What now with Megrahi?

Barak Obama has expressed his disappointment to Gordon Brown. But Gordon Brown continues to insist that he had nothing to do with Megrahi’s release. Who should we believe, what should we think?

Few in the Western world, I think, have any sympathy for the Lockerbie bomber. I certainly don’t.

There are of course many who believe that Megrahi was not the bomber. There are, regrettably, a few who believe that the whole thing was a cynical western plot. Nonetheless, to think that what the bomber did was anything other than one of the most reprehensible acts of cowardly mass murder in recent history is no more nor less than a refusal to face the truth.

However, one of the fundamental principles of justice is that it is blind, and another is that it is not interfered with by politicians or through the political process. Back in the democracies of ancient Greece, citizens wrote on shards of clay pot – ostraka – the names of who they would like to see exiled from the city. Those who ‘won’ this poll were expelled, ostracised. Such a thing surely goes down in history as the clearest early example of the tyranny of the 51% majority. A tyranny indeed, and nothing more than an adult version of the kind of class room bullying which we try to stamp out in schools.

If we had all voted as to whether Megrahi would be released, then he would never have been released. But, on the same basis, if we all voted on every crime and every criminal, the sentences of some would become horrific, while others — celebrities, the media-friendly, the very wealthy who could court our sympathies — would go almost free.

Megrahi’s sentence was passed in a nation which gives compassionate release to those within three months of death from terminal conditions. Why three months? Why not let them die in jail? Scotland may reconsider its laws in the light of the Megrahi affair. But, at the time it passed the sentence, such were the laws. Was Megrahi really so ill? We remember all too well the time when General Pinochet, whose hands were probably no cleaner than Megrahi’s, was not extradited to Spain to stand trial because of his health. Yet Pinochet staged a remarkable recovery on his return to Chile. It is entirely possible that we have had the wool pulled over our eyes.

But justice must remain blind. Nobody, nobody at all, except the justice minister who was charged with reviewing this case, should have applied political pressure, neither before nor after. If we allow political pressure to second-guess justice, then we will end up with the kind of show-trials of Stalin’s Russia, and the kind of injustice that saw a British football supporter jailed in Bulgaria for a sentence of 15 years, even though another man confessed.

Of course Scotland’s justice minister is now deeply unpopular. Of course many people are furious. And of course the entire Western world collectively put its head in its hands when Megrahi appeared to be welcomed back in Libya as some kind of hero or celebrity. But leaders are not leaders if they cannot make unpopular decisions. And Libya’s own decision to take Megrahi back in the manner in which it did has surely done it immeasurable harm in the eyes of the world.

Compassion, the mark of civilisation

Scotland has infuriated the United States by returning the Lockerbie bomber to Libya on compassionate grounds. But the Americans are wrong here, and on two counts.

Lockerbie bomber returns to Libya — BBC. If you’ve been following Radio 4’s PM programme, you’ll have heard one of the parents of one of the US victims stating that no compassion should be shown to the Lockerbie bomber, because he showed none himself. But Scottish justice minister Mr MacAskill argued that the Scottish justice system required justice to be tempered with mercy, and that compassion should not (my paraphrase) only be given to those who themselves showed compassion.

The American view — forcibly put forward by Secretary of State Clinton, among many others, is that they had expected Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to serve out his life sentence under Scottish law, and that no leniency should be shown. But they are factually and morally incorrect. Factually speaking, Megrahi was sentenced under a legal system that allowed for compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners. This was part of the Scottish legal system when he was sentenced, and could properly have been foreseen at the time. The US view clearly does not agree that compassion should be available to such as Megrahi, but to suggest that somehow the rules of the game have been changed by releasing him in this way is simply incorrect.

But, morally speaking, the American view — or, to be more exact, the view put forward by those speaking for America — that compassion is something which is deserved, and should not be made available where undeserved, is incoherent. It is the very essence of compassion that it is undeserved. Compassion which is deserved is not compassion, but merely justice.

Should we be compassionate? As a general mark of society, most people agree that we should. I’ve never heard people say “our society is too compassionate.” Generally speaking, we regret the compassionlessness of our modern world.

I didn’t lose a family member in the Lockerbie bombing, but I did lose a former friend. I don’t know whether Megrahi was the real Lockerbie bomber, or whether he was framed for a crime he did not commit. If he did commit it, I don’t know whether or not he has ever shown or felt remorse.

But none of these things have a direct relevance on the question of whether or not we should show compassion unearned, or whether we should only reserve it for the good, or the innocent, or the remorseful.

As a committed Christian, I believe that the line on compassion was drawn in the sand a very long time ago. As a democrat, and a Liberal-Democrat, I will argue to the end that it is exactly compassion which distinguishes our society both from anarchy and from tyranny.

Deserving the name ‘evil’?

According to the BBC, Nick Griffin MEP, leader of the BNP, says that the EU should sink boats carrying illegal immigrants to prevent them entering Europe. Have we therefore come to the point at which an elected politician is actually advocating murder? Griffin — again, according to the BBC — says no. Instead, he is reported as saying: “I didn’t say anyone should be murdered at sea – I say boats should be sunk, they can throw them a life raft and they can go back to Libya.”

