Alex Massie

Lockerbie: Why Did the SNP Do It?

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Party discipline can be a troublesome thing. Especially when insisting upon it actually works against you. Yesterday's votes in the Scottish parliament criticising Kenny MacAskill and the decision to release the Lockerbie Bomber on compassionate grounds would have had a much greater impact if members had voted their consciences, not the party line.

That's why Con Coughlin is wrong to argue that the 73-50 vote against the SNP "heaps yet further humiliation" upon the Nationalists. That a minority administration loses a vote can hardly be thought shocking. But a proper free vote - as, actually, a matter such as this should be - would actually have been of some use since it would, for once, have given a picture of the parliament's true feelings. And the truth would be more powerful than the contrived fakery of a vote that split, with one exception, down party lines.

That exception was Malcolm Chisholm, the Labour MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith, who voted with the nationalists. Good for him: not for the way he voted but for exercising his own judgement. Since it beggars belief that all SNP members approve of MacAskill's decision and its handling or that all Labour, Lib Dem and Tory members disapprove of it, their willingness to follow the party leadership renders their votes, in this instance, all but meaningless. Certainly it makes life easier for the SNP.

Coughlin continues:

The fact that ordinary Scots share the widespread view that he should have remained in his Scottish prison cell until proven innocent - he dropped his appeal to earn his early release - goes some way to mitigate the international hostily the decision has attracted, particularly in America. It shows Mr Salmond’s administration was acting in what they believed were their own interests, not those of the Scottish people, and it is they who should bear the brunt of the criticism.

But is it really the case that the SNP are incapable of taking a decision on the merits of the evidence before them? Both David and Coughlin appear to think so. It's true that, in opposition, the Nats have demonstrated considerable flair for political maneovering and, at times, a wearying enthusiasm for political point scoring on the most trifling of issues. But that does not mean that everything they do must be vetted by the political commisars checking that it does enough to further the nationalists' political agenda. Furthermore, I'm leary of the kind of crude majoritarianism Coughlin appears to be endorsing (though I suspect that there are plenty of times when, if it suits his own policy preferences, he'd be quite happy to abandon it and argue that the mob does not in fact know best...)

This brings me to Brother Blackburn's post from yesterday, asking, "Why did the SNP do it?" David wrote:

I can’t comprehend why the Scottish government took it upon itself to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, especially given the identity of the beneficiary of this decision.

The 1998 Scotland Act binds Scotland to all UK treaties. Honouring the UK Libya PTA commitment would not have impinged upon the due processes and jurisdiction of Scots law, and would have shifted the public’s ire onto Mr Salmond’s political enemies: the Labour government. I suspect the answer is that, at the time, the independent minded SNP imagined that a release made according to a PTA wouldn’t grab as many international headlines as one made under the compassionate laws of Scotland... In view of how the government put the SNP in an impossible position, and how long and hard the SNP tried to resist, their last gasp grandstanding was foolish.

But, again, the accusation of "grandstanding" is an odd one. Generally, politicians like to grandstand on the popular side of an issue. I've yet to find many SNP-minded folk who are confident that the Megrahi decision will help the nationalists in electoral terms. Clearly, however, there's something about the Nats that drives folk crazy, leading them to assume that even their unpopular decisions are part of some devious long-term strategy aimed at ripping the Union apart and hoodwinking the electorate into supporting independence. Even by the standards of political parties, with the nats everything is political; nothing can ever be principled. (Unlike David Cameron's insistence that he'd have acted differently. No political advantage there, only principle! Maybe Cameron is being principled but if he can do it then perhaps the Nats can too?)

Except it would have been quite wrong for MacAskill to have looked at the evidence, weighed it, concluded that there were indeed grounds for granting Megrahi compassionate leave to return to Libya and then decided that, because of the adverse political consequences this might bring, to refuse Megrahi's application. That would have been grandstanding or "playing politics" with the decision.

Furthermore, there are at least some grounds for thinking that, since Megrahi satisfied the eligibility criteria for compassionate release, refusing his application might also have been open to challenge. And if one has a policy of freeing prisoners upon compassionate grounds then the nature of the crime committed is not necessarily of the utmost relevance.

My understanding is that roughly 75% of applications for compassionate release have been successful and that when an application has been denied it has been refused because the medical evidence was insufficient, not because the criminal was considered beyond the pale or especially barbarous.

You may think that the Lockerbie Bomber belongs in a different category. Indeed I suspect that's the majority view. And it's understandable and, perhaps, also convincing. But it doesn't, I think, make any difference to the law. MacAskill could, as I say, have refused the application but it's not clear what the legal, as opposed to the political, basis for that decision would have been.

Again, the good headlines for the SNP would have been: Hands Off Our Legal Process. Salmond Stands Up to Labour Bullying. Megrahi Will Remain in a Scottish Prison. Scotland Honours Pledge Given to Americans. Obama Praises MacAskill's Decision. MacAskill Defies Labour's Lockerbie Sell-out. And so on. These would have been easy headlines to win; that the SNP spurned this opportunity suggests that Megrahi was released for the simplest of reasons: they thought it was the right thing to do.

One final thing: one may be confident of Megrahi's guilt and the safety of the verdict and also recognise that he was not the man truly responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103. That is, he was, literally, the bag carrier not the mastermind behind the operation. This has no bearing on the legal aspects of the matter but it does, I think, shift the ethical calculus somewhat. Or may. The scale of their respective crimes is, of course, very different but the roles played by Megrahi in the Lockerbie Bombing and Ronnie Biggs in the Great Train Robbery were, to some degree, comparable. Each was vital to the crime but neither bore primary responsibility for it. It's perfectly reasonable for people to disagree in good faith on this and, as I've said before, I'd have preferred Megrahi's appeal to be heard but I find the decision to release a dying functionary much less troublesome than I would a decision to release the man whose idea the crime was.

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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