously Megrahi had been specifically excluded from the PTA between Britain and Libya. This was to honour a pledge Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary had made to the US administration that Megrahi would not be returned to Libya until his 27-year sentence was completed.

In reality, it was obvious all along that the sole purpose of the PTA, from Libya's point of view, was to repatriate Megrahi, a distant relative of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. In effect, Megrahi had become a hostage of the British Government, to be available for handover when Libya had complied with the request to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes and also its habit of killing dissidents (or women police officers standing in the way) on the streets of London.

So when David Miliband, the current Foreign Secretary, said before the Sunday Times leak that it was "offensive and untrue" to claim that Megrahi's legal status was changed purely to enable BP to find Libyan oil, this was not a lie. It's slightly more subtle than that: as a Justice Department spokesman put it at the weekend: "The negotiations on the transfer agreement were part of wider talks aimed at the normalisation of relations with Libya, which included a range of areas, including trade."

There was another consideration. Earlier this year the Foreign Office had changed its advice to those thinking of travelling to Libya. It had become aware that Megrahi was now very ill and it feared for the safety of Britons in Libya, should the Lockerbie bomber die while in custody in the UK. I wonder if the same consideration had not influenced the Scottish Government, despite Mr MacAskill's insistence that compassion alone was his motive for releasing Megrahi.

One should never underestimate the desire of politicians to appear high-minded. This is especially true of New Labour, only begetter of the ethical foreign policy. So great is their moral vanity, they could not bear to admit that their negotiations over Megrahi's ultimate transfer were nothing whatever to do with natural justice, but instead the sort of traditional Foreign Office realpolitik which a Tory Government would probably admit to without much embarrassment. As ever, New Labour is obsessed with politics before government, and image before substance: thus it was that Gordon Brown's only action over this episode was to write to the Libyan dictator asking him not to accord Megrahi a grand public welcome home, and to complain bitterly afterwards about Gadaffi's failure to keep the cameras away.

I imagine it was partly to make amends for the hurt feelings of Gordon Brown – but chiefly to soothe the furious Americans – that Saif Al-Islam Gadaffi, the son of the Libyan dictator, wrote an op-ed for last Saturday's New York Times declaring that there had been "no hero's welcome ... when I arrived at the airport with Mr Megrahi there was not a single Government official present". That's odd: the photograph of the arrival in every paper I saw showed the son of the nation's leader holding up Megrahi's arm, as a boxing referee does when declaring one of the contestants as champion.

Young Gadaffi went on to insist that "the reception given to Mr Megrahi was low key". So the large number of giant Saltires being waved at the foot of the plane was the normal greeting for any flight from Scotland to Tripoli? If the Labour Government's explanations suggest that they think we are all idiots, Mr Gadaffi clearly believes we have no functioning brain cells.

There is one good reason why our Government must have felt it couldn't openly admit to favouring Megrahi's release "in the British national interest" –apart, that is, from a habitual aversion to frankness. Lockerbie might be in Scotland, but the plane blown up over that town was American; the majority of those murdered onboard were American; Americans were Colonel Gadaffi's – and therefore Megrahi's – target. For our Government to argue that Megrahi's fate was simply a British concern would have seemed preposterous to America - and rightly so.

A number of letters to this newspaper have acclaimed the decision of the Scottish Government to release Megrahi – and accused the Americans, from President Obama downwards, of overweening arrogance in complaining about the release. This shows, at best, an amazing parochialism, and at worst a form of heartlessness, to believe that the fate of the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 is no business of the American people.

It is true that Barack Obama has little time for the so-called "special relationship". Three months ago his administration did a deal with the British dependency of Bermuda over the transfer to it of four Guantanamo inmates, without letting London know what they were up to: the Foreign Office was furious. But for all the casual high-handedness of the US administration, that is no excuse for treating the relatives of the 180 American victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing as if their feelings are less important than those of the Megrahi family.

How pathetic it is that the British and Scottish Governments, through their ham-fisted manoeuvrings over Megrahi, have managed to earn almost as much contempt at home as they have among Americans. Still, at least they know that they are well in with those charming Gadaffis.