Megrahi: What price justice? The expected release of the Lockerbie bomber illustrates the centuries-old conflict between Britain's interests and its moral values, says David Blair By David Blair Published: 8:19PM BST 19 Aug 2009 Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi is to be freed from a British jail on compassionate grounds Photo: GETTY Above the staircase leading up to the Foreign Secretary's office, grandiose murals show a benign Britannia dispensing peace and enlightenment to the world. Yet despite the vaulting ambition of Sigismund Goetze's artwork, the fate of one individual can sometimes shape foreign policy and general benevolence must sometimes take second place to raw national interest. So it is with Abdulbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber whose release from his Scottish prison cell is expected to be announced today. His case brings to the forefront the perennial tension between our interests and our values that has always underpinned British foreign policy. If our values matter more than anything else, then Megrahi's fate would scarcely be worth debating. The rule of law is the most important foundation of British democracy, and a Scottish court found Megrahi guilty of the worst act of terrorism in Britain. Unless his conviction is overturned on appeal, upholding the law means keeping him behind bars until he completes his sentence. No ifs and no buts. But our national interest points in a very different direction. Libya, under the newly pragmatic rule of Col Muammar Gaddafi, has become an important ally, ideally placed to help us combat terrorism and nuclear proliferation the two biggest threats to British national security. So keeping Libya happy matters a great deal, particularly as the country also possesses 42 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and a similar abundance of natural gas. Thanks to our new friendship with Libya, BP's biggest exploration project in the world is now under way inside Col Gaddafi's domain. Britain needs to make sure that nothing interferes with what diplomats call "our bilateral relationship" with Libya. If that means sending one 57-year-old prisoner back to his homeland, particularly if he happens to be terminally ill so allowing him to be released on "compassionate grounds" then so be it. Last November, Britain signed a deal with Col Gaddafi's regime that looked suspiciously like a tailor-made arrangement for Megrahi's repatriation. This Prisoner Transfer Agreement was hastily ratified in London, formally coming into effect on April 29. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, urged Parliament to give its speedy approval for the sake of "our wider bilateral relations with Libya". He and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, were both agreed that delaying ratification beyond April would "lead to serious questions on the part of Libya". It also happens that Lord Mandelson was spied in Corfu with none other than Col Gaddafi's son. When Megrahi goes free, it will be a classic example of our interests colliding with our values and national interest coming out on top. So far, this all sounds cynical and shady. But there is nothing dishonourable about a country deciding where its crucial interest lies and acting accordingly. If British jobs and security are at stake, there is a powerful case for not allowing one man's fate to get in the way. Every foreign minister in the world is compelled to make these judgments and national interest usually comes out on top. As Palmerston said: "We have no eternal friends, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow." Yet the game is not as cynical as it might appear. For a start, values and interests often coincide. Britain spends more than £9 billion on foreign aid, because helping poor countries is right in itself and also represents an investment in a safer world, less likely to threaten us with terrorism. Instead of the umpteen occasions when brute national interest has triumphed, perhaps the more surprising fact is how often in British history we have put our values first. The shining example remains the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, when Britain chose to damage its own commercial interests in Caribbean sugar, and place itself at odds with key allies, for the sake of doing what was manifestly right. In Bury the Chains: the British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Adam Hochschild laid out what was at stake. "In the England of the 18th-century, the luxury vehicles were the carriages of Caribbean sugar planters and the imagined road to riches led through the cane fields of the New World," he wrote. Huge sums were to be made by investing in the slave trade. John Gladstone, father of the Liberal prime minister, owned sugar estates in Jamaica worked by 1,000 slaves and sent his son to Eton on the proceeds. One Liverpool businessman, William Davenport, made returns of 73.5 and 147 per cent when the slaving ship Hawke embarked on two voyages to plunder West Africa in 1779 and 1780. But even in the days before universal suffrage, the demands of British business could not hold out against the power of public opinion, as mobilised by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. When the government of the day had to choose between Britain's national interests and her values, opting for the former was politically impossible. With the first Abolition Act of 1807, commercial advantage was duly put aside. This was not a unique aberration. Throughout the 19th century, successive governments deployed a large proportion of the Royal Navy to stamp out the Atlantic slave trade. A simple calculation of national interest would have held that expensive assets like warships should be used to defend the country and police its empire. But the nation's values dictated that the world's largest navy should also be used to wipe out a vile trade in human beings. For the best part of a century, every government in this respect chose to put British values first. Most of the time, however, the balance swung the other way. In the 1870s, Turkey ruthlessly suppressed a revolt in Bulgaria and carried out hideous atrocities. The British government under Benjamin Disraeli turned a blind eye because Turkey was a useful ally against an expansionist Russia. This amoral calculation was denounced by Gladstone, who turned it into a national cause célèbre of such power that he defeated Disraeli in the 1880 election. In general terms, national values are far more likely to guide foreign policy when public opinion is actively engaged. Left to themselves, most governments are likely to choose the default option and uphold a narrow definition of national interest, mainly because this usually creates less friction with reliable allies. Ever since the campaign against the slave trade, public opinion has been the most important check on this behaviour. The present Government's conduct of foreign policy would probably have pleased Disraeli more than Gladstone. When, in 2006, the Serious Fraud Office dropped its investigation into the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia by BAE Systems, it was a classic case of interests triumphing over values. Similarly, the High Court agreed earlier this year to withhold documents relating to the ordeal of Binyam Mohamed, the Ethiopian who claims to have been tortured at Britain's behest. Mr Miliband had argued that disclosing this evidence would have jeopardised the close co-operation between British intelligence agencies and their American counterparts. Put simply, the Foreign Secretary said that national security should take precedence over our belief in natural justice and the court reluctantly agreed. But no cynical calculation of self-interest lay behind Tony Blair's intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, when British troops saved an African capital from the clutches of a brutal rebel army and, eventually, stopped a terrible civil war. Sierra Leone had no oil and its collapse would scarcely have portended disaster for Britain. The tiny country had suffered for many years, without its travails damaging us in any way. Yet Mr Blair sent a small flotilla of warships and 1,500 troops to its aid. Nor would our vital interests have been gravely threatened if Slobodan Milosevic had been allowed to complete the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo in 1999. Again, this relatively insignificant territory had no oil and, beyond a general interest in the stability of a corner of Europe, Kosovo's fate was of little importance to Britain. But Mr Blair chose to go to war to stop its people from being driven from their homes. Incidentally, the population of both Sierra Leone and Kosovo is largely Muslim. The lesson is that British governments do choose to uphold our values but it helps when the public is breathing down their necks. In the end, the best guarantee against the amoral pursuit of self-interest is a public that knows and cares about the world depicted, in rather overblown fashion, by the murals adorning the Foreign Office's grand staircase.