When flight Pan Am 103 exploded above Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, I was a minister in the Department of Transport, which was charged with airport security. Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister, summoned me at once but in those first hours we could do little except watch the television images in horror.
We guessed terrorism immediately. Five years before, she had survived the assassination attempt at the Grand hotel in Brighton. Now responsibility weighed on us as ministers. Apart from the many Britons killed, 189 Americans had been murdered on a plane from Heathrow.
The following days were the grimmest in my political career. The media blamed lax airport security and over the Christmas period journalists repeatedly tried to breach it, concealing suspect packages in luggage or boarding aircraft dressed as cleaners. Whenever they succeeded, I was subjected to extremely hostile interviews. It is uncomfortable, to put it mildly, to be held responsible for such failures.
The next summer I was asked to meet some of the victims’ relatives. I dreaded the encounter. Grief is an uncompromising emotion. In a short period there had been many transport catastrophes: the King’s Cross fire, a British ferry capsizing at Zeebrugge, a train crash at Clapham, an air disaster at Kegworth and the loss on the Thames of the Marchioness, a pleasure boat full of partying youngsters. With each wretched event, the bereaved became more militant.
At the meeting I was shocked that one Lockerbie relative blamed the baggage handler or security guard who had “let” the bomb onto the plane and not the terrorists. It bewilders me that he could hold accountable an employee who might have slipped up, but exonerate the perpetrators of the massacre.
When a Libyan connection was first suggested, I remembered a remarkable moment in the Commons late one night in April 1986. It was a stormy occasion. The government had proposed a bill to permit Sunday trading and, despite the Conservatives’ huge majority, it was defeated on second reading. The opposition parties were jubilant at inflicting a humiliation on the all-powerful Thatcher. I looked across at her and was astonished that she failed to react at all. She was evidently alone with her thoughts.
The next morning’s news explained why. As that vote was being counted, US bombers were already airborne, flying with her permission from airfields in Britain to bomb Libya. The aim was to eliminate President Gadaffi, described by President Reagan as “the mad dog of the Middle East” and thought guilty of blowing up a Berlin discotheque used by US servicemen. The air raid failed in its main objective, although a bomb killed one of Gadaffi’s adopted daughters.
Thatcher, we learnt later, had given her consent reluctantly. Once the attack had occurred, Libya was a country with a motive for revenge. In July 1988 Iran became another when, through a blunder, an American missile brought down one of its airliners.
Everything about Lockerbie, up to and including the release from prison of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi last Thursday, has always been murky. In the 1990s Gadaffi decided on a new policy of rapprochement with the West, possibly motivated by fear of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It regards him as anti-Islamic and aims to replace his regime with an Islamic state. In 1996 it tried to assassinate him. It may not be linked to Al-Qaeda, but perhaps the connections between the two groups’ ideologies persuaded Gadaffi to join the war on terror.
He handed over Megrahi (an agent with JSO, the Libyan intelligence service) for trial and paid large-scale compensation to the Lockerbie families. Maybe that shows Libya accepts responsibility for the crime, but perhaps Gadaffi saw it merely as the price for an end to American sanctions. He gave up his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes, too, and over the years has been rewarded with handshakes from Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Whatever the shenanigans that led to Megrahi being delivered to a Scottish court, he was convicted. International observers judged the process fair. He then lost his first appeal. His second one, alas, will not be heard since he withdrew his application just before being freed.
His release is mystifying. Some people think that Megrahi was wrongly convicted. That shows scant confidence in Scottish justice, but anyway he had the chance to appeal and was using it. Others believe he was just a small part of a much larger plot with many culprits.
That is highly possible, but it is no argument for releasing the single suspect to have been convicted.
Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, who chose to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, did not suggest any doubt about his guilt, declaring the bomber had shown his victims no compassion. According to MacAskill, the single reason for letting Megrahi go home is that he is dying of cancer. Scottish justice, he declared, required that mercy be shown no matter the severity of the atrocity.
Many will be very surprised to hear that. To me it is as muddle-headed as blaming the baggage handler rather than the perpetrator. A system of justice is more ennobled by ensuring justice than by displaying clemency. It commands greater confidence when courts rather than politicians decide who will be let go.
Are we to assume that around the world, bombers of nightclubs, airports, hotels and trains should be set free, just as soon as they can get a medical certificate?
MacAskill’s argument was not helped by the television pictures of Megrahi climbing the long flight of aircraft steps steadily and unaided, carrying rather than using his walking stick. The Lockerbie families have not been treated compassionately. They have had to endure Megrahi’s hero’s welcome in Tripoli.
If, as MacAskill says, there was no secret deal, then why did he visit the prisoner in jail? There are precedents for British ministers using their powers to release a convict, but it was bizarre to interview him first. Evidently MacAskill did not doubt the fairness of the conviction and he is not qualified to second guess medical opinions.
His initiative highlights an unintended consequence of devolution. The UK parliament did not concede to Scotland any power over foreign policy, yet this decision will shake other countries’ confidence in Britain’s commitment to fighting terror. President Obama has plainly dubbed the decision a mistake.
Yet during the several days when it was clear what choice MacAskill would make, the UK government kept silent. It was as entitled as America to express a view. It suggests that it hoped for or connived at this outcome. After all, it had opposed releasing documents that might have come to light had Megrahi’s second appeal been heard.
The statement by Gaddafi thanking Brown and David Miliband for their roles in this affair, and the claim by Gaddafi’s son that the release is part of a trade deal, do not need to be taken at face value. But they certainly shake confidence that the British government has acted straightforwardly.
In the name of fighting terror, the government has asked the British people to agree to restrictions on our liberties and invasions of our privacy. It has urged us to understand the bitter toll of young lives lost fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet now we are meant to accept that one of the worst terrorists in history should go home after serving only eight years, simply because he is unwell.
It cannot be that simple. MacAskill visits Megrahi, who withdraws his appeal. Obama is upset but Britain says nothing. It looks as if we are being duped. Having paid a substantial price in the fight against terror, surely we deserve better.