Scottish politics can be remarkable – and not in a good way. The Megrahi affair has not cast Scottish politics in a good light, but not for the usually trumpeted reason. Rather, it just shows that sometimes we just can’t see past ourselves to anything bigger.
Let’s start with the obvious point – it is perfectly reasonable to have different views on the release or non-release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. It is possible to believe that he was in jail rightfully and it is possible to believe that he was the subject of a miscarriage of justice. It is possible to believe in the former case that even though he is in jail on sound grounds, he should be shown compassion – or that he shouldn’t. In turn, there are different ways in which compassion could be shown. For those who believe that this is a miscarriage of justice it is still possible to believe that a compassionate response is still pragmatic given the timescale the man faced. But it is also possible to believe that to show ‘compassion’ to someone who has not been treated justly is to rub salt in the wound and that a pardon or similar would be more appropriate. It is even possible to believe that this matter is bigger than criminal justice and that a geo-political position should be taken (prisoner transfer or whatever). All of these are positions that one might take with varying degrees of justification.
That is most certainly not what happened. Instead there was only one position taken after the decision has been made and that was to try to squeeze as much political capital as possible from the affair. The Scottish Left Review does not take a party-political stance, and yet on this occasion it is hard not to at least credit the Scottish Government party as the only one to emerge with a shred of credibility. This is not because it has behaved impeccably – it whipped its MSPs into a centrally-decided party position too and left no room for a vote of conscience. But at least it made a decision (and one which was not exactly designed to curry favour with the popular media), it had a real and defensible reason for its decision and it stuck by it. There – barring an honourable mention for Malcolm Chisholm – ends any honour in the whole affair.
The most pathetic of positions was that taken by Iain Gray and the Scottish Labour Party. As an entity the Labour Party now seems to be unable to see the world in any terms other than point-scoring. It would be an interesting academic exercise to write down every position taken by Iain Gray since assuming ‘leadership’ of the party and map it against the positions taken by the Daily Record. It is not immediately obvious that there has been any difference. Mapping it in the other direction is equally telling – it is not just that the Labour Party is in opposition, it’s that it is developing a new sort of Total Opposition. No matter what happens, Scottish Labour finds reason for outrage at the SNP. A cross-party group tries to produce a rescue plan for the Kilmarnock Johnnie Walker plant which is then embarrassingly rejected by Diageo? That’ll be Alex Salmond’s fault for, well, speaking in public (‘megaphone diplomacy’ apparently). You can be sure that had he not spoken in public that would be the reason given for outrage.
It is the new law – nothing must be allowed to happen in Scottish politics without Iain Gray being outraged (simple disagreement is never enough) with what the SNP has done. He has already written twice in little more than a year asking the Presiding Officer to find the SNP leadership guilty of being less than completely open and honest in Parliament. Do they not understand that evasion is a tactic perfected by their erstwhile national leader and used often by their erstwhile Scottish leader? It is probably fair to say that we’re all sick of the obfuscation of politicians, but writing to the headie to complain? The Scottish Labour Party could virtually dissolve itself to no effect since everyone in the country knows what it is going to say before it says it. There is an art to opposition and it is an art lost on Labour.
But in some ways there is one politician who has managed to emerge with even less credit. Is it not about time that someone prosecuted Tavish Scott under the Trade Description Act? In what sense is this supremely populist politicians ‘liberal’? If the Liberal Democrats are incapable of being thoughtful on complex moral issues such as this one, why have them? That Tavish Scott tries to guess what will be popular and gets in there first with a pantomime pose we are growing used to, but that not a single Liberal Democrat MSP voted against the censure motion in this affair reflects badly on them. Compassion on criminal justice matters and a high-minded approach used to be at the heart of liberal politics. That no longer seems to be the case in Scotland.
The Scottish Labour Party could virtually dissolve itself to no effect since everyone in the country knows what it is going to say before it says it
For much of the last two years Annabelle Goldie has deserved credit for having achieved a much more thoughtful form of opposition than that taken by the other party leaders. Here we can at least say that not much would be expected from her – and that she more-or-less delivered. The Tories don’t pretend to be compassionate on matters of criminal justice so the ‘find him somewhere to die that isn’t to pleasant’ line at least fits there. But again, could some free will not have been allowed? (Further credit here to Ted Brocklebank who at least spoke out and refuse to support the censure motion – Scotland, a country in which the Conservatives are more liberal than the Liberals…)
So, let’s try to get back to the issue. There were basically five options. Megrahi could have been left to die in a Scottish jail. He could have been released from jail on compassionate grounds but refused permission to leave Scotland. He could have been sent home to die with his family on compassionate grounds. He could have been sent home under a political prisoner exchange deal of some form. Or just possibly there could have been some form of release on the basis of the unreliability of the conviction paired with the impossibility of him seeing justice through appeal. The last of these was not really possible. So to release or not release? Keeping him in prison served only the Daily Mail and those in the US of a ‘retributionist’ bent. Releasing him into domestic custody seems almost the worst option – we’ll show you compassion but not you’re family? And prisoner exchange in return for oil deals seems pretty vile to everyone concerned (apart from oil companies). On balance, the Scottish Government decision seems right, just and setting a high standard for Scotland as a country.
Instead, opposition politicians turned it into an affair almost unworthy of a hustings debate for a local council election. There was one overwhelming sensation which many will have felt during the debate – thanks be that this decision wasn’t left to the opposition. Mr Gray would simply not have made a decision and the idea that his justice spokesperson Richard Baker would have been trusted with the decision would be petrifying if it was believable. All that would have happened is that the Scottish Government would have phoned London for instruction (and who knows what that instruction would have been).
This writer is personally very proud of what was done and has seldom been more proud of Scotland – to show compassion in the face of US fury is the definition of bravery in 21st century global politics. But this writer on this occasion is capable of significant empathy for those who took a differing view. It’s that kind of issue. However, the overwhelming impression which has been left has got nothing to do with compassion, justice, terrorism or global politics. The impression which remains is that Scottish politics and parts of the Scottish media are simply not mature enough or responsible enough to be taken as serious players. Bizarrely, this has been a better anti-independence position than any previously taken by the opposition – even hardened nationalists must worry if politicians of the moral and professional calibre the opposition parties have demonstrated on this issue were ever to be allowed to take any important or serious decisions. (On the other hand, a quick look at the utter mess London made of the affair reminds us perhaps not to set the bar too high when it comes to the competence of sovereign states.) And lest we are accused of being closet Nationalists, the SLR has not been slow to criticise the SNP when it was deserved, so may we be spared the suggestion that these thoughts are part of a covert exercise.
Many people have emphasised that the Labour Party has to rediscover its purpose in Scotland if it is to move back into power. Looking at it today, it has a lot of growing up to do first.