Seeking Gaddafi reviewed in The Sunday Times

  • February 15, 2010 15:31
  • Katy Scholes

February 14, 2010

Seeking Gadaffi by Daniel Kawczynski

The Sunday Times review by Stephen Robinson

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his coming to power at the Green Square in Tripoli September 1, 2009 If you have the good fortune not to be a Libyan, it is tempting to laugh at all the camp, insane excesses of the man who grabbed power in a military coup in 1969, and has clung on ever since through barbarism and canniness. For there is something superficially arresting about what Daniel Kawczynski terms the “corrupt grandiosity” of Colonel Gadaffi’s rule. These include his absurd revolutionary outfits, platform heels (he is touchy about his height), risibly dyed hair, and overseas travels with glamorous female guards who dress in foxy paramilitary gear and thigh-high boots. But the absurd posturing conceals a much shrewder figure who switches his ideological rhetoric to suit changed international circumstances, who has used terrorist proxies to undermine rivals and raise his international standing, and who has deployed terror within Libya with a cynical effectiveness.

The only truthful aspect of the official Gadaffi story that is drummed into the minds of his subject population is that he was born into a family of Bedouin goatherds, members of a minor clan whose name translates as “spitters of blood”, which might explain what was to follow. He picked the traditional African route to political power, the army, having come under the influence of Nasser’s anti-colonial ideology as a young man. He was handsome in his youth, with a certain charisma.

At the age of only 27, he and a group of fellow army officers struck against the hapless and hopeless King Idris. The coup was relatively bloodless as the monarchy quickly disintegrated, but brutal purges and public hangings were soon to mock the western and Arab governments that recognised his power grab. As Kawczynski grudgingly concedes, Gadaffi’s capacity to cause mayhem by funding international terrorism means that Libya (a country of just 6m) punches above its weight. This brings him some prestige at home, and this kudos, along with Libya’s vast oil wealth, and the weakness of the civil and political institutions inherited from Idris, explains why his domestic enemies have failed to topple him.He funded and gave sanctuary to several factions within the broader Palestinian cause, often it seemed to spite his rivals rather than to advance Arab interests. He was an early backer of Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal — both kept luxury apartments in Libya in the 1970s and 1980s. Money and equipment were also directed towards ETA, the Italian Red Brigades, Action Directe, Baader-Meinhof, and, of course, the IRA. Gerry Adams was so impressed by his credentials that he set up a Revolutionary Council modelled on the Libyan version. When Gadaffi bores of a terrorist cause, though, he drops the group and, as in the case of the Lockerbie bombing, frequently pays compensation to its victims, tacitly — but not formally — conceding “general responsibility”.

Internal oppression through ¬violence has been his consistent hallmark. In 1996, prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli took guards hostage in protest at the disgusting conditions. The rebellion was put down relatively peacefully, and the prisoners were ordered to muster in the prison yard, reportedly by Gadaffi’s brother-in-law. For the next four hours, guards posted on the rooftop shot at them until some 1,200 were dead. After years of denial of the massacre, relatives have since received compensation.
Journalists, Islamic scholars and internal dissidents are routinely killed. One journalist, Daif al-Ghazal, was abducted in 2005, and when his body was recovered, most of his fingers had been cut off. When the publicity for that murder proved embarrassing, Gadaffi had three Revolutionary Guards held responsible executed.

The Gadaffi who emerges in this study is not really a ideological zealot; indeed he does not seem to believe in anything much beyond entrenching his power and rewarding his family. Immediately after taking control, he replaced Libya’s legal code with Sharia law, but later realising the threat from Islamic fundamentalism to his own power, replaced that with the incoherent political credo laid down in the Green Book. This created a new form of state, jamahiriya, supposedly based on direct consultation of the people, but in reality establishing a vast network of informers.

Gadaffi’s essential canniness is evident in how he has changed his tune since September 2001, fearing he would go the way of Saddam Hussein. Now he describes radical Islam as “more dangerous than Aids”; last year he wrote an article in the New York Times on the importance of being nice to Jews. He is on first-name terms with Tony and Cherie. For Gadaffi, international terrorism has served its purpose.

Kawczynski is a 6ft 8in tall Tory MP of recent Polish descent who views Britain’s emerging relationship with Libya with a detached bemusement. As chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libya, he argues that it is perfectly reasonable that the British government should cut deals that allow firms such as BP to share the vast oil wealth that Gadaffi withholds from his subjects.

