It is, perhaps, a surprise that a human figure, as revered as a priestly relic; part wax effigy, part mortal remains and part fancy sits at the end of the South Cloisters of one of our great Universities, University College, London. UCL was the first to embrace secularism, and so it is not surprising that one of the founders of Utilitarian Philosophy should be awarded such a fêted, if not slightly grisly position within its cloisters. His name, as I am sure you will know, is Jeremy Bentham.
He is best known for a sentence contained in, A Fragment on Government (1776):
..it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong
Along with John Stuart Mill, Bentham promulgated what is essentially a social liberal worldview. But Mill digressed and disagreed. His later views were partly different and sometimes ran counter to Bentham’s well known assertion. Mill objected to the idea that there are social wholes that are superior to those individuals who constitute them. There are no super empirical entities, like the Law or the Church. In other words Mill rejected that there is a super entity of any kind that has a moral monopoly but still asserted that maximization of pleasure or happiness is therefore the moral end and the logical next step from that is to invest our government with the authority to attain it. Mill is careful to build in caveats, the principal one being that, although governments should pursue a utility rule, exceptions should be made on moral grounds.
Either that or you give free reign to despots and tyrants who claim to make the trains run on time.
And so we come to Lockerbie.
The Labour government is in the stocks over leaked papers that reveal a certain amount of “assistance” given to the Libyan Government over the release on medical grounds of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi which run counter to denials given at the time. If ever there was a better paradigm of the conflict between the happiness of the greater number and the exception that must be made to assure us of the primacy of natural justice, I don’t know one. All governments are responsible for either conducting or assisting global commerce. If they withdrew on moral grounds, or forced domestic traders to do so, we would be riding bicycles and knitting our own iPods. The previous Labour government is accused of trading a prisoner for oil; not just my words, but also those of Sir Bernard Ingham, who, at the time of the Lockerbie disaster visited the crash site with Mrs Thatcher and observed:
Three miles east of the town, we were taken to the nose cone of the plane in a field, surrounded by belongings and bodies, and the gruesome visible remains of two stewardesses frozen in death in the wreckage. It seemed an awful intrusion just to look, but there was no point in going unless we took in the full horror.
..They eventually put Abdelbaset al-Megrahi behind bars, only for our contemptible politicians to release him after only eight years allegedly on compassionate grounds but really to oil the wheels of trade with Libya.
There can be little doubt in most peoples’ minds that the motivation for al-Megrahi’s release was realpolitik and the weighing of the needs of the few, in this case the victims on Pan Am flight 103, against the needs of the many, that being us.
We pay our money and we make our choice. If we abandoned such deals on purely moral grounds, global commerce from and into the UK would almost cease. Implicit in the dealings of the last Labour government was not only an acknowledgement that the reality was unpalatable, and therefore to be kept a secret, but that it was a vital necessity, without which government as we understand it would cease to function.