Diplomacy is famously fickle, something best summed up by Cardinal Richelieu's apologia for raison d'état: "man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter; the state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never". And in that line I can accept that there needs to be a way back for a rogue state willing to turn its back on terrorism, especially if there are mutual benefits to be reaped - for example, business and security interests - and this may require certain things to be smoothed over.
The release of the man accused of bringing down a jumbo jet - Clipper Maid of the Seas, Pan Am Flight 103, on a journey from London to New York - on Lockerbie in the south of Scotland has understandably caused the release of more heat than light. So much so that an important fact is being missed in the gloom.
On December 21 1988, I was living in Glasgow with my Mum. Returning from my shift, I didn't believe the news she greeted me with as I tried to get in the door; or rather, I thought she was describing the plot of one of the cheesy disaster movies she enjoyed in what, even so recently, was perhaps a more innocent time. Coming into the living room, it took a couple of minutes for me to realise that newsflash pictures of roads glutted with ambulances, most of which would return empty, were no fiction.
To cut a long story short, an arrest warrant was released for Libyan intelligence agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi in 1991; after being given into Scottish custody by Colonel Gaddafi in 1999, he was sentenced to 27 years' imprisonment in 2001 following a trial in the Netherlands. On 20 August 2009 - eight years later - he was released by the Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds, as he has prostate cancer.
The next day, the Telegraph reported on US President Barack Obama's fury at the move, and quoted him as saying that "We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this and we thought it was a mistake"; and commenting on the "curious silence" of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the paper's James Kirkup quoted Foreign Secretary David Milliband as saying that the situation was a matter for the Scottish government". Continuing the theme, Gaddafi filius, Saif Islam, has praised "the British and Scottish governments", and in a move that turned my stomach, Megrahi was welcomed back to Libya by ecstatic crowds waving Scottish flags.
The only high-profile personality not to buy into the suppression of this one important fact is Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who wrote in a letter to Gordon Brown:
As I said yesterday, I believe that the decision to release Megrahi was wrong. He was convicted of murdering 270 people, and I do not believe he deserved to be released on compassionate grounds, or returned to Libya.The italics are mine - illustrating Cameron's control of the dog that isn't barking here: despite the Scottish Executive's arrogating to itself the style "The Scottish Government", the Scottish Government remains where it has been since 1707 - in Westminster. The only change that Scottish devolution has made to the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is that the post-holder is now also known as Prime Minister of Scotland.
The scenes of him receiving a rapturous welcome at Tripoli airport on his return will have distressed many people. I note that Colonel Gaddafi's son has now publicly thanked not just the Scottish authorities but the British Government for its stance, raising questions about the British Government's role.
You have not commented on the decision since it was announced yesterday. This morning your Foreign Secretary refused several requests to say what he thought of the Scottish Justice Secretary's decision.
The fact that the decision to release was taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary does not preclude you, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, from now expressing your opinion on a subject that is of great public concern, and which affects Britain's international reputation and our relations with our allies.
This is more than a minutia: Gordon Brown's senior people are colluding with Libyan authorities in attempting to devolve the blame for a diplomatic disaster onto the shoulders of subordinates - like Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond and his Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill - for whose conduct he is responsible.
Moral absolutes exist and limit what we can reasonably do, even in the sphere of diplomacy. What is quoted less often than Richelieu's dictum is Pope Urban VIII's reaction to his death in 1642: "if there is a God, the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for". Last December, Gordon Brown promised that he would "throw UK diplomatic power behind Ulster's IRA victims in their search for compensation from Libya" for Gaddafi's relentless support for the terrorist organisation with money and materièl. I am not aware of any statement rescinding this support.
As Prime Minister of Scotland (amongst other responsibilities) Gordon Brown owes an explanation to the people of Scotland, the US and the two-score other countries whose nationals died at Lockerbie as to why the only individual to be convicted of the atrocity has been sent to a hero's welcome, while his victims were denied even the luxury of dying in a prison bed.
And what of Richelieu? His power-plays arguably provided Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, with a political and diplomatic template in his struggle to unite the Teutonic states that the former had devoted his life to keeping apart. In a chilling secular endorsement of Urban's words, France was humiliatingly forced to recognise the birth of the Germanic Empire (the second Reich) in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and the rest is history.
The release of a convicted terrorist on any grounds apart from new evidence gives a discomforting message to terrorists worldwide that the members of the Scottish Executive and the British Government need to think about carefully. In an age where communications can cross continents in a second, who knows to what conflagration we will be led by the Prime Minister - skilled in neither raison d'ètat nor Realpolitik - turning his back not only on America but on his own people in Scotland and Northern Ireland in order to present Britain in surrender mode to, as Neville Chamberlain said, a faraway land of which we know little?
Related post: The curious case of the compassionate politician