This is a lightly written and well-researched account of Gadaffi’s life, though dependent largely on secondary sources. Kawczynski failed in his efforts to meet his subject, an obvious flaw in a book called Seeking Gadaffi. But it offers an intelligent analysis of Britain’s relations with Tripoli, even if Kawczynski seems as conflicted as many of the Lockerbie families as to Gadaffi’s culpability in the Lockerbie attack, pointing out that Iran also had good reason to order the bombing.

But he is surely right to be enraged by successive governments’ refusal to order a proper public inquiry; and he finds it shameful that London has normalised relations with Libya without ensuring that the killer of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher is sent for trial here. He is disgusted, too, that the government has not pursued justice and compensation for the victims of the IRA bombs made with Semtex provided by Libya.

In the 1980s, western governments made the mistake of ¬demonising Gadaffi as “mad” and “evil”, which missed the point and only encouraged him. Kawczynski argues persuasively that Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Libya, though richly deserved, probably cemented his rule to this day. Now Gadaffi’s regime is sanctified by western governments who tolerate his domestic oppression in exchange for his rhetorical attacks on Al-Qaeda, a force that threatens him much more than the West.

When he dies, Libya will almost certainly lapse into chaos. His sons who might succeed him are, if anything, worse and more absurd than he is. There is the brutal playboy Hannibal, who triggered a huge diplomatic breach with Switzerland by beating up a member of his entourage there. Then there is the preposterous London-based Saif, the British university-educated “intellectual”, painter of kitsch watercolours and close friend of Lord Mandelson. It is bad enough that Libyans have to tolerate this dismal dynasty of vainglorious freaks; it is surely worse that we encourage them and call them our friends.


Seeking Gaddafi, published on Monday 8th February

  • February 04, 2010 16:06
  • Katy Scholes


On Monday we are excited to be publishing Seeking Gaddafi, by Daniel Kawczynski. Daniel has created a compelling portrait of one of the most controversial, and, frankly, bizarre, figures in modern history.

Michael Gove writes in his foreword to the book, "Seeking the truth about Gaddafi is, like following tracks in the shifting sands of the Sahara, no easy task. But my colleague Daniel Kawczynski has brought his characteristic tenacity, passion and energy to the task. The result is a fascinating portrait of a land and its leader, with illuminating detail on every page and telling insights culled from Daniel’s own work on international development and human rights. Daniel’s picture of Libya, for all that land’s complexities and contradictions, does reinforce one overarching lesson. While Libya has been blessed with fabulous material and mineral wealth, the absence of democracy has held the country, its people and its neighbours back for decades now. Across the Arab world, millions live under tyrannies and autocracies, denied the opportunity to speak, think, work and love freely."

In Seeking Gaddafi book Daniel Kawczynski examines the persona and career of one of the world’s most enigmatic leaders and talks with political insiders about the challenge Gaddafi has posed to Britain. He also interviews people whose lives have been affected by Libyan aggression and asks how we can balance human rights and the crimes of the past against opportunities to engage with a regime that is reaching out to the West.


Inside Out - question raised in PMQs.

  • February 04, 2010 15:21
  • Katy Scholes

From the Guardian. Wednesday 3 February

The Tories today sought to step up pressure on Gordon Brown over claims that he had a secret fund to advance his Labour leadership ambitions before he became prime minister.

The Conservative party chairman, Eric Pickles, accused Brown of treating people "like fools" by denying any knowledge of the allegations at his weekly Commons question time. A complaint has been lodged with the parliamentary commissioner, John Lyon, about the prime minister's failure to make the relevant declaration in the register of members' interests.

The apparent existence of a special, £50,000-a-year fund was disclosed last month by Labour's former general secretary, Peter Watt. In his memoirs, the ex-official said Brown, then chancellor, had his "own personal pot of cash" while Tony Blair was Labour leader and prime minister.

Watt wrote: "This was money we could not dip into since it was set aside for the chancellor's own projects."

He added: "All we at HQ knew was that it was for Gordon's private polling. I never asked for more detail, so I don't know if that polling was to inform budget decisions, or for his long campaign to become party leader."

Tory MP David Evennett raised the issue at prime minister's questions today, saying: "All our constituents are rightly concerned about transparency, expenses and cleaning up politics.

