The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi

Colonel Gaddafi made a quite extraordinary speech this afternoon, vowing to stay on and "die a martyr"; here, Seph Brown looks at the British left's questionable relationship with the tyrant.

Libyan despot Colonel Gaddafi made a quite extraordinary speech this afternoon, saying the protesters against his regime were “serving the devil” and vowing to stay on and “die a martyr”; here, Left Foot Forward’s Seph Brown looks at the British left’s questionable relationship with the tyrant


Before discussing the rapidly deteriorating situation in Libya, the Labour Party and the wider British left should engage in serious self-reflection. From Tony Blair to Ken Livingstone, from Alex Salmond to George Galloway, we on the left have often had questionable relationships with Gaddafi’s brutal dictatorship.

It is equally important to remember that ‘brutal’ is not a word which applies only to recent days.

Before strafing their own citizens from the air this week, Gaddafi’s regime had supplied and given haven to the IRA, was responsible for the 1984 murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher in London, has been implicated in the Lockerbie bombing and in 1996 massacred 1,200 political prisoners at Tripoli’s Abu Salim Prison.

This is the measure of the man the left has never got to grips with.

The favourite target for criticism over Britain’s links with Libya is clearly Tony Blair. After all, he was essentially responsible for the international rehabilitation and rearming of Gaddafi’s regime. There is no way of knowing if the men opening fire on protesters were those trained by the UK under Blair’s deal.

Some are keen to defend Blair’s role as a pragmatic, necessary and ultimately sensible trade-off. Michael White at the Guardian calls on commentators to:

“Blame Libya for what is does with its weapons – not Blair or Britain.”

Appealing to the messy and complicated nature of international diplomacy.

Likewise, John Rentoul argues that Blair’s strategy resulted in a state giving up its WMDs, opening avenues for investigation into PC Fletcher’s murder and new beneficial trade links.

However true the benefits of Libya’s reintegration into the global community, the fact remains that Blair never appeared to predicate any part of it on improvements in human rights and domestic freedoms in Libya. While Rentoul and others may argue that trade and communication ties acted as a liberating driver – aiding the emergence of democratic forces – the ruthless response to the protests is as much a part of the Labour government’s timidity in pressing for reform earlier on.

But before we single out the former prime minster, we should recognise that few main players on the British left have avoided some connection with the Libyan regime.

Ken Livingstone raised eyebrows through his connection with friend and colleague Gerry Healy, the head of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party of the 1970s-80s. The WRP is said to have taken £500,000 from Libya and as one splinter group recalls:

A draft resolution adopted by the WRP Political Committee on July 28, 1980 declared that:

“The Workers Revolutionary Party salutes the courageous and tireless struggle of Colonel Gaddafi whose Green Book has guided the struggle to introduce workers’ control of factories, government offices and the diplomatic service, and in exposing the reactionary maneuvers of Sadat, Beigin and Carter…

“We stand ready to mobilize the British workers in defense of the Libyan Jamahiriya and explain the teachings of the Green Book as part of the anti-imperialist struggle.”

Naturally Livingstone dismissed this link as a smear campaign, and it could be that the former mayor was being treated guilty by association, but he and the WRP are not the only left-wingers to be implicated in a Libyan connection.

Scottish first-minister and nationalist Alex Salmond is on the record opposing the inclusion of the Lockerbie Bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi in the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya. In a letter to the US Senate committee on foreign relations he wrote:

“The Scottish government rejected the application for transfer of al-Megrahi under the PTA specifically on the basis that the US government and families of victims in the United States had been led to believe that such a prisoner transfer would not be possible for anyone convicted of the Lockerbie atrocity.”

His governing party then released the convicted terrorist on ‘compassionate grounds’.

Earlier this month Jack Straw accused the SNP of having “selective amnesia” over their willingness to negotiate concessions from Westminster in return for the release of al-Megrahi. It would also seem unlikely that a June 2009 visit from Qatar’s acting minister of business and trade, Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, did not weigh on Salmond when he suggested that investment in Scotland may depend on al-Megrahi’s release. The SNP deny any deal was done.

Moreover, former Labour MP and Respect leader George Galloway should also be viewed with suspicion when he openly admits that he once viewed Gaddafi as an Arab leader who “made a stand” for the Arab world.

He now says he views him as just another dictator, which may seem reasonable until we note that he accepted a donation of 100 supply trucks from the Gaddafi Foundation to join his humanitarian ‘Viva Palestina’ convoy to Gaza.

It cannot be argued that Tony Blair is free from culpability with regards to Libya, but it is also clear that he is not the only one. The curious reality of the left’s involvement with Gaddafi is that of the various motivations which inevitably lead to the same place. While Blair was driven by realpolitik, Livingstone fell prey to gesture radicalism standing by his hard left long-time friend; Salmond wanted to advance his government’s bargaining position; while Galloway wanted to advance himself.

All of these rationales, to varying degrees, make one thing clear: the left missed the implications of putting certain motivations before the brutality of dictatorship. Whether through action or inaction, each of these figures played a part in normalising the Gaddafi regime.

The British left must develop a more consistent stance on engagement with Libya and dictators around the world. We cannot pick and choose which dictators are tolerable and at what price engagement should be bought.

