Lockerbie, Justice and the Price of Devolution
Open Democracy, August 21st 2009
Scotland’s Government arrived on the international stage with the announcement by SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the one person convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and the death of 270 people over the Scots town of Lockerbie on that fateful day, December 21st 1988, was being released.
MacAskill took his responsibilities seriously and appropriately, realising the importance of his decision with the eyes of the world on him. In his demeanour, statement and subsequent interviews, MacAskill seemed to display a sense of acknowledging all this, choosing his words carefully, avoiding populist rhetoric or playing to the ‘Daily Mail’ brigade (more of which later) – in the way Westminster Home Secretaries and New Labour Home Secretaries in particular – have done.
He did not buckle under considerable international pressure. The US administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and seven US senators including John McCain and Ted Kennedy, had piled pressure on the Scottish Government.
MacAskill made his decision on ‘compassionate grounds’, releasing a man who has been convicted of a heinous, horrid crime, but who has always protested his innocence. His release may prevent any further investigation into what really happened with Pan Am flight 103 and an examination of the doubts about al-Megrahi’s conviction.
A very powerful voice in all of this has been the self-righteous certainty of some of the US relatives and families of victims who have lashed out at MacAskill, the Scottish, UK and US Governments. Several of them have bitterly criticised MacAskill’s releasing of al-Megrahi on compassion, citing that the convicted Libyan showed no such compassion for his victims.
The decision has provoked predictable responses from some of the usual suspects. The Daily Mail, the day before the release, in an editorial, ‘Lockerbie and the Price of Devolution’ (1) stated that MacAskill’s decision was ‘about expediency, wheeler-dealing and the desperate quest for political and diplomatic advantage’.
It viewed MacAskill as nothing more than ‘an obscure nationalist politician’, who was a ‘third-rater who speaks for a faction in one corner of the kingdom’. His biggest claim to fame so far was ‘his detention at a football match on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly’. This they argued was all proof that ‘when Tony Blair pressed ahead with Scottish devolution, he failed to think it through’.
Magnus Linklater, never someone to hide his own self-importance in an article in The Times titled, ‘Devolution had been damaged by this act of leniency’ (2), called the release ‘an act of political expediency’, with ‘too much vacilitation’ which has hurt ‘the reputation of the Scottish judicial system’ and that ‘the concept of justice itself has been undermined’.
Linklater went on to claim that devolution and the hopes it had raised had been hurt by all this:
In the course of this act, and the manner in which it has been carried out, devolution itself has been damaged. The idea behind the creation of the Scottish Parliament, with all the powers vested in it, was that a new form of politics might emerge, with an openness and accountability that would be superior to the Westminster model.
David Cameron criticised it as ‘a very bad decision’ (3); at the same time, No 10 Downing Street maintained a diplomatic silence over the release, while Chancellor Alistair Darling carefully selected his words and refused to give an opinion on the decision of the Scottish Government.
This set of events tells us quite a bit about potential Conservative-SNP relations should Cameron become Prime Minister, and the dynamic of Labour-SNP relations. Fraser Nelson in a fascinating column on The Spectator website acknowledges the wisdom in Labour’s silence, and the ‘noticeable deficit of such wisdom and knowledge’ in the Conservatives (4).
Tory-SNP engagement is based upon each side believing it is successfully fooling the other, argues Nelson. Tories call Salmond’s SNP ‘Cameron Highlanders’, believing they are helping to weaken Labour’s Scottish heartland, while some on the Tory side see the Holyrood Tories led by Annabel Goldie as ‘Vichy Tories’ such is their befriending of the Nationalists.
Labour believe that they now have the right language and mentality to fight and defeat the Nationalists, choosing their battles and terrain; there is a confidence in the party that as with Glenrothes they can hold Glasgow North East, Michael Martin’s former seat, by slamming the Nats hard on crime and anti-social behaviour (which the al-Megrahi decision will assist).
What the above does show is that Tory support for the Union in what is still ‘the Conservative and Unionist Party’ is both threadbare and unsure. And that no one can be quite sure what kind of attitude and politics a Cameron Government will display towards Scotland and the Scottish Nationalists.
Despite the Daily Mail and Magnus Linklater, Kenny MacAskill’s decision is not just a watershed, but a moment of growth and maturity. The Scottish Parliament is slowly and definitely finding a very different path from Westminster. And that course is going to annoy some very powerful people and institutions not just in the UK but across the world.