Alex Massie

Lockerbie Decision: The Backlash Begins

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I was wrong. I argued that people can disagree in good faith on the question as to whether Kenny MacAskill was correct to let Abdebaset Ali al-Megrahi return to Libya to die. I should hav known better. Those who think the decision mistaken appear to believe there are no reasons - none! - to support taking a different view.

Douglas Carswell, for instance, thinks it awful that a lack of compassion (on Megrahi's part) should be met by a degree of compassion (on the part of the Scottish legal system). That's a valid point, but it's equally valid to note that our justice system is not in fact predicated upon the principle of an eye for an eye. Indeed, if you were of a religious mind, you might argue that MacAskill's choice was informed by the New Testament, not the Old.

Over at the Telegraph, Con Coughlin, Nile Gardner and my old friend Gerald Warner are all (predictably) outraged. Con Coughlin concludes his piece thus:

The decision to release Megrahi also raises the risk of a serious rift between Britain and Washington, which bitterly opposed the Libya’s return home. Hopefully the State Department realises that the loony-tunes who run Holyrood do not speak for the entire British nation, only the Scots. Perhaps the Americans can respond by imposing sanctions against the SNP?


What do you expect when you elect what should be no more than a lunatic-fringe pressure group to run a region. The Scottish Executive have embarrassed themselves today. The UK as a whole has been shamed by a jumped up county council.



But the episode will I expect sully the whole idea of Scottish devolution for many, and not just on right-wing American talk shows, where Mr MacAskill will doubtless be eaten alive in absentia. There is a cynical view of parties such as the SNP, and of devolution processes such as Scotland's, which is that their main purpose is to give frustrated and troublesome mediocrities the shot at power they would never manage in a bigger, more competitive polity. That theory looked pretty plausible today.

Maybe they are correct to think that it is politically motivated by the opportunity to jump up and down on the world stage in the hope that such aggrandisement will impress the Scottish electorate. If - and this allegation remains unproven - that is the case then, actually, the hostility of the reaction to MacAskill's decision and the belittling of Scotland that accompanies it will be what helps the SNP, not the decision itself. As we saw last week, when other people started to rubbish the NHS many Britons with no great faith in the system felt somewhat put out and even moved to defend it. Well, the more Jock-bashing there is from London and elsewhere, so the more people will think that MacAskill's decision had some merit.

The case is certainly complicated by the fact that though the United States was the primary target of the bombing, the crime itself happened on Scottish jurisdiction. That necessarily means that Washington's representations deserve to be listened to and treated seriously. But it emphatically does not mean that those concerns must carry the day or dictate the verdict. To think otherwise is to undermine the independence and integrity of the legal system and offer a foreign government a quite unacceptable power of veto.

And it is not as if Westminster politicians have always insisted that terrorists serve their entire sentence. You can argue, plausibly, that releasing convicted IRA and Loyalist terrorists was a necessary part of the Ulster "peace process" but it is not clear to me that releasing terrorists for the sake of a grubby, imperfect political deal must be less dishonourable than releasing a man on the compassionate grounds that he will be dead within a few weeks.

Equally, some pundits seem to be under the misapprehension that this is all an unfortunate consequence of devolution. Not so. This would still have been a matter for Scotland, not the UK government. I believe - commenters will correct me if I'm wrong - that it would have been a question for the Lord Avocate, presumably in consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland, to decide. It would not have been the Prime Minister's business.

Now a Tory or Labour Lord Advocate  - or now, ministry at Holyrood - might have taken a different decision. But not necessarily. Each would have been as determined as MacAskill and the SNP to safeguard the independence and probity of the Scottish legal system.

As I say, good people should be able to disagree in good faith on this issue. I hold no particular brief for the SNP, but while the affair might have been handled more cleanly, it is not obvious that they were out of their depth, not least because the advice they received came from the same people as would have been offering advice and guidance, regardless of the party in power at Holyrood or, for that matter, the existence of Holyrood itself.

Since I tend to take a pretty liberal view of criminal justice matters in general I'm disposed to taking a charitable view of all this. But I can quite see why others are less inclined to do so. Perhaps you'd feel an extra measure of satisfaction or think that justuce would be better served if Megrahi died in prison; I'm not sure I do. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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