Tim Luckhurst

Who really freed Megrahi?

Who really freed Megrahi?
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Who really freed the Lockerbie bomber? The question cannot be answered by deliberately looking in the wrong place. And for the fortnight since Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Secretary, announced Mr Megrahi’s release that is what journalists have been doing, obsessively.

Reporting with the pack mentality that often misdirects them, British newspapers have tried to prove that Gordon Brown authorised the release. Instead they have demonstrated only that the Prime Minister wanted Megrahi to be transferred to Libya under the prisoner transfer scheme, and that he had no power to make it happen.

Granted, Mr Brown and the British Cabinet desired a result that would have appalled Americans nearly as much as the actual outcome has. But their view did not prevail.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released, not transferred, and his liberation was authorised by the Scottish Executive not the UK Government. The relationships between these tiers of power, and the parties in office in each, are at the root of the confusion afflicting news desks.

Since 1999 the Scottish Executive has exercised power over Scottish domestic affairs. Constitutional purists point out that it is a subsidiary body that can be overruled by the House of Commons. They are right in theory, but the sovereign legislature has been so reluctant to meddle in Scottish policy that it has repeatedly disadvantaged Britain by refusing to.   

When Labour ruled in London and Edinburgh attempts were made to cajole Scottish ministers into conformity. Three Labour First Ministers, Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, rebuffed them. By abolishing tuition fees for Scottish students and funding free care for the elderly they infuriated UK minsters who could not afford such policies.

The question journalists have repeatedly failed to ask in the Megrahi case is: if Labour in London could not control Labour in Scotland is it likely that it now controls the Scottish National Party? This matters, because for Gordon Brown (or Jack Straw or David Milliband) to have responsibility for Mr Megrahi’s release it must first be demonstrated that they influenced a decision taken by an SNP minister and an SNP cabinet.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, has described his approach to governing devolved Scotland as “making Westminster dance to a Scottish jig.” He relishes every opportunity to provoke tensions and he would be a fool not to. He leads a party committed to severing the union, an outcome to which he has dedicated his career and in which he passionately believes.   

This is the manifesto upon which he was elected. His party would harm itself if it put UK interests first. So, it is at least unlikely that the SNP volunteered to release Mr Megrahi simply because Mr Brown did not want him to die in a Scottish Prison.

The facts reinforce this conclusion. After all, the SNP explicitly rejected the UK government’s plan to return him to Libya under the prisoner transfer agreement, as Kenny MacAskill explained, ponderously, when he announced Megrahi’s release.  

Whitehall worked hard and disingenuously to conclude the deal that would have allowed Mr Megrahi to serve out his sentence in a Libyan jail. That, not his liberty, was what the UK government wanted. But Mr MacAskill did not transfer the prisoner; he released him on compassionate grounds. This provoked fury in London and Washington.  It was supposed to.  

Reporters and editors who imagine a cosy deal was done between Labour and the SNP need to consider the personal dimension. Mr Salmond is not one of Brown’s sugars and Gordon loathes Alex at least as cordially as he does David Cameron. It is exceedingly unlikely that Mr Brown will ever lose his seat to a Conservative, but the SNP threatens his future. It threatens Labour’s capacity to win majorities at Westminster too.  

Labour designed devolution to smash nationalism, and no matter how utterly that tactic has failed it is pure fantasy to imagine that telephone lines between London and Edinburgh recently buzzed with UK Labour ministers asking Scottish Nationalist ones to "help us out by transferring Megrahi." This decision was taken by the SNP alone. The more interesting question is why?

Of course, it is possible that the SNP leaders made their decision as ministers not as nationalists, giving UK interests priority over ideology, but precedent and the details of this case make that hard to believe.

So far every attempt to show that London applied pressure on Edinburgh has demonstrated only that Downing Street and the Foreign Office profoundly desired an outcome they could not command. Messrs Brown and Straw wanted Megrahi to go home. But there are many things this Labour Government would like the SNP to do and it has done none of them. ‘I want’ rarely gets when you are asking a determined opponent.

The most likely explanation is that the SNP chose to strut their stuff on the international stage by taking a diplomatically sensitive decision that they imagined would damage the UK more than it damaged Scotland and protect the Scottish legal system from the scrutiny that would have occurred during Megrahi’s abandoned appeal. Lazy journalism may help to prove them right, though the Scottish economy will suffer if Americans stop visiting.

Other possibilities include an offer from London that the SNP could not refuse. Did Gordon Brown pledge a future increase in the Scottish block grant or to support the referendum on independence (which Mr Salmond has promised but the Holyrood Parliament opposes)? There is no evidence that an inducement was offered. Any that were would surely have required transfer not release. Still, no matter how thoroughly implausible, bribery is more likely than that the SNP simply volunteered to do Labour’s bidding.

But that is conjecture. My conclusion? The zeitgeist is anti-Labour and Gordon Brown is astoundingly incompetent, but that does not make Brown guilty of this offence. He was willing to trade Megrahi, but his plan was blocked. The SNP released the bomber despite pressure from London. The alternative, to which British journalism has rushed headlong, defies logic. The SNP glories in defying Westminster. It is the party's raison d'etre.


Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of The Scotsman