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One of the enraging features of modern politics, thrown into sharp relief by the Megrahi affair, has been the naïve posing, by politicians and the media, of questions to which the answers are known. The repeated cries by the Tories and the media for Gordon Brown to ‘come clean’ and admit what he knew of the MacAskill’s plans to release Megrahi, indeed to clarify whether any pressure had been put on the Scottish government, are entirely empty. They know the answers.
After the announcement had been made, and while Brown was on holiday, Peter Mandelson spoke on behalf of the UK government. Despite my ingrained suspicions of the Mephistophelean Prince of Darkness, even I was initially impressed. He insisted there had been no deal for trade. He quietly reiterated that the decision was a devolved one and had been made by the Scottish justice secretary. He refused to condemn the decision. Indeed he made the point that a UK government telling the Scottish government what to do what would be perceived as unimaginable interference. It would be a cause célèbre for the SNP. So far, so reasonable, but politics are dirty and no-one knows that better than Mandelson. Perhaps the flaw in the process should have been betrayed by MacAskill’s uncharacteristically wooden and uncertain delivery of the announcement.
Such decisions are never made by ministers after grave and sustained solitary reflection in their studies. Neither are major decisions involving the UK and any of the devolved governments made independently. Equally however, they are not made after person-to-person chats between UK and devolved ministers.
Every Wednesday morning in Westminster, there gather the very most senior civil servants. These gatherings include Sir John Elvidge and the heads of the Welsh and Northern Irish civil services. Let’s imagine ourselves flies on the wall at the chat over coffee which precedes such a meeting.
‘My minister is highly dubious about the continued imprisonment of Megrahi, uncertain about his guilt in fact. Does your minister have any thoughts?’
‘My minister would be very unhappy about any concession to Megrahi. It would almost certainly precipitate major divisions with the US and it would certainly create a constitutional rupture between the UK government and the Scottish Executive. Although there is a technical sense in which the matter is devolved, your administration would be interfering in what are essentially foreign affairs. You would be perceived as aiding terrorism. Not a good issue on which to pick a fight with us.’
‘I understand and I’m sure my minister will see the force of that.’
This is a scenario which did not occur. It is not however an unimaginable scenario and, had it occurred, it is unlikely that the Scottish Government would have felt confident to take on Westminster.
Let’s consider an alternative version.
‘My minister is highly dubious about the continued imprisonment of Megrahi, uncertain about his guilt in fact. Does your minister have any thoughts?’
‘Entirely your business, old boy, but my minister is certainly anxious to increase trade with Libya and with the Arab world and Megrahi’s release would be most helpful. I doubt however if an appeal would go down too well with our friends across the Atlantic. Might throw too many things into the public domain.’
‘Quite, quite, and I’d have to remind my minister that we wouldn’t want the Scottish judicial system and police investigative capacity to be put under too bright a spotlight. What about release on compassionate grounds?’
‘Could well work. Smooth the commercial links without asking fundamental questions of the system. Our American friends would need to be advised. They’d have to shout a bit, for internal public consumption, but that will pass. Have to repeat however, it’s entirely a devolved matter. Up to you Jocks to make the decision.’ (Soto voce: ‘And your little Scottish government can take the flak!’)
I believe some variant on this to be a more likely scenario and one which puts the politics of the release into an understandable context.
MacAskill made the best decision he could make in the circumstances. He allowed a dying, likely innocent man, to be released and avoided his dying a martyr in a Scottish jail. He did so in a way that avoided the major international embarrassment which would have been the result of an appeal. (I would happily have accepted such embarrassment but perhaps that’s why I’m where I am and MacAskill is where he is.)
Brown (let alone Mandelson) had no formal link with the decision and no discussions with MacAskill. The operation of power in these islands is enormously more complex than is suggested by the naïve questions of Cameron and the gutter press. Nonetheless what is certain is that nothing was done without the appropriate information having been passed, indirectly and with no traceable audit trail, among those who mattered. The Labour Government in Westminster was a party, at a fair degree of remove but a party, to Megrahi’s release. Any other reading of the situation is absurd. That reminds me that Mandelson is, first and foremost, a devious operator who has certainly not renounced the dark arts. That also makes the intemperate and populist intervention by my old friend, Jack McConnell, even more disappointing.
The above article was first published in The Scottish Review on1 September 2009:

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