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.

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

  1. Geo8

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  2. freiahill

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  3. Marcus A. Roberts

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  4. Heaven Crawley

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  5. Joseph Brown

    RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over #Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  6. Hitchin England

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  7. Shelly Asquith

    RT @SephRBrown: RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over #Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @Se …

  8. Ferret Dave

    RT @HitchinEngland: RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes …

  9. Ma

    RT @HitchinEngland: RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes …

  10. David Snow

    RT @SephRBrown: RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over #Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRB

  11. Patrick Osgood

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  12. niruratnam

    Good piece on Left Foot Forward about Blair, Livingstone, Salmond and Galloway all bigging up Gaddafi in past http://bit.ly/hKuydm

  13. joluni68

    RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  14. Persian Cat

    You mention Ken Livingstone in your article. What Livingstone cannot wriggle out of is the fact the he has been working for Press TV which is funded and controlled by another cruel and despotic regime, Iran !

  15. shamikdas

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  16. Tom Brooks-Pollock

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://bit.ly/fzNYuF

  17. ukpolitik

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  18. Jessica Asato

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  19. chris star

    The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi
    http://j.mp/ibkOyB
    #Libya #demo2011

  20. Ben Cooper

    RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  21. Glyn

    RT @BenCooper86: RT @leftfootfwd The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @Se …

  22. artijabz

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  23. Paul Gardner

    Er, speak for yourself. I have never had any illusions in Gaddafi or any similar dictator who mouthed left-sounding platitudes while brutally oppressing their own people.

  24. Richard

    The same Press TV that Boris Johnson has done work for then. And don’t even bother trying to argue that two wrongs make a right.

  25. Paul Burgin

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  26. Anon E Mouse

    Richard – This article is about the way the left engages with dictators.

    Do you have no opinion on that?

    By trying to argue with Persion Cat that Boris Johnson works for them is doing exactly what you ask him not to do…

  27. Mike Thomas

    As the people fight for self-determination from a despot, the fetid stench of Labour’s dealing are exposed as all the more tawdry.

    Forget WMDs, this the rank hypocrisy of prosecuting a war against one tyrant after the first justification was a sham and then turning a blind eye to another in exchange for an oil deal.

    Shabby, mucky dirty dealing by a government with the morals of sewer rats.

    The best thing the likes of David Milliband and the Labour Party can do is belt up and show some contrition as Gaddafi orders in the gunships to strafe his own people.

  28. John Rentoul

    RT @leftfootfwd: Seph Brown http://bit.ly/fzNYuF >>quite sensible on Gaddafi, but does not say how else to have thwarted his WMD ambitions

  29. David Mullen

    That was New Labours ethical foreign policy which was just an extension of “liberal Intervention” the favoured policy of the US neo cons.

    I opined on Alex Salmond yesterday somewhat unfavourably. However i think the decision to release Al Megrahi was in my view the right one as the evidence was barely credible. How can one man organise plan an execute an operation such as the blowing up of an aircraft all on his own?

    In any case the original suspects were Syria, however this was not pursued and was later dropped as a political expedient in prosecuting the 1981 gulf war. Although many people have had questionable relationships with all sorts of questionable people. But hey that’s what politicians do. I don’t recall any of the people you criticise selling weapons to any of these dictators.

    Finally why single out the IRA when Gaddafi also sold weapons to the UDA who were also aided and abetted in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the British security services.

    I would also like to know why you are so enthusiastically buying into the idea of America being able to bully and harangue countries that refuse to do their bidding.

  30. Fabian

    Not sure that Galloway could really be looked on as representative of the British left in any way, considering that he’s fawned on the likes of Nasrallah, Assad and Ahmadinejad, characterised the Taliban as freedom fighters and advocated jihad against coalition troops in iraq (for which he was thrown out of the labour party).

  31. Mark Stevo

    “I opined on Alex Salmond yesterday somewhat unfavourably. However i think the decision to release Al Megrahi was in my view the right one as the evidence was barely credible. How can one man organise plan an execute an operation such as the blowing up of an aircraft all on his own?”

    That’s not for Salmond to decide.

  32. Ann Markström

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  33. MustBeRead

    On @LeftFoodFwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://j.mp/hKuydm

  34. Nik Darlington

    RT @MustBeRead: On @LeftFoodFwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://j.mp/hKuydm

  35. Get Labour Out

    RT @MustBeRead: On @LeftFoodFwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://j.mp/hKuydm

  36. Rob Marchant

    Seph, surely you cannot lump in Blair’s attempt to stop Gadaffi making nuclear weapons using diplomacy rather than bloodshed – an approach originally initiated by that, er, evil fascist, Nelson Mandela – with Livingston’s (yet again) foolish association with another dictator on the grounds that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”? The two are just nothing to do with each other.

  37. Man in a Shed

    Its worth asking why the left was so soft on the terrorism from Libya that killed people within the UK. I suspect if the Labour party conference had been bombed you’d take a different line.

    Still its healthy to have the debate. You might like to try the left’s appeasement of Islamic extremism next.

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  39. hatelairs

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi: http://bit.ly/frzhGe writes @SephRBrown #Libya

  40. meastnews

    Maybe it is true what they say. Some people are not so much pro-Peace as anti-Jew? http://bit.ly/eyJ6Cv

  41. Anon E Mouse

    Fabian – And Labour can be considered on the left because….

  42. Khoshkeledoc

    Ex-London Mayor! v @MEastNews: Ken Livingstone been working for the Iranian fascist funded Press TV #Iranelection http://bit.ly/eyJ6Cv

  43. Erika Salzeck

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://bit.ly/fzNYuF #TonyBlair #JohnRentoul

  44. Erika Salzeck

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://bit.ly/fzNYuF

  45. Paul

    Seph,

    Can you explain how George Galloway taking badly needed humanitarian aid for Gazans advanced himself?

    Quite an idiotic conclusion to come to.

  46. fubarrossi

    RT @leftfootfwd: The British left should engage in serious self-reflection over Gaddafi http://bit.ly/fzNYuF

  47. Henry

    Did the Tories oppose the rapprochement with Gaddafi? I think not. The entire establishment was complicit in the shabby deal to suck up to the man responsible for Lockerbie. THe shenanigans of a jerk like Galloway are a sideshow.

  48. Anon E Mouse

    Henry – No the Labour Party and the SNP were complicit not the Tories or the Lib Dem’s.

    Stop rewriting history please. And while you’re at it you may want to mention the fact that Labour got involved in more offensive wars than any other government in UK history…

    We know the truth Henry and you know we know…

  49. Henry

    Anon – I’m certainly not going to defend the Labour Party over Iraq. It was a disgrace.

    But my point stands about Libya: it’s not a party political thing, it’s the Establishment. Just back in November, the current government approved the sale of sniper rifles to Libya & the LSE accepted a £1.5 million donation from Gaddafi’s son. They were all at it, sucking up to a murderous dictator who had blown up a 747 over Scotland because there was money in it.

  50. 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:

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

    http://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:

    http://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…

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