Friday, 30 September 2016

Gaddafi's gold

It often seems as though journalists and politicians possess highly selective memories.  Worse, they also assume that the rest of us do as well, and are quite happy for them to regurgitate old stories as if they were new, or even to completely reverse the ‘facts’ if that suits their current requirements.  I mention that as context for the ‘revelation’ that some members of Plaid Cymru went to Libya in 1976 and that the party may, or may not, have received money subsequently.
I was a member of the party’s national executive at the time.  However, it was 40 years ago, and I have no written records from that period, so I am working from memory here – and age, as they say, does not come alone.  I recall, though, that the first I knew about the infamous visit was after the event.  I don’t know how it came to be arranged or how the participants were selected, but I’m sure that it wasn’t through any formal decision-making process.  On the other hand, in those days an awful lot of things happened outside any formal decision-making processes!
The problem with the past is often that we view it through the prism of the present, but the context back in 1976 was significantly different.  At that time, Gaddafi was seen less as a despot and more as a revolutionary who had overthrown an absolute monarchy in a bloodless coup.  And the then comparatively new government of Libya was making efforts to share the country’s oil wealth more fairly, and develop the country’s education and health services.  The BBC’s report includes a quote from Carl Clowes about the reasons for the visit which are entirely true – these were interesting developments from which it was believed that Wales could learn.
One other result of the visit was an attempt to broker some sort of deal between Welsh farmers and Libya to export Welsh lamb.  I’m not sure that very much ever came of it, but the attempt was genuine and well-intentioned.  The one thing of which I am certain is that the visit was not conducted with the aim or intention of securing funding.
Most of what I subsequently learned about the visit came from one of the participants, Brian Morgan Edwards.  Brian, or BME as he was more widely known, was something of a character, to put it mildly.  And on all issues other than the core question of independence for Wales it would be fair to say that his views and mine were more than a little divergent, but we always got on well – and he could be very good company.  But like all good raconteurs, he could at times ‘embroider’ his stories ever so slightly.
(At the time, incidentally, he was not, as stated, Treasurer, but Deputy Treasurer.  The Treasurer at the time was the late Elwyn Roberts from Bodorgan on Ynys Môn.  Having subsequently taken over from Elwyn as Treasurer, I can vouch for the fact that absolutely no-one other than Elwyn would have fully understood the party’s finances at that time, not even the Deputy Treasurer, which was a post with no clearly-defined responsibilities despite having a seat on the Executive.)
Thus it was that one Saturday night in the lounge bar of the Bellevue Hotel in Aberystwyth after an all-day meeting of the Executive (early in 1977, I think) Brian regaled me with his tales of the visit.  He was, shall we say, partial to the odd whisky or six, and had a knack of speaking in a stage whisper which meant that everyone in the room could hear everything he said (including on this particular occasion the gentleman on the other side of the room to whom Brian referred as “Big Ears over there” – in the same stage whisper.  In all fairness, I could hardly blame anyone for listening in in the circumstances).
The Libyans, he told me, had offered guns as well as money, and could not understand why the group were refusing them.  According to Brian, the response to the refusal had been along the lines of “But when the Irish come here, they always want guns.  Why don’t you want guns?”  I was more than a little alarmed at this turn of events, and subsequently spoke to Phil Williams (who had led the visit) privately to express my concerns.  Phil was able to give me the assurances that I sought; the visit had indeed been about looking at what the government was doing in fields such as health and education, not about seeking assistance – and there had been a little ‘embroidery’ in Brian’s tale.
So, with that by way of background, I completely believe the statement by Carl that Brian told him that money had been received; but that is not necessarily inconsistent with believing the counter claim by Plaid that there was no money.  I certainly have no recollection of a £25,000 donation from Libya being reported to the Executive.  The party was, in those days, run on rather less than a shoestring; £25,000 would have been considerably more than 10% of the party’s annual turnover.  It was the sort of sum which only ever arrived as a result of the wills of departed members.  The party’s financial affairs were more than a little ‘complex’ at the time as well; the treasurer was always borrowing from Peter to pay Paul as the party stumbled from one financial crisis to the next.  £25,000 would have made a significant difference. 
On the other hand, in those days political parties as entities were barely acknowledged under the law, and regulation was zero.  Add to that the secretive nature of party financing in general and it’s entirely possible that any party at the time could have received money from all sorts of dubious sources with no more than a handful of people ever being aware of the fact.  For what it’s worth, I genuinely don’t believe that £25,000 was received, but I cannot in all honesty entirely rule out any possibility that some money was received via one route or another with the knowledge of only one or two individuals who are no longer with us.  I suspect not; I simply cannot be certain.
The response by Labour and Lib Dem politicians to the latest rehashing of the story was utterly predictable – seize on a claim, portray it as fact, and issue a condemnation.  It’s utterly hypocritical, as Cai has pointed out, given the links which others subsequently developed with Gaddafi.
It might be argued that it was known at the time that Libya was arming and financing the IRA, and that therefore any contact with the regime was at the least unwise.  With hindsight, that is perhaps so – but there are a lot of things that most of us would do differently with the benefit of hindsight.  And there are plenty of other governments which have funded armed groups in other countries - the US is probably primus inter pares in this respect.  We have to come back to context again.  Although Gaddafi turned out to be a despot, the despotic aspects of his regime were considerably less obvious in 1976 than they were by the 1990s.  At that time, he looked like a man who was utterly determined that all in his country should benefit from oil wealth, and that was a very different perspective on wealth from that prevalent in the capitalist economies.  I couldn’t then, and still can’t, see anything wrong with trying to learn how that was being done in practice.  Everything else about the latest ‘story’ just looks like froth and mud-slinging to me.


Cibwr said...

I too have memories of this trip to Libya - and the subsequent deal for Welsh lamb export. I too remember tales of cash from Gaddafi and it being dismissed at the time as fabrication. Incidentally at this time my father, who was head of department at the then Rumney College negotiated with Libyan officials for the college to take a fairly substantial number of students (mainly engineers) and pioneered English as a Foreign Language courses to facilitate this. So it was at a time when there were a number of links being forged between Wales and Libya. For a number of years as a result of my dad's efforts we received a christmas card from the Libyan government! Perhaps that puts me in the category of of a stooge of Gaddafi too?

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon, I think you might be correct on several points.