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David Cameron Misread UK Public on BP-Libya 'Deal'



Dr Patrick Basham*

London (31 July) – Only one thing’s missing from coverage of the transatlantic tug-of-war between UK and US politicians over BP’s alleged role in last year’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan spook. The coverage’s fundamental premise – the politicians are reflecting public opinion in their respective countries – is wrong.

New polling finds there’s comparatively little difference in popular sentiment on either side of the Atlantic. Both Americans and Britons smell a large rat when it comes to BP’s role in the Scottish Government’s decision to release Megrahi.

Given BP’s importance to British shareholders, during the Gulf oil crisis it’s been a domestic political no-brainer for David Cameron to stand-up for the company that President Obama enjoys referring to as British Petroleum. However, as the public debate, both in Washington and London, evolves from BP’s culpability off the US coast to BP’s culpability in influencing Megrahi’s release, the BP orchard has rapidly run out of low-hanging fruit for Cameron.

Unnoticed by the media, on Friday morning Angus Reid Public Opinion released a survey that should give Cameron considerable pause for thought, as the results suggest a missed opportunity for the new prime minister and his foreign secretary, William Hague.

The Angus Reid survey finds most people in Britain (as in America) want their own government to investigate the Megrahi decision, which was officially (although doubtfully) made on compassionate grounds by a Scottish government citing Megrahi’s supposedly terminal cancer. Two-thirds of respondents (65%) want Cameron to launch an investigation, which he refuses to do.

Critically for Cameron, a plurality of Britons (41%) believe that the Scottish government’s decision to let Megrahi out of prison has something to do with BP’s drilling contracts off the Libyan coast, an allegation that Cameron, Hague, and Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, vigorously deny. Nevertheless, in September the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee will be investigating BP’s alleged role if it can persuade the respective actors from the current Scottish Government and the recent UK Labour Government to testify.

When broken down regionally, the Angus Reid poll numbers show there is majority support across all regions of the country for an investigation. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Scots exhibit the lowest support, at ‘only’ 53%. So, even in the least hospitable part of the country, electorally, for Cameron’s Conservative party, there is majority support for Cameron to take a different tack than his cumbersome, and probably inaccurate, position that the release decision was wrong, but there was nothing wrong with the decision-making process, itself.

A former prime minister enjoyed such a cozy relationship with so-called ‘Blair’s Petroleum’ that Cameron could have leveraged his disgust (which is shared by 75% of British voters, according to Angus Reid) at Megrahi’s release into the exploitation of residual public anger over Tony Blair’s allegedly oil-centred foreign policy, anger that has spilled over into deep public frustration with the Afghanistan policy that Gordon Brown has bequeathed Cameron.

This weekend, Cameron is under attack from would-be leaders of the Labour party because he courageously spoke truth to power regarding the Pakistani intelligence service’s proclivity for playing both sides of the terrorism street. If Cameron had chosen to speak as candidly about the workings of a highly questionable terrorism decision in the UK, the appreciative domestic response may have surprised him.

* Dr Basham directs the Washington- and London-based Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar


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