Alex Massie


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Pete suggests there's little more to say about the Sunday Times story on the UK government's attitude towards the release of the Abdelbaset ali al-Megrahi. The suggestion given by the paper - and increasingly assumed to be true by everyone else - is that Megrahi was freed for fear that keeping him in prison in Scotland would jeopardise potentially £15bn worth of business for BP in Libya.

The implication is that, like the war in Iraq, it's all about the oil. Well, we had to reach this point eventually, I guess. Nonetheless, though it's written by my old friend Jason Allardyce, there's a little less to the Sunday Times's story than first appears. That's because the letters the paper has obtained have nothing to do with the decision to actually release Megrahi.

The clue is in the first paragraph:

The British government decided it was “in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom” to make Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, eligible for return to Libya, leaked ministerial letters reveal.




Granted, the Americans believe they had an understanding that Megrahi would serve his entire sentence in Scotland. I suspect the Americans are correct to believe there was such an understanding but it's also interesting that they sought it since this suggests that there always existed the possibility, long before any PTA was actually signed, that Megrahi might be sent to a Libyan jail.

Nonetheless, once the PTA was signed - and that caused some contoversy and ill-feeling in Scotland - Labour's ability to control the process ended. Because, PTA or no PTA, the final decision on Megrahi's fate was and always had been in the hands of the Scottish Justice Secretary.

Anyone with any understanding of Scottish politics - and granted, this excludes many London-based pundits - knows how unlikely it is that Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill listened to representations from Gordon Brown and Jack Straw and then thought to themselves, Well, we're Little League politicians, why don't we listen to what the Big Boys in London have to say and then do exactly what they want?

As Tom Harris says, we're supposed to believe that Wee Eck and Kenny took a wildly unpopular decision to protect their bitterest enemies? Come off it. The alternative view that London wanted Megrahi to be released so asked Edinburgh not to release him, confident that the uppity Jocks would, out of spite, do the opposite of what London wanted seems a) too clever by half, b) too clever for this government and c) daft.

Look too, at what actually happened. Libya petitioned Scotland to transfer - no release -  Megrahi under the terms of the PTA and MacAskill rejected that application. Would he have done so if he had not also been able to free Megrahi on compassionate grounds? We cannot know but I suspect the answer would be yes.

Because the policy of successive ministries in Edinburgh had been that Megrahi should, as the Americans desired, serve his sentence in Scotland and Scotland alone. Transferring him to Libya would have been the mother of all U-turns. Doing so as a result of pressure from London would have ended Kenny MacAskill's career, destroying whatever credibility you're inclined to grant him.

Equally, supposing that the SNP would accede to such pressure* rather than use it for its own political advantage is utterly implausible. When was the last time the SNP declined an opportunity to be seen to be "Standing up for Scotland"? That, in this case, they'd have been standing up for the independence of the legal system would have won them support from across the political spectrum. It's not a tricky argument: Look, London want to release the man convicted of the owrst terrorist atrocity in British history but we insist that since he was convicted in a Scottish court he serve his full sentence in a Scottish prison. And we'll brook no interference from London on this matter.

Generally speaking, when a politician does something unpopular it's because he or she thinks it's the right thing to do. They're not in the business of courting unpopularity. The most obvious reason for Megrahi's release - accepting that it may well have been in everyone's interests that he be sent home - remains the most persuasive. The matter may have been handled poorly - though doesn't this also actually weaken the conspiracy theory?  - but Megrahi was released because MacAskill considered it decent to let a relatively minor functionary (in the scheme of things) and symbolic prisoner die at home.

There may well be an intimate connection between the signing of the PTA and BP's deal with the Libyan government going through and I've no doubt that Tripoli expected that Megrahi would one day be transferred to a Libyan prison. But little of that actually changes very much: the decision to free him was taken in Edinburgh, not London. The Sunday Times scoop is interesting but less than it seems.

I know this is disappointing since people desperately do want there to be some shenanigans and few people are prepared to grant this government anything, but both Jack straw and Alex Salmond are making sense here.

*But if you were to build a conspiracy theory you'd want to know what representations BP made to Holyrood and impact the Megrahi decision might have on their North Sea operations.

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.