Back last summer, I took part in a fact-finding tour of Armenia, organised by World Vision. We spent part of one day at the museum of the Armenian Genocide. This was an atrocity which took place during and after the first world war, when, according to Armenian sources, 1.5 million died. Turkey continues to deny that a genocide took place, and, putting the figure at 300,000 and maintaining that the deaths were a result of a number of factors, but without a guiding, national Turkish attempt to destroy the Armenian people. Whichever way you look at it, one thing that both Armenians and Turks agree on is that many died from starvation and the other privations of being forcibly evicted from one part of Turkey and sent somewhere else.

Of course, nobody with any actual authority is going to pay the slightest bit of attention to what Nick Griffin says — especially now that his party has failed to find any other friends in Europe. But the rhetoric of placing people in mortal peril, and then making the most perfunctory gesture at saving them, is eerily reminiscent of the Armenian holocaust.

I have argued strongly that we need to begin to re-calibrate our language in politics. The arrival of the BNP means that we need to soften some of the jibes and insults we have tossed at each other over the years, in order to have words with which to describe their policies. We should do this in any case, simply because they bring politics into disrepute: it is time for the British political class to grow up and leave the playground behind. I don’t want to refer to Nick Griffin as purely ‘evil’. As of yet, he has not (at least, to my knowledge) organised violent attacks on people, nor has he ever had the national moral authority to make the slightest difference to how we run our courts, our police, our public services, or, most importantly, our immigration policy. But this new rhetoric leads me towards using the word ‘evil’ to describe what he is about.

In one sense, it is good that Griffin is now unmasking himself, as a pedlar of malevolent, unworkable fantasies.

But in another sense, he has taken the British national political conversation into territory it has not seen since before the Second World War.

And this is bad. Very bad indeed.

Both wrong on marriage

The Tories are promising tax-breaks for married couples, which Harriet Harman has described as ‘hypocritical moralising‘. But both are in fact wrong — Harman for her notion that ‘Families won’t want to be lectured by anybody about how to lead their lives’, with the implicit underlying assumption that all forms of family are equally functional, and the Tories for attempting to use tax-breaks as a form of social engineering.

Large numbers of studies have shown that long term stable parental relationships are better for children, and that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting couples. But equally strong evidence suggests that increasing wealth inequality across society has an at-least equally detrimental effect. The pivotal study is described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which shows how more equal societies do better.

The problem with the Tory proposal of creating a more advantageous tax situation for married couples (and I was one of those disadvantaged when Labour took this away in the 1990s) is that they are piling material rewards onto those who are more likely to become wealthy anyway. Voters, of course, love the notion of rewarding the good (married couples) while punishing the bad (single mothers on benefits), and it’s an easy button to press if you are an unpopular politician facing an angry crowd. But the truth is, if you punish single mothers by limiting their benefits, then you exacerbate inequalities in society, and the result will be more crime, more social unrest, less happiness, a greater differential in life expectancy, and a vicious circle which we should be doing everything we can to avoid.

Harman’s attack on the Tories is misguided — there is nothing hypocritical about supporting marriage, and a tax-break is not a form of lecturing. But the Tories have reverted to type by making a financial appeal the measure of all things. The reason we are now in a recession, despite the promises of Mssrs Clarke and Brown of an end to boom and bust, is that we have persisted in evaluating all things in economic terms. We have urged the brightest, most able, and (let’s face it) the luckiest on with ever higher bonuses, and we have supported an industry where companies are free to advertise loans to people who cannot possibly afford them, and no-win-no-fee court cases to those who would be better to get on with their lives. At the same time, our culture has increasingly valued possession of goods as the marker of personal worth. The three consequences of this should be obvious to all: economic recession, as we adjust to only spending money we actually have, climate change, brought on by conspicuous consumerism on a global scale, and deep social malaise, as everyone looks at the ideal world presented in TV ads and colour supplements and sees themselves falling short.

Social cohesion is essential for our future, and marriage is a key building block in social cohesion, but rewarding it with more money simply adds to another social problem.

As I mentioned before, I was personally cross when Gordon Brown took away our married person’s allowance, and that, with the subsequent demise of MIRAS which kept our mortgage down, had a very serious impact on our finances at the time. Taking things away that people rely on always causes hardship, and rarely does anywhere near the amount of good that was expected of it. But reinstating this allowance, as the Tories wish to, will not really be helping those who are hardest hit by the recession. Doing so in a means-tested way might help, but means testing is what the Tories hate most, since they want to reward people who have money with more money. I would not go so far as to ever accuse them of wishing to punish the poor for being poor. But in a society where relative, rather than absolute, poverty contributes so strongly to low self-esteem and consequent problems, that is effectively the result of what they are proposing.

We do need to support the things which hold society together. But we need to think of more creative and effective ways of doing it. As long as we continue to make money the measure of all things, we will continue to see British national life slide into oblivion.

Back to Top