So who to believe? Saif al-Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator, has said that the release of Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi was ‘on the table’ during trade talks with Britain. Lord Mandelson, who was holidaying with the young prince of Tripoli in Corfu a few weeks ago, says such a suggestion is not just wrong but ‘quite offensive’. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, insists it is a ‘slur’ even to suggest that the release of the only man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing would be raised.
As this squalid story has unfolded in the last few weeks, it is becoming all too clear that Megrahi was indeed ‘on the table’. The Libyans were told that Gordon Brown personally wished that Megrahi should not die in a Scottish prison. It is all too typical of the Prime Minister that he has not had the courage to share this view with the British public — we found out via an ambassador, a minister and a declassified document. And this is why the scandal is lasting so long: it offers wider insights into the nature of the government.
Officially, British policy is to encourage Libya to become a responsible actor on the world stage — this has been the case since Gaddafi’s decision six years ago to relinquish weapons of mass destruction that no one had known that he possessed. But the Megrahi affair demonstrates deep flaws in this strategy. If Libya was going to become a genuine partner in fighting terror it should not have been so keen for the return of a terrorist convicted on 270 counts of murder. Nor should the British government bend principles of foreign policy to suit the oil companies hungry for a slice of Libya’s offshore resources.
The Brown government has always struggled to distinguish between capitalism (good) and corporatism (bad). Its love-in with the major banks, which took wild risks under inept regulation, has rebounded calamitously. If the government wants to help oil companies, it should cease its sporadic raids on North Sea oil revenues, which have led to a plunge in exploration of new fields. But to make nods and winks about the release of terrorists, in the name of helping business, is deplorable.
Even by the yardstick of commercial realpolitik, Brown’s strategy has been self-defeating. In the hope of advancing relations with Libya, a country whose claim to international relevance rests on having 3.5 per cent and 0.8 per cent of the world’s proven reserves of oil and natural gas respectively, the government has strained relations with the United States, this country’s most important strategic ally. Pointing the finger at his fellow Scots, which has been the Prime Minister’s default position from the first day, convinces no one in Washington.
It should be a basic principle that terrorists who kill British citizens should be punished, and serve their sentence in full. It is repellent that the presence in jail of someone convicted of killing 52 Britons on British soil, and 218 others, should be viewed as a bargaining chip. It is also deplorable that there appears to have been no mention of the murderer of PC Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead by someone within the Libyan embassy in London in 1984. But this amoral foreign policy was not even effective.
The recent scenes in Tripoli, where the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s rule involved mock hangings of his enemies, show that there remains a long way to go before Libya can be considered a responsible member of the international community.
The damage done by Megrahi’s release to our relationship with the new Obama administration is considerable. The new president may look at this tawdry affair and wonder (if he has not decided already) what kind of ally he has in Mr Brown. Where is this courage of which the Prime Minister speaks so incessantly? The Megrahi affair is making clear to the world what Britain has known for some time: that there is no compass — moral or otherwise — in this wretched government.