Alex Massie

Lockerbie: Have Government Ministers Contradicted One Another?

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James says that the government is at odds with itself over the Megrahi Case. He cites these statements to support his argument that while either of these claims may be true, they cannot both be:

David Miliband on the Today Programme on September 2nd:

“We did not want him [Megrahi] to die in prison.”

Ed Balls on the Today Programme on September 7th:

“None of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi”

On the face of it, James is correct. But only, I hazard, on the face of it. That is, the contradiction - or the seeming contradiction - may be explained as follows.

1. Miliband's line echoes that allegedly made by FCO Minister Bill Rammell. To wit, the government assured the Libyans that there was no desire to see Megrahi die in a Scottish jail.

2. This does not, in fact, contradict Balls's assertion that "none of us" wanted to see Megrahi released.

I appreciate that the proposition that, technically, Balls and Miliband could both be telling the truth is a tough one to swallow but there it is. Their statements are artful to the point that they come close to sophistry but they are not, I think, outright falsehoods.

That is that though it may seem as though the Libyans held the whip hand throughout this entire sorry process - no trade opportunities for British firms unless Megrahi's status is on the table - the Libyans were in fact sold a pup. In other words, the British government was happy to suggest that it might write the Libyans a cheque, even though London was in no position to cash it.

Hence London's happiness to accede to Libyan demands that Megrahi be included in, not excluded from, any Prisoner Transfer Agreement. Hence too, London's happiness to suggest, explicitly or not, that they would have no objection to Megrahi being transferred to a Libyan prison even though London knew that this was not a decision that would or could be taken in London.

And, for all that one may wonder what sort of conditions Megrahi might have been held under had he been transferred to Libya, it still remains the case that, technically, this would not have constituted his release. If he were to die in a Libyan jail, well that would be a different matter and something that would be fine with London.

You may complain that all this is shabby and you might well be right. You may also observe that the Americans certainly though there was an undertsanding that Megrahi would serve out his sentence in Scotland and again you may be right. London, I suggest, would argue that this commitment was given at a time when Libya remained a pariah state and that, consequently, it was open to revision if, but only if, events moved on and circumstances - to say nothing of realpolitik - changed. As in fact they did.

Again, the PTA and any potential developments from it govern the terms and conditions of Megrahi's incarceration; his cancer, inoperable and terminal, determined his release and were, like everything else, a matter for Holyrood, not Whitehall. They are seperate issues.

And, to reiterate, it is inconceivable that London pressured Edinburgh into releasing Megrahi and no-one in Edinburgh has said anything, let alone complained, about it. London may well have winked at the Libyans and assured them that there was no objection to Megrahi going home but it is still the case that this was an assurance that was not in London's power to give.

Indeed, it seems likely that London was trying to have it both ways: placating the Libyans while leaving, properly, the decisions to Edinburgh. This may have been too clever by half and borderline duplicit but that's Perfidious Albion for you.

However, while too subtle by half and open to accusations of double-dealing and treachery, Nevertheless in a strict technical sense I'm not sure that there is actually as glaring a contradiction between the statements made by Balls and Miliband as James thinks.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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