Categories: Crisis management / Energy issues / Political spin

29 August 2009


In defence of Gordon’s silence over Libya

Gordon Brown has been almost universally condemned for his silence over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. So it is left to me to speak up for the prime minister’s right to remain silent in the heat of battle.

Whatever Gordon Brown said or did about Libya he would have faced criticism. He was in a no-win situation. Moreover, his critics missed this point: it is a noble art – responsibility even – of a leader not to reveal all that she or he knows or thinks when under pressure.

In that sense, Gordon Brown did well this time around, and it played well to his taciturn image; an image that would have served him splendidly had he stayed true to it more often. This time he was also very effective – in using the one statement he did make – condemning the hero’s welcome the convicted terrorist received on his return to Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Bronwen Maddox got to the heart of the wider issues at stake in yesterday’s The Times:

The release of the Lockerbie bomber symbolises Libya’s move in from the cold. Obama and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, may have condemned the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister — and by inference the British Government’s lack of intervention — but the Administration is giving time and attention to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

I would add that the release also symbolizes – on the world stage – that Scotland’s devolved government is more than a symbolic institution. That was a point well understood by the Scottish National Party’s leader Alex Salmond when he wholeheartedly, and without much public backing, backed Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

Yes, this was a complex affair. Not least the latest statement from the Colonel’s son Saif al Islam Gaddafi clarifying how his earlier comments about the release, a prisoner transfer agreement and trade deal had been misunderstood by the media. Perhaps he should have stayed silent first time around or picked his first words more carefully. There was, he said, no quid pro quo.

By the way, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s account of the relationship of Scottish justice to his release is compelling here.

The truth is that there has been much misreporting and even more speculation about the known facts (not many) by politicians and media bent on taking the moral high ground. All good fun, but most of it will not pass the test of time.

But Britain is not alone in getting into a flap over Libya. Switzerland, where I live, was once thought exemplary at managing such delicate affairs. However, one of the Alpine-state’s cantons “declared war” on Muammar Gadhafi’s other son, Hannibal, when it arrested him, without first considering the consequences for the country as a whole. The Swiss government was later forced to apologize after Libya withdrew its billions from Swiss banks, detained two Swiss in Libya, and cut off oil supplies.

The lessons? I stand by wisdom of the Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, a master of strategy and tactics. He said that in order to win a war (one infers PR, diplomatic and commercial as well as military) one does not need to win every battle, or indeed any battles at all. It is the sense of the bigger picture, of knowing where one’s long term interests lie as one makes compromises that matters. It is about knowing – conceptualizing – how the jigsaw fits together that at the end of the action separates leaders, winners, and big thinkers from the also-ran.

2 responses to “In defence of Gordon’s silence over Libya”

  1. Tim says:

    Interesting piece Paul.
    Yes the PM couldn’t really comment; on the one hand he is scottish and perhaps through some misguided patriotism would not want to take power away from Scotland. It also acts as a smoke screen for the British government; conveniently lay blame on the Scottish system, whilst conveniently allowing Libya to come further in from the cold.

    It is within the interest of UK to have allowed this release and though the facts are not entirely clear according to the Sunday Times report tomorrow there is a link around an Oil exploration deal, which was muted a couple of years ago.
    As you say its not about the battle but the long term war and which compromise is chosen to be made for longer term goals.
    Often in these times we live in, the compromise is necessary when economic activities are at risk. The Iraq war was a similair decision I believe.
    Unfortunately it is often those that are not involved in politics, this time the people of Lockerbie the families of victims and indeed Megrahi who are pawns in a far greater game. I read today that Megrahi has called for a public enquiry in the UK and offered to supply documents related to the event. Is this a PR stunt by Libya, or himself? Either way Brown had chosen to react he would and has come in for a lot of stick from the public, opposition and press. I am sure there will be more to be come in this case.

  2. Heather Yaxley says:

    Whilst agreeing there are times for a leader to remain silent (something that any salesperson knows well), I believe this is an approach that should be used carefully and definitely not too often. Murphy’s game theory gives some useful considerations of a “wait and see” approach – but silence is like a vacuum and will be filled by others. This can be useful, but can also indicate weakness if the person who should be leading is not giving any guidance.

    I am also not a fan of the leadership approach that claims ignorance of a situation as a form of defence. If you are a leader, you should certainly be informed of important matters, and be responsible for delegating other areas. So the buck stops with you – and it is not good enough to claim that no-one told you, let alone adopt it as a strategy that you will not be informed so you can claim not to be informed.

    Regarding the “bigger picture”, of course, that does not always mean “the ends justifies the means”. There are times regardless of the possible outcome, that doing the right thing is more important than putting self-interest (or oil-interest) at the forefront of considerations.

    Values are things that you believe in even when it hurts. Of course, a certain level of pragmatism is often required, but “followers” (the public) need to feel that there are shared values between them and their leaders. Silence so often seems to indicate a forked-tongue approach of trying to keep everyone happy and actually pleasing none.