"With that in mind, now that it is clear that there was a £50,000 fund solely for the prime minister's use at his headquarters, will he explain why he did not declare this in the members' register of interests?"

The prime minister replied simply: "I know nothing about what he's talking about."

Pickles wrote to the prime minister today, insisting that Brown's remark "simply cannot be true".

"It is clear from Peter Watt, the Labour party's former general secretary, that you were the beneficiary of a secret fund held by the Labour party," he said.

Referring to Brown's speech yesterday about restoring trust in politics, Pickles went on: "If you wish to restore trust in politics, you should stop treating people like fools by claiming that you were unaware of this fund when all the evidence points to the contrary.

"I therefore urge you to admit to this fund's existence, apologise for misleading the house and cooperate with any inquiries that John Lyon may wish to make."


Inside Out. Review in The Sunday Times by Rod Liddle

  • February 01, 2010 11:00
  • Katy Scholes

Inside Out: My Story of Betrayal and Cowardice at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
The Sunday Times review by Rod Liddle

Peter Watt was the general secretary of the Labour party — an important post, previously held by the likes of Ramsay McDonald, Arthur Henderson and so on — for the best part of two years, until he was coerced in November 2007 into resigning over financial irregularities regarding Labour party donors. He has now written a very readable book designed to be as damaging to the party to which he owed his allegiance as it is possible to imagine, and especially so for the prime minister, Gordon Brown, who comes across — as he usually does on these occasions — as a psychologically damaged, sulking bully without a policy to his name. And at one point even as “bonkers”.

Watt has delivered himself of this stream of self-serving and vindictive bile because he believes he was hard done by when his Labour party career came to an end. My guess, reading between the lines, is that he was only a little hard done by, although, as a nurse from Dorset who rose without trace within 10 years to the most senior post in the Labour party, he may also have been over promoted in the first place. He would have us believe that he took the bullet and resigned for the good of the party — but the obvious question if that is so, then, is why this, now? And the answer is because the real or imagined iniquities he has suffered far outweigh any loyalty he might have to those he has left behind, even those few he quite liked. That’s the way it is right now, though, with this rapidly decomposing corpse of an administration.

Watt, a Blairite through convenience if not conviction, dishes it out from page one and his particular target is Brown. The prime minister emerges as a man incapable of taking a decision, especially if it is a big decision. Even more damningly, Watt suggests on several occasions that Brown did not have a political thought in his head. Perhaps one reason why there was not a general election in autumn 2007 is because Brown had no idea what he would put in the manifesto: “Everyone around him thought that there was some big plan sitting in a bottom drawer somewhere, just ready to be pulled out when the moment came. In fact, there was nothing,” says Watt. The prime minister was also startlingly inept at personal relations and Watt quotes Douglas Alexander — international development secretary, and nominally a Brownite — as saying that he and his colleagues had been working for this man night and day for 10 years, but that they really didn’t like him. Invited to meet and greet party workers, Brown would circle the room with a glassy stare and spooky rictus grin, often asking the same questions of the same people, in the manner of an aged monarch with Alzheimer’s.

Watt relates the tale of a ghastly dinner party at No 10 that he attended with his wife. Before the guests were seated, Brown was called away to the phone. When he returned the guests had sat around the table and Brown said furiously: “I didn’t sit you all down!” Watt takes up the tale: “Then he swivelled in his chair, so that he almost had his back to everybody and leaned his head on his arm. For the rest of the meal he was monosyllabic, sulking because he had lost control of the seating plan. The plates had not even been cleared when, quite suddenly, without saying anything, he just got up and left. As Sarah had also disappeared by then we all quite literally had to show ourselves out. ‘He’s bonkers,’ Vilma [Watt’s wife] whispered, as we trooped out.”

Prior to occupying No 10, Brown is revealed as a shadowy and divisive presence, commandeering his own sums of money from Labour party funds for private polling and what have you, wreathed in suspicion and bitterness, trusting nobody.