Engagement with authoritarian regimes must come with human and civil rights guarantees at the very least, something the left, from Blair to Galloway, has never demanded of Libya.

55 Responses to “The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi”

  1. Anon E Mouse

    Henry – The Lib Dem’s and the Tories were not in government and the Tories were certainly vocal against the release of the Lockerbie bomber – Cameron pressed the point at PMQ’s several times. I’d go along with you in spirit except:

    (At www) telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/8308169/Lockerbie-documents-Labour-did-all-it-could-to-secure-bombers-release.html

    (At www) channel4.com/news/labour-government-aided-lockerbie-bombers-release

    Which are the first two hits in Google.

    You are doing what all Labour supporters try to do which is blame everyone hoping the actions are diluted.

    The current sale of arms are perfectly legal and a different thing entirely to the release of a mass murderer – by that standard you’ll say Blair shouldn’t have sold arms to the Saudi’s in 2006.

    What worries me more about Labour supporters is a contributor to this fine blog, (Kevin Meagher) and SPAD to the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary considers the IRA were fighting a “Guerilla War”and not engaged in acts of terrorism:

    (At www) leftfootforward.org/2011/01/gerry-adams-david-cameron-departure-from-commons/

    Labour have behaved very badly towards terrorist organisations Henry but to try to say the Tories and Lib Dem’s went along with the release of the Lockerbie bomber is simply untrue…

  2. Duncan McFarlane

    What a lot of false claims, double standards, bias and illogical arguments to pack into one blog post.

    You condemn Ken Livingstone for saying he “once” viewed Gaddafi positively and bring up a *draft* (not passed) resolution that he never supported backing Gaddafi written 16 years before the prisoners’ massacre in Libya and on that basis condemn Ken Livingstone and “the left” in general.

    You also join Michael White as an apologist for Blair selling arms to Gaddafi and talk as though having people having viewed Gaddafi positively was much worse than having provided him with arms to help him kill people with.

    You talk as though Megrahi was convicted in a fair trial on sound evidence. In fact as Scots Law Professor Robert Black, UN trial observer Dr. Hans Koechler, witness Edwin Bollier and Dr. Jim Swire among any others have said it was a sham from start to finish, with key evidence tampered with, key witness Tony Gauci paid money and coached and shown evidence in advance, heavy political pressure on the judges and no jury.

    Our only other “evidence” that Gaddafi was even involved in Lockerbie comes from Libyan defectors who also claim Gaddafi has lots of chemical and biological weapons and may use them. Do you remember a thing called the Iraq war? And all the propaganda from Iraqi defectors? Ring any bells?

    Given the unreliability of claims by defectors you might want to treat their other claims with some scepticism too.

    As for your claim that Gaddafi ordered the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher that is also highly dubious. If you google the wikipedia entry for Yvonne Fletcher and read it and the sources for it you’ll see why. The evidence suggests the shots did not come from the Libyan embassy and were not fired by any of Gaddafi’s people.

    You do realise that protesters are still being shot with British supplied arms and ammunition in Bahrain too – and were shot by the hundred by Mubarak – and that the British government is still arming Mubarak’s cronies (suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq etc and the Generals) who are the new dictatorship at the moment?

    Have you considered why they consider Gaddafi murdering his people “horrifying” and requiring action, while they’re merely “concerned” and do nothing when it happens in Egypt or Bahrain?

    The answer is the same as it was in Iraq – oil profits. Saddam refused oil contracts to US and British firms since 1991. Gaddafi has allowed them oil contracts, but has demanded a higher share of profits and talked about nationalisation. When Mossadeq did the same in Iran in 1953 he wasn;t having anyone shot – and he was elected – there was a CIA-MI6 backed coup against him. When Chavez was elected President of Venezuela and began planning demanding increased royalties from foreign firms there was a US backed military coup attempt against him. That’s why they want rid of him – that’s why you’re hearing all this propaganda for intervention in Libya to get rid of the “brutal dictator” that you don’t get on Egypt or Bahrain or Saudi.

    Gaddafi is a dictator and killing his own people – he’s no worse than all the ones our governments still back and arm though. Why is your criticism against “the left” instead of against the hypocrites still arming and backing dictatorships that are or will use those weapons to kill their people?

  3. Blair: “The money is just a way of funding the rest of the things I do” | Left Foot Forward

    […] The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi – Seph Brown, February 22nd 2011 Share | Permalink | Leave a comment Comments […]

  4. Alan Cowan

    The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi | Left Foot Forward http://t.co/JuhxDAKc

  5. Little Richardjohn

    After ignoring this appeal for 7 months, the ‘British Left’ is now snuggled up cosily in bed with Jean Marie Le Pen, Serbian Fascists ‘NASI 1389’, Glenn Beck, The Tea Party, Kelvin McKenzie, and every White Supremacist Islamophobe on the planet. Congratulations.
    Instead of seizing a golden opportunity to ride the wave of a popular revolution, it has again decided to play the Purity Game, outlawing all actions backed by any traditional enemy. Whatever the cost in Libyan life. This pernicious pseudo-pacifism is a cancer at the heart of Progressive thought. Its acolytes being totally prepared to scrifice the people of Benghazi on the altar of their cosy superstition.
    As Orwell says somewhere.
    “It’s hard not to believe that pacifism is inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty”

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