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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Realpolitik versus Conspicuous Compassion

The death of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, almost three years after his release on ‘compassionate’ grounds by the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, does not bring this sorry chapter to anything even resembling closure.

So many questions remain unanswered. We are still not clear about any influence that Gordon Brown’s administration may, or may not, have had on the decision to release al-Megrahi, but we do know that his release -infamously celebrated at that squalid reception at Tripoli airport in 2009- not only infuriated many of our friends and allies, but insulted the memory of the 270 folk massacred in the skies over Lockerbie. The deal to free al-Megrahi, along with the decision of his legal team to abandon their appeal for a retrial, scuppered our chances of getting to the truth of this disgracefully unresolved story.

The best (that is, the least bad) explanation for al-Megrahi’s release is that some kind of deal was done with Libya. Realpolitik is a fact of life and it is by no means unusual for politicians to make accommodations with undesirables before discreetly washing their hands. It’s not difficult to imagine that a ‘reformed’ Colonel Gaddafi, perceived to have come in from the cold by renouncing the use of weapons of mass destruction, might have been viewed by both the Westminster and Holyrood administrations as a potentially useful ally, particularly over energy supplies and counter-terrorist initiatives. But if that was the thinking at the time, events since then have made it clear that our leaders were backing the wrong horse.

Some have argued that the decision to release al-Megrahi was not attributable to realpolitik at all, but down to a widely-held notion that the convicted man was innocent, or at least not wholly responsible for the massacre. If, however, the Justice Minister had evidence that the conviction was unsound, the request for a retrial should have been granted and the case should have gone back to court.

But let’s be charitable and take the ‘compassionate’ argument at face value.

If we concede that the Scottish Government had the right to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the most it should have been able to do was to allow the prisoner to be transferred to a Libyan jail. If MacAskill believed the prisoner was dying and also believed that this dying man -whatever he was guilty of- should have had the right to die in his own country, he should have sent him home with certain conditions attached.

Or then again, perhaps MacAskill -in his compassion- considered that ten years in jail was an adequate sentence for the murder of 270 people. It is certainly not for us to judge, because, as the Justice Minister stated at the time: “Mr al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.”

We should, therefore, defer to this higher power and accept the ‘compassionate’ explanation for the release of the convicted terrorist. And in doing so, we should recognise that it would be uncharitable to dwell on the notion that there can be no more fraudulent or nauseating spectacle in modern life than the conspicuous display of compassion. Nor should we succumb to the temptation to speculate about the psychology of political leaders who make decisions that are based, not on old-fashioned notions of right and wrong, but on whether or not they will make them feel good about themselves. Because that, of course, would not be real leadership; it would be an abnegation of leadership, a pathetic admixture of personal therapy and advanced PR.

Some might say that by playing that ‘compassionate’ card, the Scottish Government embarrassed themselves and the nation; it could even be said that they catastrophically undermined the good reputation of the Scottish judicial system. Those images of Saltires being waved as al-Megrahi received his hero’s welcome at Tripoli airport will probably be a matter of shame for generations to come.

But at least we can feel good about our sense of compassion.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The summer of 1976

The West Indies cricket team, back in the UK for another series against England, has endured a spectacular fall from grace since the mid-nineties, having been the dominant force in world cricket for the best part of two decades.

Despite the often dismal standards to which they have slipped, I will always have a soft spot for them. This is mainly because I first got interested in the game by watching their great side of the mid-seventies, featuring magical players like Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and the incomparable Viv Richards. The swagger with which that man made his way to the crease seemed to put the opposition in its place before he had even started to unleash his outrageous and devastating variety of strokes. To see Richards at the top of his game -a rapid, ruthless and stylish accumulator of runs- was to witness the essence of cool.

The 1976 series between England and the West Indies had infamously been preceded by England captain Tony Greig’s remarks about hoping to make the West Indies ‘grovel’. It was an unfortunate remark to have made at the best of times, but coming from a white South African, those words seemed –at best- to have been catastrophically ill-judged. It would be an understatement to say that Greig’s remarks gave something of an edge to the series. For that alone, one might have been inclined to support the West Indies, but I had another, more personal reason for getting behind the visiting team.

