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The NS Profile: Muammar al-Gaddafi

The‘‘mad dog of the Middle East’’ is back in the spotlight, 41 years after he took power.

Shortly before he died in 1970, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said: "I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age." As a teenager growing up in the desert outside Sirte, Gaddafi had been an avid listener to Nasser's inflammatory Arab nationalist broadcasts on Radio Cairo. His school had even expelled him for organising a student strike in support of the Egyptian leader. Here was the "leader of the Arabs", who had humiliated the old colonial powers during Suez and brought the promise of unity to the region, giving his blessing. To the young colonel, still not 30, there could have been no greater compliment.

Gaddafi seemed worthy of the older man's mantle when he came to power in Libya on 1 September 1969, deposing the weak, pro-western king Idris while the monarch was receiving medical treatment abroad. By the end of 1970, he had expelled between 15,000 and 25,000 of the despised Italians who had occupied Libya from 1911-41, removed the US and British military bases, and turned Tripoli's Catholic cathedral into the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque.

Forty years on, Gaddafi is the object of international vilification once again. Yet America's fury at the Lockerbie bomber's triumphant repatriation does not change the fact that the Libyan leader is now a friend of the west. He has held meetings with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Silvio Berlusconi greeted him with a warm embrace when his plane touched down at Ciam­pino Airport in Rome in June. The former "mad dog of the Middle East", as Ronald Reagan called him, is even due to address the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September. He has stopped offering sanctuary to and sponsoring terrorists, and traded his WMD programme for the normalisation of relations with the west.

None of this would have been conceivable during Gaddafi's early years in power. By the late 1960s, oil revenues were rapidly increasing - Libya overtook Kuwait as the world's fifth-largest exporter in 1969 - and Gaddafi played an important role in the 1973-74 oil crisis in which Opec cut production and raised prices, by leading the embargo on shipments to the US. At the same time as making good on his promises to provide free education and health care (as well as subsidised housing) for Libya's small population, he could back his ambition for regional hegemony with money, providing subsidies to Egypt and to others he saw as allies in the fight against Israel.

But Gaddafi did not limit his aid to Israel's enemies. Over time, it seemed any group that styled itself as a freedom movement could call on the Libyan state purse, from the IRA to the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. Although his dreams of a pan-Arab merger with Tunisia, Egypt and Syria failed, Gaddafi's influence was felt far and wide. This frequently alarmed his neighbours, as did his erratic behaviour. In 1973, for instance, the QEII set sail from Southampton to Haifa full of Jewish passengers celebrating the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel. According to Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat, Gaddafi ordered an Egyptian submarine temporarily under his command to torpedo the liner: a directive countermanded only when Sadat ordered the sub to return to base in Alexandria.

Those who have met the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution" over the decades describe him as "dramatic", "charismatic", "camp" (a television reporter who interviewed him in the 1970s told me he was convinced Gaddafi was wearing eyeliner) and always "unpredictable". He surrounds himself with female bodyguards, and broke wind noisily throughout an interview with the BBC's John Simpson. In March, he stormed out of an Arab summit in Qatar, declaring himself "the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims". Such behaviour can, but should not, obscure the reality that he presided over a police state that dealt brutally with anyone perceived to pose a threat. By 1975, Sadat was already describing him as "100 per cent sick and possessed by the devil".

But for all Gaddafi's rashness during this decade (he also launched abortive invasions of Chad in 1972 and 1980), initially at least the west gave the young colonel's new regime the green light. "We thought he was a bit left-wing," says a British source, "but not too bad, and that we could deal with him." The US even supplied him with intelligence support. Very soon after the coup that brought him to power, the CIA warned him of a plot within the Revolutionary Command Council, Libya's supreme authority, allowing him to arrest and imprison the ring­leaders. News travelled, and Gaddafi gained a reputation in the region for enjoying America's favour. Although this had mostly evaporated by the end of the decade, Billy Carter, brother of the US president Jimmy Carter, still attended celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of Gaddafi's accession on 1 September 1979. In one of the many embarrassments he caused his brother, it was later revealed that Billy had received a $220,000 loan from the Libyan government.

The change was decisive once Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office in 1981. That August, the US air force shot down two Libyan fighter planes in disputed waters in the Mediterranean. Reagan ordered US citizens to leave the country and refused US passport holders permission to travel there. By the end of the year, his administration was claiming that Libya had plans to assassinate the president and, if that failed, would target other senior officials such as the vice-president George H W Bush, the secretary of state Al Haig and the defence secretary Caspar Weinberger.

After four more years of skirmishes and ineffective sanctions, Reagan seized on a specific incident that he felt could justify a forceful strike on the Libyan regime: the bombing in April 1986 of a West Berlin disco packed with off-duty US servicemen. The US reprisal, in which Gaddafi's adopted daughter Hanna died, was controversial. There were suggestions - since given more credence - that Syria or Iran was behind the disco bombings. No European ally apart from Britain would give permission to the US to use its bases to launch the attack. Today, the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the parliamentary all-party Libya group and author of a forthcoming biography of Gaddafi, says: "More questions should have been asked in parliament. We were rather gung-ho in supporting the attack."

As far as Britain was concerned, two incidents confirmed Gaddafi as the leader of a terrorist state: the fatal shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher by a gunman inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, and the 1988 downing of the Pan Am jet at Lockerbie. These continue to be the main stumbling blocks to Gaddafi's final rehabilitation in the eyes of the west, as the international row over the repatriation from a Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has demonstrated. "The man who shot PC Yvonne Fletcher has been identified in Tripoli," says Kawczynski. "For us to let them have al-Megrahi without insisting on a statement about her is ludicrous." The Tory MP is also working with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to try to secure compensation for the victims of Libyan-funded IRA atrocities. He says he has repeatedly raised these issues with government ministers, but has been rebuffed. "'Don't rock the boat,' was what one of them said to me."

The story of how the "mad dog" came in from the cold goes back to the 1990s, when Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela persuaded the Libyan leader that the two Lockerbie suspects should stand trial (al-Megrahi's co-defendant was acquitted). The UN immediately suspended sanctions it had imposed in 1992 and 1993. When Gaddafi was quick to condemn the attacks of 11 September 2001 as acts of terrorism, urging Libyans to donate blood for use by American victims, it seemed another remarkable volte-face by a man who would once have been expected to revel in US misfortune.

In fact, it was a sign that Gaddafi was never the irrational maverick some liked to say he was. Sanctions had hit the Libyan economy hard, depriving the country of the specialists and the markets it needed to exploit its oil wealth; and two other factors had left him short of allies. As the diplomat and Middle East specialist Sir Mark Allen, who was one of the UK's negotiators in the talks that led to Britain's rapprochement with Libya, writes in his book, Arabs: "At the end of the cold war, the Arab left was stranded . . . The region was retuning . . . The reference points were not left or right, monarchical tradition or the promises of socialism, but fidelity to the example of the early Muslim community."

After Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David, Gaddafi turned ever closer to the Soviet Union, which stationed thousands of military advisers inhis country and from which he bought billions of dollars of arms. But once the USSR collapsed, says Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, "he saw that if Uncle Sam was going to give him a kick, there was no one there to protect him". Nor was it conceivable that he could embrace the Islamists who, in fact, posed a threat to his rule. "He was deeply concerned about the threat from al-Qaeda," says Mike O'Brien, who as a Foreign Office minister was the first member of a British government to meet Gaddafi in 2002. "He had always promoted a more secularist, nationalist agenda."

He had set out his views at great length during his first decade in power, in the three volumes of his Green Book. His "Third Universal Theory" supposedly combined Islam with socialism - though the loose structure he presided over, which allowed for relatively free discussion by his associates before the leader took the final decision and retired to his tent in the desert, could be viewed as owing just as much to Arab, tribal forms of decision-making. Yet however one views Gaddafi's philosophy, he has long set his face against the Islamists, and he acted against ex-mujahedin fighters returning from Afghan­istan in the mid-1990s when other Arab states welcomed them home. Indeed, Gaddafi was the first leader to call for an international arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden in 1998.

Once Gaddafi took the step to open up and dismantle his WMD programme, and then agree compensation for victims of Lockerbie, the way was open for the inter­national community to welcome Libya back. Gaddafi's son and possible heir, Saif, is clear about the path Libya is now taking. "The future is with more liberalism, more freedom, with democracy," he said in an interview with Time magazine. "This is the evolution of the entire world, and you either go with it or be left behind."

O'Brien, for one, is convinced. "Gaddafi is an intelligent guy who has been in control for 40 years," he says. "He realised that the only way to extradite himself from his difficulties was to use Libya's oil and gas wealth. This was realpolitik. He recognises that the world has changed and that he has to change with it."

For those who believe the west made a disastrous mistake in opposing the wave of nationalist politicians who came to power in the Middle East from the 1950s onwards, there is an irony. Gaddafi is the last of that generation, and while others who cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of Nasser have fallen, failed or died, it is the young man once praised by the Egyptian president who now appears to be becoming the kind of Arab leader with whom we can, and with whom we wish, to do business.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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