Alex Massie

Lockerbie: What Would Cameron Have Done Differently?

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In the comments to this post, Iain Dale suggests I'm completely wrong to think that a Conservative government led by David Cameron would have been just as keen as Labour to assuage Libyan concerns and, if necessary, suggest that, yes, it would be a good thing if Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi did nto die in a Scottish prison.

Well, maybe he's right. My confidence in my own suspicions was, I confess, dented by Roy Hattersley's column in the Times this morning. Any time one finds oneself in the unaccustomed position of thinking that the old blusterer has a point, you know it's time to have another look at the evidence...

The luxuries of opposition make it very easy for Cameron to claim to be whiter than whiter on all this. Prime Ministers, of whatever party, tend not to be quite so pure. And, whatever one thinks of Gaddafi himself, there's no denying that Libya's rehabilitation has been considered, in diplomatic circles, one of the great successes of recent years.

Here's what Senator Richard Lugar, the veteran Republican from Indiana, had to say on it as far back as May 2006:

Libya is a success story for American foreign policy that is the result of years of careful diplomacy aimed at bringing Libya into the mainstream.

Although we still have areas of disagreement with the Libyan government, it has repeatedly renounced terrorism, substantially improved its human rights record, and initiated steps to encourage more foreign investment. It has opened up its weapons of mass destruction programs and is cooperating with the destruction of its chemical weapons facilities. In addition, it is providing substantial cooperation in the areas of counter-terrorism and regional security. The intensive U.S. diplomatic effort to convince Libya of the strategic benefits of this course can serve as a model for future successes with other countries of similar circumstance.

As one of the authors of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has worked in cooperation with the states of the former Soviet Union to safeguard and destroy WMD arsenals, I am particularly hopeful about the opportunity to work with Libya to safely dismantle its chemical weapons programs. Since its renunciation of WMD in December 2003, Libya has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and agreed to spot inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Libya has committed to eliminate all of its ballistic missiles beyond a 300-kilomater range with a payload of 500 kilograms and agreed to abide by Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines in the future. Libya played a major role in the exposure of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear black market and continues to provide information on the Khan network. In early 2004, Libya worked closely with the United States on the dismantlement and transfer of the infrastructure of its nuclear weapons program, including their missile delivery system...

The Bush Administration and Congress will continue to foster this transformation. In particular, we need to ensure that more Americans are able to travel to Libya to do business. In Tripoli, I encountered business people from China, India, Europe, and elsewhere, who were there to negotiate energy deals and other commercial arrangements. American companies should take similar steps to explore the possibilities of the Libyan market.

But other countries seeking a piece of the Libyan action didn't have the Lockerbie Bomber in one of their prisons. That meant that, one imagines, the Libyans were able to play a card in their dealing with Britain that wasn't available to them in their talks with France, Italy, Germany, Russie etc. "Yes of course we want to do business, but first what about Mr Megrahi?"

And, of course, the Libyans, as the correspondence published this week shows, were also concerned that they weren't "getting enough" in return for their abandoning their WMD programmes and renouncing terrorism. But that's how politics works.

So it's not a surprise that, in the end, the UK relented and did not exclude Megrahi from the PTA. But that, form London's perspective, didn't really change very much since it was still a matter for the Scottish authorities to determine and, as I say, merely not excluding Megrahi from the PTA is not the same thing as guaranteeing his transfer to a Libyan prison, far less releasing him on compassionate grounds. (Which grounds were not, in any case, available at the time the PTA was signed and Libya began the process of applying for Megrahi's transfer.)

Who knows, maybe Prime Minister Cameron would have insisted upon another course. Maybe he'd have refused to negotiate a PTA with Libya at all, far less one without an exclusionary cause. I doubt it however, not least because, as I say, bowing to Libyan requests on this must have seemed a cost-free concession at the time. As indeed it would have remained, but for UK domestic political concerns.

I'm quite sure that Cameron would have done the public part of all this - the press and the presentation - much more smoothly and convincingly than poor old hapless Brown has managed, but it's not so obvious that the actual substance of the UK government's policy preferences would have been very different...

UPDATE: On the other hand, Malcolm Rifkind suggests that if you're going to do this sort of grubby realpolitik then you need to be able to do it well. Rifkind's argument is fine as far as it goes but I remain unconvinced that commercial pressures would have had no impact whatsoever upon a Tory ministry. Also, he writes:

Straw will argue that these arguments are academic because, in the event, there was no prisoner transfer and Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds. For all practical purposes that is a distinction without a difference.

Elegantly done, but also, I think, mistaken. As I argued yesterday, Megrahi's cancer is vital. Without it I suspect he would still be in a Scottish prison. I other words, it makes all the difference in the world. Not least since without it the SNP would probably be celebrating a great victory, not finding themselves on the back foot as a consequence of doing what they think was the right thing.

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.