When I was in my early teens, there was a lad who, every summer, used to come up to Glasgow from Manchester to spend a big chunk of his school holidays with Scottish relatives. Let’s call him ‘Mike’. He was a junior member of Lancashire County Cricket Club and an avid England supporter. He was rather less than fond of the West Indians and used a variety of derogatory terms to describe both individual players and the team; his favoured epithet for the West Indies was ‘the bus conductors’. In modern terms, I suppose he’d be described as a bit of a racist. I didn’t mind the fact that he supported his country, but there was something about the way that he couched this support in terms of sheer hatred for the opposition that seemed just too ugly to be comfortable with. Enforced exposure to Mike (who, in everyday aspects of social intercourse, was by no means a pleasant young man) meant that it just seemed kind of natural for me to support whoever was up against England.

The first two matches in the series had been drawn, with England making a pretty good fist of it against the supremely talented opposition. By the time of the third test at Old Trafford in July, Mike had arrived in Glasgow for his annual sojourn. I recall him boasting, on the eve of that match, that Lancashire’s Frank Hayes, playing on his home turf, would ‘sort those fucking bus conductors out’. I didn’t know anything about Frank Hayes, but was not –at that point- inclined to wish him well.

In the first innings, the tourists posted a modest 211, with Gordon Greenidge making a remarkable 134 out of this total. The home side went in late on the first day with high hopes of establishing a first innings lead, but endured a vicious battering from the West Indian pace attack. By the time Frank Hayes arrived at the crease on the second morning, England had four wickets down with only 48 on the board. The home crowd would have hoped that there was perhaps an opportunity for their hero to dig in and help turn the match back in England’s favour, but one ball later, poor Frank was heading back to the pavilion having failed to trouble the scorers. In attempting to fend off a vicious short-pitched delivery from Andy Roberts, he had been unable to do much more than send the ball lobbing in a sad arc of surrender to Clive Lloyd in the gulley. Around half of the crowd sat in stunned silence, while the other half let rip with whistles, hooters and what sounded like a bewildering variety of percussive instruments; those West Indians sure knew how to make a noise. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, at least one wee boy probably shouted something like “get it up ye!” at the TV.

According to Wisden:

In eighty-five minutes England were all out, the last eight wickets, in fact, going in an hour for 25 runs. Holding, who took five for 9 in 7.5 overs was the leader of a fearsome trio. Some balls lifted at frightening speed and Greig and Underwood both had narrow escapes from what could have been serious injury. Woolmer and Hayes received balls which were all but unplayable and even the greatest of batting sides would have been severely taxed.

Dismissed for 71 in that first innings, England went on to lose the match by the small matter of 425 runs. I had no gripe against Frank Hayes or English cricket, but young Mike’s ugly mean-spiritedness made me take great pleasure from the way that Clive Lloyd’s team dismantled England over the course of that summer. The 3-0 series defeat seemed comprehensive at the time, but worse, far worse, was to come; over the next fifteen years, that all-conquering West Indies side would go on to wipe the floor with all available opposition and would twice hand out 5-0 series thrashings to an utterly hapless England.

When I was growing up, there was no great level of interest in cricket among young Glaswegians. It was (and, for some, still is) seen as a boring English game played by, and for, effete posh boys from private schools. I count myself lucky to have first sampled the game at a time when a magnificently talented side was somewhere near the beginning of an upward curve that would see them dominate world cricket for many years. The dazzling ability of those West Indians sowed the seeds of a love that has endured to this day.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Power in the balance

The so-called ‘renewal of vows’ between the Prime Minister and his Deputy focused attention on the coalition, particularly on the likelihood of it holding fast until the next general election. The two leaders are under intense pressure from within their own ranks to assert clearer identities within the partnership. Both suffered poor results in last week’s local council elections. The Tories might have a case for saying that these results are just a fairly typical example of mid-term blues, but the Liberal Democrats are starting to look even more nervous about their electoral prospects in 2015. Clegg has stated that the two parties are still working together to protect the UK from the ‘financial storm’, but the opinion of many is that he is leading his party to nothing other than electoral oblivion.

