Labour has a case to answer on the Lockerbie bomber

We were not told that the government did “all it could” to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release.

The news that the last Labour government did "all it could" to secure the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has prompted David Cameron to claim that MPs were not given "the full picture" at the time. Labour has responded by pointing out that nothing in the report contradicts what David Miliband told MPs on 12 October 2009.

If you compare Miliband's statement with Sir Gus O'Donnell's report, it becomes clear that Cameron has a point.

Here's the key quote from the O'Donnell report on the release:

Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK.

And here's the key extract from Miliband's statement:

British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya . . . Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them both that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK government, and as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi's death in Scottish custody.

As Miliband made clear at the time, the Brown government favoured the release of Megrahi "as a matter of policy" but did not formally lobby the Scottish government. This assertion is supported by the report, which notes that "the former Government took great effort not to communicate to the Scottish Government its underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died".

But while Miliband's statement is not contradicted by the report, he said nothing to suggest that the UK favoured Megrahi's release to the point of actively "facilitating" an appeal by the Libyans. The problem, in other words, is not what he did say but what he didn't say. Miliband has since (rightly) admitted that the release of Megrahi was wrong. He should now also admit that the government failed to give MPs the full picture on Megrahi.

NB: It's worth pointing out, as few have today, that Megrahi's conviction is widely disputed. Read John Pilger's column from September 2009 for the full story.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia