The Lockerbie bomber? A likely story . . .

In all the furore over Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, we have lost sight of one important fact.

So, the British ambassador to the US says that the government "deeply regrets" the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie atrocity. Meanwhile, US senators are calling for an inquiry into allegations that BP lobbied the British government to let Megrahi go in order to protect their interests in Libya.

News of his release on compassionate grounds a year ago prompted a similar wave of indignation. The papers bleated about Megrahi showing no compassion to his victims, that this was not "justice", and that the government was ignoring the victims of the bombing. This post from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin was fairly typical.

What is rarely mentioned amid all the outrage is that there is considerable doubt over Megrahi's guilt.

As the late Paul Foot pointed out, having sat through the whole of Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands in 2001, the prosecution's case was farcical.

That Megrahi felt the need to write 300 pages about his innocence is odd -- one ought to have sufficed.

To summarise, Megrahi is meant to have planted a bomb on a plane in Malta, which then travelled on to Frankfurt, and then on again to Heathrow, before finally exploding on Pan Am Flight 103 in the sky above Lockerbie. We are supposed to believe, then, that the bomb got on to three planes in a row without being detected. It seems a lot more likely that the bomb was planted at London than anywhere else.

In their judgment, the three judges at the trial also pointed out that there was nothing that proved Megrahi had put a bomb on the plane in Malta. They noted: "The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 [Air Malta] is a major difficulty for the Crown case."

What's more, Megrahi was apparently aided by a conspirator, yet his co-accused at the trial was unanimously acquitted.

The prosecution's star witness was Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, who claimed to remember Megrahi buying clothes from his shop. These same clothes apparently found their way into the case in which the bomb was concealed.

Gauci also said, however, that he remembered it raining on the day Megrahi came in, yet meteorological records show this was not the case. This alone does not discount his testimony, but it must give pause for thought.

His claim to be able to identify a particular customer many months after he came into his shop is much more difficult to sustain. Again, the court expressed its reservations, saying that "Mr Gauci's initial description to DCI Bell would not in a number of respects fit the first accused" (Megrahi).

Perhaps those calling for an inquiry into the circumstances of this man's release should dig a little deeper into how he was convicted in the first place.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle