[On this date in 2011 I reproduced on this blog Ian Bell’s column in that day’s edition of The Herald. It no longer seems to appear on the paper’s website, but it is worth repeating here:]
Sir Gus O’Donnell’s trawl through certain documents relating to the Lockerbie bombing has become very bad news for Labour.
It is bad in London, bad in Edinburgh; bad for reputations, bad for careers. On both sides of the border, the charge is the same: saying one thing, doing another. The only difference is that some things were shouted in one place and whispered elsewhere.
David Cameron handled the report with a certain vicious elegance in the Commons, in his best more-in-sorrow-than-anger voice. Too many things, he pointed out, were left unsaid by Labour ministers. Whether he would have behaved any differently in their shoes was a point he was happy to leave moot. He had certain aims in mind, and he achieved them.
Thus: blame Labour, blame the SNP, placate America, exonerate BP, and remind us that he was always opposed to the freeing of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi on any grounds. Better still, for the eternal interests of Her Majesty’s Government, nothing in O’Donnell’s document obliged Cameron to deal with a real question: what of profound doubts over the original conviction?
No-one in the Commons, as usual, had a word to say about that.
Labour was all over the place. Gordon Brown was forced into a statement that answered no questions. Jack Straw, England’s Justice Secretary in the period at issue, fell to parsing any phrase that might provide an excuse. Meanwhile, the Scottish party found itself in a truly hideous position.
Either its leading members knew about London’s efforts to “facilitate” a release deal with Libya, or they did not. If not, what does that tell us about relationships between Labour in Edinburgh and Labour in Westminster?
But if all was known, what excused the many, vehement accusations hurled at Kenny MacAskill, the SNP minister who freed Megrahi? Labour in Scotland was still at that game this week, even when it was beyond doubt that its colleagues in London had connived in Libyan efforts. Straw, O’Donnell tells us, even thought of supplying a supportive letter.
It’s possible, of course, that some Scottish Labour figures were “in the loop” and some were not. The Scotland Office, first under Des Browne, and by October 2008 in the charge of Jim Murphy, was under no illusions. The latter minister was certainly given the minutes of calls between Straw and Alex Salmond. So what about Holyrood?
But this means that some passionate opponents of Megrahi’s release were permitted – encouraged? – to go on conducting a campaign against MacAskill while the truth was otherwise kept hidden. Take your pick: scandal, shambles, or a bit of both?
None is easy to spin, but Labour has done its best. Supported by the – no doubt unprompted – right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes, a tale filtered into the London media this week to the effect that MacAskill was prepared, late in 2007, to amend the Scottish Government’s opposition to Labour’s prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. The alleged price: cash to pay off human rights claims over prison slopping out, and devolved control over airgun legislation. And how tawdry would that have been?
O’Donnell certainly relates – of exchanges in November, 2007 – that “it is clear that HMG’s understanding was that a PTA without any exclusions” – meaning Megrahi, the only Libyan in a British prison – “might be acceptable to the Scottish Government if progress could be made with regards to ongoing discussions...” (on slopping out and firearms law). The Cabinet Secretary’s footnotes then refer the reader to letters between Straw and Browne in which the two allude to that “understanding”.
But O’Donnell’s very next sentence in the body of his text records that, “Kenny MacAskill restated the Scottish Government’s position that any PTA should exclude anyone convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in a letter to Jack Straw on 6 December 2007”.
So much was already in the public domain, thanks to the Scottish Government’s website. Nor did the SNP deviate from that position.
Labour’s attempt to establish otherwise this week depends entirely on a “leaked” email from John McTernan, Brown’s adviser, who gleaned his “understanding” from unnamed “officials”.
You wouldn’t base a Scottish election campaign on that, I’d have thought. But what else does Iain Gray and his Holyrood party now possess? Continued demands for the release of Megrahi’s medical records? Such material is redacted even in O’Donnell’s report, on data protection grounds. An oncologist would tell you, meanwhile, that a prognosis is not a prediction, but add that prostate cancer treatments – and hence survival rates – are improving yearly.
Even given the horrific scale of Lockerbie, an attack on compassion is tricky. It’s also beside the point. As is O’Donnell’s report, and Cameron’s lofty satisfaction, and Brown’s floundering response.
The fact that Labour has been found guilty of monumental hypocrisy is important in its own right, no doubt, but it is only one part of a larger argument. In the matter of mass murder, the question of guilt is paramount. Unless it is settled, beyond doubt, every other “row” is chatter, and distracting chatter at that. In the case of Megrahi, despite anything politicians claim, there is no certainty.
We do know, though, of $3 million paid by US authorities to Maltese brothers, Toni and Paul Gauci, for the sake of identification evidence. We know that Lord Peter Fraser, then Lord Advocate, would later describe the former brother, supposedly a star witness, as less than the full shilling and “an apple short of a picnic”.
We know, furthermore, that the forensic “experts” on both sides of the Atlantic, providers of still more “key evidence” at Camp Zeist, were later discredited thoroughly. We know Professor Hans Koechler, Kofi Annan’s UN observer, damned the trial as an outrage and an abuse.
There’s more, much more. We don’t know, though, why Megrahi still fails to provide proof of his innocence. We don’t know why no political party – the SNP included – is prepared to entertain even an inquiry into the conviction.
Those rows over the compassionate release of “the Lockerbie bomber” will do instead, at least until some successor to Sir Gus cares to examine a few more of the papers salted away in the hidden record.