8 February 2011

Labour hypocrisy? Gray sidelined? Or daring to disagree...

22nd January 2009; Foreign and Commonwealth Office Submission - Contingency Planning

"We now need to go further and work actively, but discreetly, to ensure that Megrahi is transferred back to Libya under the PTA or failing that released on compassionate grounds."

This sentence from the Megrahi correspondence, released by Sir Gus O'Donnell yesterday, has plainly left Scottish Labour in an awkward position. The Maximum Eck, always one with a lug for a telling phrase, styled it "Labour's organised hypocrisy". On Newsnicht yesterday, the BBC's Isabel Fraser presented Labour's improbable emissary, Richard Baker, with three options. Given their full-throated denunciation of Megrahi's release in 2009, and given the evidence that London Labour and Her Majesty's Government were all for it, was he a hypocrite? Alternatively, were Iain and the Shades of Gray consciously or casually sidelined by their party leadership? Finally, given this evidence - which by the by largely confirms suspicions entertained at the time - would Baker own up to disagreeing with the former Labour Government and turn his slurry-cannon of disparagement over them with the same vim and vigour he and his Gray foreman employed to soak MacAskill? Understandably enough, Mr Baker wasn't frightfully keen to accept any of these options and resorted to stammering, defensive circumlocution, as is traditional. 

So what is the answer? Some preliminaries which we ought to bear in mind. At the time, I expressed some doubts about the idea that all Labour Members (save for the supportive Malcolm Chisholm) wholeheartedly deplored the release. Similarly, I struggled and still struggle to believe that every SNP parliamentarian felt wholly supportive of MacAskill's decision. You will recall that the contemporaneous measures of public attitudes suggested sharp but close divisions of opinion. Wouldn't it be astonishingly improbable, a miraculous coincidence, to discover that those ambivalent public attitudes in the wider population aligned exactly with party political divisions in the parliament? It doesn't seem probable. This, it seems to me, is strongly indicative of the extent to which the subsequent furore was refracted through the prism of party political interest. As a consequence, I'm sure there were a fair few compromised consciences on both sides. Even bearing that in mind, Isabel Fraser's question is clearly pertinent. Here is my sense of things.  

Did Scottish Labour figures know what their government colleagues in Westminster were up to? 

Probably not. 

Was keeping them in the dark politically useful for the Labour Party?

Absolutely. While they may not have been informed about the machinations of the Foreign Office, it was clearly a politically productive ignorance. Baker's protestations that he hadn't the foggiest what his London Labour colleagues views were seems decidedly artificial, and their ignorance must have been an effort of will to maintain. While procedurally appropriate before the decision was made, I find it unconvincing that the Westminster Government maintained its conspicuous silence due to their pious observation of inter-governmental politesse. Qui tacet consentire viditur.

Did Scottish Labour know what their companions thought about it?

Probably not.

Should they have known and been able to deduce those views? 


Was the failure to discover those views part of a conscious attempt to have it every which way, achieving foreign policy desires while allowing the Swine Purvuiant and the Snark to crucify Kenny MacAskill?

Wi' oot a doot. While the Scottish Labour leadership may have indulged in a species of mental reservation and substantive if not fully conscious hypocrisy, the muteness of their London Labour leaders has no such casuistic excuse. Taken at a party-wide level, the answer to Isabel Fraser's question is likely all three. At the level of Baker and Gray, the indictment is clear. They find the idea of releasing a sick man from prison on compassionate grounds appalling, but are happy to shrug and um and aw when they discover their fellows favoured release, purely for geo-political purposes. Spines suddenly extracted at the prospect of criticising their fellow Labour folk, their furious opprobrium is transformed into floppy diffidence. Colour me stunned. And the upshot? Firstly, this makes it decidedly unlikely that Scottish Labour will attempt make the release into an explicit Holyrood campaign issue, as I once wondered if they might. Secondly, I'm not terrifically convinced that this latest Lockerbie case reappearance will particularly assist the Nationalists, despite casting Gray and Baker and Labour in an unseemly light.  Most folk, I'd submit, are likely to be suspicious  about the idea that a Labour Justice Minister in Holyrood would have been immune to the views of their London colleagues, whether communicated through formal or informal channels. "If I was First Minister..." is an easy phrase to mouth, particularly when you aren't FM.

That said, my suspicion is that of those folk whose votes in May will be determined by the release - and it is difficult to say how many, if any, this might be - will nevertheless focus on the actual decision, which was made by Scottish Ministers. In that general context, remember this Ipsos-MORI poll from August 2010.  Respondents were asked:

Question: LOCKERBIE. Moving on, on Friday, it will be one year since the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, announced the release of the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in which 270 people died. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the decision to release him? Do you..?

  1. Strongly agree ~ Total 20%; Men 25%;  Women 16%
  2. Tend to agree ~ Total 15%; Men 17%; Women 14%
  3. Neither agree nor disagree ~ Total 8%; Men 6%; Women 9%
  4. Tend to disagree ~ Total 9%; Men 8%; Women 10%
  5. Strongly disagree ~ Total 45%; Men 42%; Women 47% 
  6. Don't know ~ Total 3%; Men 1%; Women 4%

It is impossible on the basis of this data to say how attitudes towards the release might affect voting behaviour. A fuller exposition of these figures is to be found in my earlier post.


  1. I think your pub sign sums it up nicely.
    The UK Labour Government in the background pulling strings; the rabid SP Labour opposition attack dog on an invisible leash...

  2. You read my mind, Conan. The very reason I included it, (although admittedly, only minimal excuses are needed...)

  3. Wow, I had assumed this was a photoshop job, but that sign is real? The likeness to the Snark is uncanny.

  4. Not a bit of it. 'Tis quite, quite real. I've no idea what curious inspiration prompted the artist to take Gray as the model for his Hyde.

  5. Steady on Lallands old chap, a bit unfair to Mr Hyde.

    For a better example from literature for Gray, the invisible man must fit the bill.

  6. I note that Mr Salmond is emphasising the level of "trust" that the electorate can rely on, associated with the SNP Government,compared with the exposed tangled intrigues of the 'Opposition' at Holyrood and farther afield.

    The actual release and Al Megrahi's survival based on what many now understand as Scots legal "precept" and the innovation of prostate cancer treatment reportedly now being received by Al Megrahi(unavailable during his term in prison)would seem to be less potent as the issue of who can now be seen to be trusted?

    The spleuterng sputter of the hapless Mr Baker on Newsnight, bereft of any political grasp, was just too awful. Were they really kept in the dark or just too witless to switch on the light?

  7. Dubbieside,

    I reckon that it'd be a rather "meta" drinking establishment inscribed a likeness of the invisible man on their sign!

  8. Neither option particularly redounds to their credit, Clarinda.

  9. I suspect you are giving them WAY too much of a benefit of the doubt. I believe and have always believed they knew and were lying through their teeth.

  10. Jeanne,

    You may be correct. As you'll have noted, I do suggest if Labour remained ignorant, that ignorance was not incidental or coincidental but undoubtedly a thing which took a huge effort to maintain. To my eye, such crooked efforts of themselves betray the underlying slippery attitude. Carefully constructed ignore, to my mind, is defence at all against the clear bad faith which was demonstrated by the Labour party leadership in Scotland on this matter.