I'm not inclined to say much in favour of Nick Clegg. He would appear to be a fairly typical member of the professional political class that, for the time being, we are lumbered with. It is, however, worth pointing out that getting into bed with the Conservatives was the only sensible option open to him in May 2010. Propping up a beaten Brown government would have been an insult to democracy and he would never have been forgiven for that. Some say that he could have chosen to sit it out and let Cameron form a minority government. That, however, would have been an act of cowardice that would almost certainly have rebounded on his party in the autumn /winter election that would surely have followed. Political parties live for the moment that they gain power and Clegg would have been a fool to reject the opportunity to have a meaningful role in government. When you consider that they could only muster 23% of the popular vote in May 2010, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are currently in possession of an entirely disproportionate amount of power.

Some members of his party might like to complain, but the fact is that Clegg –through a combination of luck and design- has made that 23% go rather a long way. With neither of the major parties looking like a good bet to secure an overall majority in 2015, the notion that one or other of the minor parties will be a semi-permanent power broker is one that we might have to get used to.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Multicultural versus 'Multiculturalism'

One of the features common to much of the reporting of the trial of the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik is that folk seem all too willing to accept that his hatred of 'multiculturalism' is the key motivating factor for his actions. Then, having taken Breivik’s line at face value, some commentators are unable to resist the temptation to place all of those with views that are not necessarily entirely supportive of 'multiculturalism' on a continuum that has, at one end, angry letters to the Telegraph and, at the other, the slaughter of innocent civilians. This is nonsense, just as it is nonsense to place law-abiding Muslims on a continuum with people who blow up buses or hi-jack planes.

This trial has provided no revelations about a sophisticated international network of far-right bloggers and bombers, but is proving to be a chilling illustration of Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the ‘banality of evil’. Accordingly, some of the analyses of Breivik's motives would make just as much sense had he cited the Flying Spaghetti Monster as his biggest influence. The truth is that there is no 'because' worth analysing for any man who can murder 77 people in cold blood. If you need a ‘because’, then he killed those people 'because' he's a deeply disturbed individual, but he didn't become a deeply disturbed individual 'because' he read some right-wing blogs. If there had been no multiculturalism to rail against, Breivik would have found another reason to do it. Until we perfect humankind (and I understand that that is due to happen sometime around the 12th of Never), people like him are going to do things like that every now and then.

To react in a sober way to an aberration of nature like Breivik, we need to develop and maintain robust political dialogues that have no areas deemed ‘off limits’ by the political and chattering classes. We have to be confident enough to make the distinction between, on the one hand, the desire to live in a multicultural society and, on the other, belief in the tenets of 'multiculturalism'. These are two entirely separate concepts. I want to live in a multicultural society and I think the UK does pretty well when it comes to integrating minority groups. Our country is all the richer for the various contributions made by folk who have arrived here from overseas.
I don't, however, believe in multiculturalism, which I take to be the belief that all cultures have equal rights and equal status. All cultures and sub-cultures are not equal at all times in all places. If I moved to Madrid or Nairobi or Islamabad or Riga, I'd expect to adapt my beliefs and practices to the cultural mores and laws of the host country.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury -in his infamous 'sharia law' speech in February 2008- asked how it might be possible for civil law to accommodate some of the legal procedures by which Muslim communities in Britain have traditionally regulated relationships and financial affairs, he was (directly or indirectly) advocating multiculturalism. I'd suggest that the logical destination for that philosophy would be the establishment of a society (or rather a series of mini-societies) wherein one set of laws might apply to one group of people, with other sets of laws applying to the rest.

And that would make about as much sense as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.