Mind you, not many people come out of this book terribly well — except, in common with almost all of these rat-on-your-party memoirs we’ve seen in the past couple of years, John Prescott, whom everybody seems to like. Prescott emerges as humane and principled and kindly towards party workers. However, Watt cannot abide Harriet Harman and her constant “dog whistling to the left”, and has even less time for her husband, Jack Dromey, considering him duplicitous and self-indulgent. The national executive committee of the party was, as a whole, an annoying and disruptive influence. But then an awful lot of this book consists of Watt bemoaning the thoughtlessness of others for doing stuff that made his job more onerous. The most telling sentence of Inside Out comes on page 125: “Dad became terminally ill at what was already a hugely difficult time for me.”

Watt left his post a year or so ago when it seemed that he might face criminal charges for having allowed a wealthy donor to funnel funds to the party through a number of third parties. Undoubtedly it was a horrible, frightening time for the young man and he did not receive much in the way of support. But it was nonetheless his responsibility, in the end, a notion that does not seem to have occurred to him.

Inside Out by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
Biteback £16.99 pp210


Review of Dilly: The man Who Broke Enigmas in History Today

  • January 25, 2010 13:29
  • Katy Scholes

by Catherine Flinn

Although the literature on Second World War code-breaking, Bletchley Park, Enigma and Alan Turing and his peers is prolific, Dilly is a significant contribution to the existing scholarship. Mavis Batey is a former code-breaker who worked at Bletchley Park quite closely with her subject, Alfred Dillwyn Knox (1884-1943). However, the book is not – and does not read as – memoir. Rather, this is a noteworthy analytical work in its own right: it is well-written, thoughtful and thoroughly researched.

It is likely that there is no better author to have taken on the challenge of presenting the life and work of Knox, who has been both under-appreciated and overlooked. Mavis Batey was hired to work in the Government Code and Cipher School at the beginning of the war. Soon after, she was sent to Bletchley Park to work with Knox on breaking early Enigma messages. Batey worked with him until his death, in 1943, and continued to work at Bletchley Park until after the end of the Second World War.

The book successfully chronicles “Dilly” Knox’s important place in British history, documenting his ground-breaking work without over-glorifying his life, yet still giving proper credit where due. Readers are taken from his origins as a minister’s son who grew up solving logic problems, to his work as a Classics scholar with important publications in Greek literature, to the translation of that work into his interest in and talent for deciphering and code-breaking. Batey is able both to understand and detail his code-breaking theory and methodology. She also successfully contextualises Knox’s interest in the author, mathematician and logician Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), having published on the subject herself.

Although Alan Turing (1912-1954) has received most of the code-breaking acclaim, the reader comes to understand that Knox should have shared such recognition equally. Yet for many years - and still today - much of the relevant documentary evidence remains unavailable. Batey also provides a bigger picture, which highlights the importance of Dilly’s contributions to the war in general, from the British naval victory at Matapan to the role of code-breaking in the campaigns in North Africa and the Normandy landings.

Additional themes in the story continue to have contemporary significance: Dilly stressed the importance of sharing intelligence so that it got into the hands of those who needed it most and was useful. This same theme is in the forefront of today’s news, as the United States has admitted that security issues brought to light via the “Christmas Day bomber” (2009) resulted from a lack of cooperation within government intelligence organisations. Of current importance also is the ongoing science of encryption and decryption, used daily in modern communications, with scientists having recently demonstrated an ability to break mobile phone security. A final recurring theme is Dilly’s awareness – so often overlooked – that all the operators transmitting the coded messages were human, and made mistakes, and it was often the exploitation of these mistakes that gave the “way in” to getting a break.

Ralph Erskine’s introduction is very helpful if somewhat inflammatory: he is highly critical (though probably rightly so) of the British government’s over-classification and continued secrecy over documents, which could help set the record straight, rather than endanger current national security. The appendices – contributed by Ralph Erskine and Frank Carter – are a cryptanalyst’s dream and extremely helpful for anyone interested in the details of breaking Enigma. It would have been even more useful to have included photographs of the “rods” used, but this is a minor point.

The only real shortcoming of the book lies in the lack of scholarly sourcing. This is presumably not the author’s fault, since the editor is the journalist Michael Smith (who himself has published interesting work on both code-breaking and Bletchley Park), and the book is perhaps not intended to be used as a resource. Nevertheless, the hit-and-miss nature of the sourcing and style (no in-text numbers or notes) was very frustrating for an academic historian. Yet on the whole, this first publication off the new “press” of Dialogue is very impressive: historically significant and worthwhile reading for both historians, and anyone interested in problem-solving, code-breaking and certainly the Second World War.