The defining moment of devolution? Scotland a “pariah nation”. The end of Tartan Week in America? The Scottish government was attacked on all sides last week for letting the Lockerbie bomber, Adelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, return home to his family. “It’s the world versus Scotland” cried the Sun. You’d have thought that the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, had just released a mass murderer. He had of course, but only so he could die. It’s how we do things here.
The implication of much of the coverage was that, through a combination of incompetence and deviousness, the Scottish government had provoked an international incident which has seriously damaged Scotland’s image abroad and brought into question the devolution settlement. According to the Telegraph, Scotland had “waved its little fist” at world opinion and would suffer the consequences, including an end to foreign investment. This was a ludicrous over reaction from press and politicians feeding on public indignation.
I can’t see any reason why MacAskill’s “act of humanity” should lead to Scotland being shunned by the community of nations, just because a few saltires were flown in Tripoli on Megrahi’s return to Lybia. The episode could have been handled better, I’m sure, and Kenny MacAskill’s somewhat robotic delivery – the Rev I M Jolly meets the Terminator – didn’t help. People may disagree with his decision to release Megrahi, but it was clearly his to take and he acted with some dignity under intense pressure.
It wasn’t, as the Guardian suggested, an attempt by an upstart Scottish government to forge its own independent foreign policy. MacAskill acted within his powers as the minister with responsibility for the Scottish criminal justice system and consulted widely before he made his decision. He was advised by the parole board and the prison governor to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds in accordance with Scottish legal tradition. And speaking personally, I am rather proud that this country seeks to act with compassion, even towards a convicted mass murderer. I don’t see what purpose would be served having his bones rot in jail, other than to placate public opinion in America.
The whole episode was saturated with hypocrisy. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, may have been “distressed and upset” by the scenes in Tripoli, but it was the UK government that initiated the diplomatic process that led to the Megrahi’s return to his homeland. They willed the end even if they didn’t determine the means. The initial contacts over the fate of Megrahi were made by London – specifically by Tony Blair in his ‘deal in the desert’ with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2007. After that meeting, a Prisoner Transfer Agreement was signed by the British government, and it was made clear that the abandonment of al Megrahi’s appeal would be a condition of his transfer to a Libyan jail. This was why Megrahi made his regrettable decision to abandon his appeal against the decision of the judges in Camp Zeist in 2001.
As it happened, he needn’t have, since the Scottish government short-circuited the whole process by releasing Megrahi on humanitarian grounds. But be in no doubt: the UK government is entirely content with the decision, which is why there has been no official condemnation and why the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter. Far from there being a diplomatic rift between Edinburgh and London, there was actually a community of interest between a United Kingdom government eager to normalise commercial relations with Libya and the Scottish government seeking to exercise its own judgement on the fate of prisoner in a Scottish jail. Both sides may deny it, but they were – in a very real sense – in cahoots.
The Libyan leader, Col Gaddafi, predictably gave the game away when he congratulated “my friend” Gordon Brown and the British Government for their part in securing Megrahi’s freedom. He even praised the Queen for “encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacle.” He went on to tell Libyan television that “in all commercial contracts, for oil and gas with Britain, (Megrahi) was always on the negotiating table”. The UK government can’t deny this and it hasn’t attempted to.
So, where does this leave Lockerbie? Well, without any “closure”, clearly. Absent an appeal, as urged by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Committee, there can be no re-evaluation of the soundness of the evidence against Megrahi. The Scottish government insist that they didn’t want Megrahi to drop his appeal – but perhaps they didn’t try all that hard to stop him. After all, compassionate release means that the Scottish legal system need not now be brought into question again over the Lockerbie verdicts. Many influential voices in Scotland, including Dr Jim Swire, the father of a Lockerbie victim, believe that Megrahi was wrongly convicted on the tainted evidence of the Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci. The defence claim that Gauci, the only person to identify Megrahi, failed to make clear before an identity parade that he had seen a magazine picture of Megrahi. It is also said that Gauci was given millions of dollars by the Americans for his evidence.
The conspiracy theories will reverberate for decades. There have been suggestions that it was Syrian-backed Palestinians who were really responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. It is claimed that new evidence suggesting this has been suppressed by the British government. Public Interest immunity certificates have been placed on these papers preventing publication on the grounds that disclosure would damage British national security. Unless there is a public inquiry , these documents will never be revealed, and none of the governments involved – here or abroad – seem willing to launch one.
Where does it leave Scotland? Well, as the fog of recrimination clears, its seems that the worst charge against the Scottish government is one of being soft on convicted mass murderers. Many believe that Megrahi should have been executed for his crimes; that he forfeited the right to live when he ignited the device that killed 290 people in 1988. But that isn’t how we see things here. It may be Scotland against the world, but that doesn’t mean Scotland is wrong. And history will confirm that Scotland did not act alone