So here we are: the truth is out. The Westminster government had absolutely nothing to do with the release of Abdulbaset Ali Mohmet Al-Megrahi. It was -and always had been- a matter for the Scottish authorities and them alone. Rumours of an oil-for-Megrahi deal a few years ago are, in spite of the copious evidence to support them, untrue. Believe us, London says, when Kenny McAskill announced that this odious mass murderer was getting compassionate release because he was suffering from prostate cancer you could have knocked us over with a feather. How do I know this? How can I be sure that all the reports of a 2007 lucrative contract for the British oil company BP in exchange for a prisoner transfer scheme that would explicitly include Al-Megrahi are at best a mistake and at worst a fabrication? Because Jack Straw tells me so. I am not aware of the UK holding any other Libyans than Al-Megrahi or of UK nationals languishing in Libyan prison cells, but there you are. Libya now has its native son back and BP can drill for oil off the Libyan coast. Pure coincidence, nothing to do with us, mate.
I have a high regard for Jack Straw. Here is a man who, in spite of tremendous difficulties (such as having been born without a backbone, a set of immutable principles and a moral compass) has risen through the ranks of the Labour Party to hold a succession of exalted posts. They are, in order: Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Lord Privy Seal, leader of the House of Commons and, most recently, Lord Chancellor and the relatively new invention Secretary of State for Justice. Not bad for a barrister who read law at Leeds University. The absence of a spine allowed him to complete the contortion that turned him from a left wing rabble rouser into the man who won praise from Margaret Thatcher for his draconian anti-terrorism policies, including a plan to reduce, in certain cases, the right to trial by jury. His double-jointedness made it possible to express misgivings about the Iraq war and his great confidence in the Iraqi judicial system while still remaining a loyal vassal of whoever was leading the Labour Party and becoming uncomfortably close to then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Where others who were opposed to the war either quit right away (Robin Cook) or after a period of examining the lie of the land (Clare Short), Jacko kept his nose clean. Why walk out in a fit of principle when there was still so much good work to be done? (A similar ability to ‘go with the flow’ has been perceived in the once ubiquitous Margaret Beckett).
Had the release of Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds not been a matter for Scotland and Scotland only (just joking; is there still anybody who believes that?) there is every chance that Jack Straw would have joined Kenny McAskill in his passionate defence of certain humanitarian principles held sacred in the UK but sadly alien to the rest of the world. For in the arena of soft-hearted mercy when dealing with suffering miscreants the Secretary of State for Justice yields to no man. Who doesn’t remember his outpouring of compassion in 2000 when, ignoring a spate of international requests for extradion and criminal prosecution, he allowed the Chilean dictator, mass-murderer and close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher Augusto Pinochet, who was said to be too ill to stand trial, to return to Chile? Pinochet cheeckily chucked aside his walking stick on arrival at Santiago airport and lived on for another six years. What chance of Al-Megrahi doing the same? None, I think.
Personally I don’t give a monkey’s about the murky goings-on that led to Al-Megrahi’s repatriation. No one emerges from this tale with any credit, except the man himself. The Scots use the cover of compassion to hide their anxiety at what might have become public in the course of Megrahi’s now dropped appeal; Westminster plays dumb in a matter in which it exercised full control; Americans bluster and cry blue murder without caring whether the guy they want to rot in jail is actually guilty or not. Khadaffi prances on the international stage as if nothing untoward ever happened. The Libyan is now at home and I hope that, like Pinochet, he lives on for a good spell.
Meanwhile, the real murky deal that needs light shed on it is the one that led to Al-Megrahi’s appearance before a politically manipulated court in Camp Zeist. The details of that bear direct relevance to his guilt or, as I am convinced, innocence. This latest kerfuffle over his release isn’t really worth the candle.