Letter from Westminster
The late Tip O’Neil, who was for many years speaker of the US Congress, once famously said that all politics is local. He was right. Over the last few days as I have watched events unfolding on the streets of Tripoli I realised the truth of that. The events in Libya could eventually be felt in the Northern Isles. The already painful spike in petrol prices could get worse if the situation there continues to be unstable.
That, of course, is not a basis on which to deny the people of Libya their freedom (quite the opposite actually) but it is another reminder that in a globalised economy very few events are ever without their consequences for us all.
For years people in countries like Libya have paid a high price for their cheap fuel. For decades, people in some Middle Eastern states have been denied their fundamental democratic rights by kleptocratic regimes that have used their control of massive natural resources to secure their grip on power.
At the time of writing, we have already seen long-standing authoritarian regimes driven from office in Egypt and Tunisia. Despite the brutal repression and violence being employed by Colonel Gaddafi and his forces, it would seem that Libya could also be on the cusp of a change of government. While the difficulties that the Foreign Office experienced as they tried to get British citizens out of Libya are well documented, we should recognise the important contribution of our armed forces in evacuating people from the interior of the country, many of whom were working in the oil industry and have close ties to the north of Scotland.
There are, of course, more fundamental lessons to be learned from Libya – principally that the double standards that western governments have played in foreign affairs always come back to bite us in the end. We have known for years that Gadaffi was a brutal despot – that was still the case when Tony Blair declared him rehabilitated some years ago. Misjudgements on foreign policy will be the enduring legacy of that government. I do not think there is a national newspaper in the country that has not recently published a picture of Tony Blair standing alongside Colonel Gaddafi.
The coalition has placed civil liberties at the heart of our agenda for government, rolling back programmes introduced by Labour that undermined some of the fundamental liberties – identity cards, the period of detention without charge etc. But we cannot restore individual freedoms at home only to ignore abuses overseas. Human rights are universal.
Thomas Jefferson said a society that trades a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither. The way our government works with other countries needs to reflect this fact. As David Cameron himself said – no longer can we be silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success.