Looking back, it was an almost perfect week. Luminous days spent in Cumbria with friends who provided princely hospitality; rooms oozing with comfort and sweet peas and lavender; dinners of their own salt-marsh lamb and tender broad beans; breakfasts ‘at 9ish’ in a sunny dining room with strong coffee, scrambled eggs, bacon as crisp as parchment and a quartet of newspapers. And that true element of lavishness: their time. We explored the estate, picnicked in an abandoned farmstead by the sea, and wandered in the garden, accompanied by four lurchers as enchanting and inexplicable as Marlene Dietrich.
We left restored and exhilarated, reliving the hours on the drive home, speaking above the fuzzy, cake-filled soundtrack of the Test match on the car radio. Other joys of the week: the Proms, listening to a concert performance of Fidelio, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a humanitarian miracle of young Arab and Jewish musicians. And the next day, another miracle: England regaining the Ashes. By evening, I had emerged from my Test cricket coma and watched the replays. I grinned. My husband wept.
And so, the summer eases away, apples already carpeting the orchard, the garden seeding and tall. All these things. And one more. This was the week that the Lockerbie bomber Abdel-baset al-Megrahi was released. That, ‘in the name of compassion’, the terminally ill terrorist returned to his homeland.
Although I’ll remember the picnic overlooking the sands of Morecambe Bay, I wonder if I’ll recall the heated talk over the rights and wrongs of freeing the unrepentant murderer of entirely innocent human beings. As we chewed over the words ‘mercy’ and ‘repentance’, another guest picked away at the bone of truth: this was compassion without repentance, that, in the name of mercy, only the path to the vast reserves of Libyan gas and oil would be smoothed.
‘But we have to watch our step,’ he added, and told us of Col Gaddafi’s reaction when his son Hannibal and daughter-in-law were arrested last year in Switzerland. Charged with abusing two servants, they were released on bail after two days, but Switzerland is still paying the price for incurring the Libyan leader’s wrath: all Swiss flights to Tripoli have been stopped, trade sanctions imposed, more than £5 billion withdrawn from Swiss banks and, despite unctuous apologies from the Swiss government, Libya’s crude-oil exports that provide half of Switzerland’s oil have been cut.
And here lies the shadow. How willing are we to sell our national souls for oil? As citizens, we quietly accept that self-interest is the survival instinct of nations. What’s harder to swallow are lies. Perhaps we weren’t aware that the Scottish government leader Alex Salmond was once an oil economist for a Scottish bank, but we know that yields of Scottish oil are declining. Therefore, to be told that ‘humanity is a defining characteristic of Scotland’ and that the only motive for freeing al-Megrahi was compassion for a dying man feels like moral fraud.
The release of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing is a good moment for soul searching. Just how dependent do we want to be on Libyan/Russian/Saudi oil? What do we mean by ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’? For some, the release of al-Megrahi may already feel like old news. For those who lost sons and daughters, the injustice is irreversible. Now the only justice to be had is to learn.
We should beware of setting aside the law, beware of embracing expediency and calling it ‘mercy.’ We honour the innocents who fell from the sky that December night by waking up. By deciding what kind of country we want to be.