We return to the national question in Scotland, as materialised in this instance by the Cheshire cat grin of Alex Salmond; victims of the Lockerbie disaster are put through more anguish; Tony Blair visits Muammar Gaddafi and agreements are reached, but not all of them disclosed; and light is cast on the murky world of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” flights and a variety of people find the whole thing disagreeable.
Calm before a storm
The SNP/Green minority administration in Scotland has got off to a steady start, cutting tolls and halting cuts in the NHS – not that this makes it any less of a bosses’ government. For sure, the SNP is financially backed by, and serves the interests of, sections of the national bourgeoisie in Scotland. (And as for the Scottish Greens…)
On the international side of things, First Minister Alex Salmond made the headlines – and the London Newsnight programme – by exposing a deal planned by the British government to hand over the man jailed for the Lockerbie bombing to the Libyan authorities. This was all without consultation with the Scottish administration or disclosure to the Scottish Parliament.
Yet Kirsty Wark, who was presenting Newsnight on Thursday, gave Salmond a hard time. Wark’s hostility is perhaps indicative of her political views; she has holidayed with Jack McConnell in the past and she could easily present the Scottish edition, but instead flies down to London each week to present the English and Welsh version.
Salmond had made an emergency announcement in the Scottish parliament on Thursday, disclosing all he knew and making a great play of his party’s openness as against the secrecy of New Labour: details of possible agreements made by the British government have not been disclosed. So it’s true that he’s milking it for all it’s worth, but the focus should be on the issues raised by the matter.
The first of many?
All of the parties in the Scottish parliament were united behind Salmond in denouncing any deal to return the prisoner, Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, currently held in Greenock jail, to his country of origin. New Labour’s Jack McConnell, who was the previous First Minister, admitted that the issue had come up while he was in power and Tony Blair was apparently warned that he should notify Scotland by the Foreign Office of the content of his talks with Gaddafi during a recent visit to Libya.
The row over the Lockerbie bomber marks the first outbreak of discord between Edinburgh and London. Outgoing Prime Minister Blair has yet to congratulate Salmond on his party’s electoral victory and assumption of the role of First Minister for the devolved parliament – though we are told that Prime Minister in-waiting, Gordon Brown, has contacted Salmond.
Previous Labour/Liberal coalitions were more closely tied to Westminster, and there were no formal channels through which Scotland and the UK government conducted affairs. The SNP are pushing for a formalisation of relations between central government and the devolved parliament: now that there is truly a Scottish government, political independence seems a step closer.
The bomb, the bomber, Blair, and BP
PanAm flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, killing 270 people, half of them Americans. The US initially fingered a Palestinian group called the PFLP-GC, based in Syria but after the first Gulf War, in which the Syrians backed the invasion of Iraq, the focus switched to Libya.
Two men were tried at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands under Scots law in 2001, but only al-Megrahi was found guilty – the other defendant, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was returned to Libya. The trial was farcical and the verdict doubtful: the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has been investigating al-Megrahi’s case for the last four years. In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing, whilst denying it had commissioned it – in the hope that sanctions against the country would be lifted.
Blair visited the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” for a second time as part of his farewell tour and met with its leader Colonel Gaddafi, now one of the good guys. The meeting was not merely to remind us of Blair’s foreign policy “achievements” – Gadaffi shook hands on a £900 million deal to allow British Petroleum back into Libya. For BP, the deal could be worth tens of billions, and it is something of a coup for Blair as big oil has been barred from Libya since the seventies when foreign capital was expelled the economy was taken into public ownership.
The visit was a reminder that all will be forgiven of wayward Third World leaders if they follow the neo-liberal agenda. (Take note Robert Mugabe: you can get your honorary degree back, if you want it.) The deal made between the Libyan government and BP was also a reminder of that British foreign policy is completely enmeshed with British capitalism. Like we needed reminding…
It had to be Blair meeting Gaddafi, both in 2004 and 2007: a meeting of Bush and Gaddafi would be to confusing for both the American and Libyan masses. Libya had been presented as the archetypal “rogue state” and Gaddafi the original Muslim bad boy, supposedly sponsoring terrorist groups around the world – and in 1986, the US carried out a bombing raid on Libya which was timed to make the evening news back home.
21st century gulag archipelago
Human rights groups have been invited to meet with the SNP’s Justice Secretary to discuss the issue of CIA rendition flights through Scottish airports, something else for Salmond to use to argue for independence. It is good that the Scottish government is taking the matter seriously, though the reasons for doing so are probably opportunistic.
A European Commission inquiry concluded with the assertion that the US had operated secret prisons in Romania and Poland to which they had transported terror suspects to be interrogated and tortured. A report instigated by the Association of Chief Police Officers – and revealed on the same day as Marty’s findings were announced – has pooh-poohed suggestions that CIA flights might have passed through England, but did not look into the situation in Scotland.
Members of the British government had previously denied knowledge of such an unlawful programme and suggested that it was a little far fetched; now Harriet Harman, minister for Constitutional Affairs, and contender for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, is making noises about the scandal.
On a related matter, former US Defense Secretary Colin Powell has said that the illegal detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be shut down and the “detainees” moved into to the federal legal system in an effort to regain international faith in American justice. (This is somewhat far-fetched, especially when you consider that when the American legal system was established, black people were regarded as being three-fifths human, and now people of colour make up a majority of the States’ vast prison population. By the way, Powell is not arguing that the US armed forces exit Cuba, only that the military prison is closed.)
Turning to the British tabloid press, the matter of rendition flights has been viewed negatively by right-wing Daily Mail, which has condemned the CIA’s programme and the UK government’s collusion. Everyone will use it to their own ends, I suppose. But if the boot was on the other foot and a Tory government had been complicit in US breaches of the law, it would be a different story for the Mail.