British Opposition Presses Its Summer Offensive
Senior leaders put off vacations to lob charges at Major government
BRITAIN'S Labour opposition, backed by the small Liberal Democrat center party, has warned Prime Minister John Major that it will use his handling of the BCCI affair to spotlight what they have called his administration's "arrogance" and "complacency" in broader areas of policy.The August holiday season usually produces a lull in the nation's political pace, but this year senior figures of the government and opposition parties are breaking precedent by staying at their posts to continue the debate. The most potentially embarrassing of the accusations leveled at the Major government and at the prime minister personally concerns the Bank of England's closure on July 5 of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. A leaked copy of an auditors' report on the bank was published in British papers Monday. It reveals that the Abu Dhabi government, BCCI's 77 percent shareholder, knew of the massive fraud long before it was reported to the Bank of England earlier this year. This prompted Roy Hattersley, Labour's deputy leader, to ask the government whether the bank was "allowed to slide to slow collapse rather than risk causing offense to a friendly government." He accused Major of having acted with "ineffectual complacency." Labour also charges that Major promised the House of Commons a full and open public inquiry into the circumstances of the closure, then went back on his word. Last week the prime minister confirmed that Lord Justice Bingham is to conduct a secret investigation into BCCI. Labour's Hatterley contrasts the British government's "secretiveness" about BCCI with the "much more open approach" of the authorities in the United States, and insists there are "still more serious facts to be revealed" about BCCI. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, says that the Bingham inquiry should be given more sweeping powers and demands that it be held in public. Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten defends the decision to hold the BCCI inquiry behind closed doors, with the media absent. "All information will be available to the inquiry, and ministers will answer questions put to them," he says. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have tried to link their criticism of the handling of the BCCI closure to the government's alleged failures in other areas. Last weekend Gordon Brown, Labour's trade spokesman, accused the government of failing to prevent the export to Iraq of radioactive materials which he said may have been used to help manufacture nuclear weapons. Peter Lilley, Major's trade secretary, initially responded to opposition charges that shipments of uranium were being sold to Iraq until just before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by describing them as "a lot of fuss about nothing." He said only "tiny quantities" of the substance had been exported to Iraq. Under opposition pressure, however, he conceded last weekend that 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of depleted uranium had been sold to Iraq last year, with his department's authorization. He denied that it was suitable for making nuclear weapons. Mr. Lilley's version however was contradicted by scientists. John Hassard, a nuclear specialist at London's Imperial College, said depleted uranium had "very few civilian uses." "It is most likely to be employed in the manufacture of armor-piercing shells of the type used extensively in the Gulf fighting, or for the production of plutonium," Mr. Hassard said. Frank Barnaby, former director of the International Peace Institute in Stockholm, agreed. He said the uranium sent to Iraq would have been useful in conducting research into the development of a plutonium bomb. On a different front, Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, assailed Norman Lamont, chancellor of the exchequer, for making the "misleading" claim that the British economy, currently in deep recession, was about to recover. Two days later the Confederation of British Industry, the country's top employers' organization, reported that it could see "no sign" of recovery. Mr. Kinnock and Mr. Ashdown are eager to keep up pressure on the Major government because they know that there is less than a year to go before a general election must be held. They are concerned Major may decide to call a "snap" election in November.