[This is the headline over an article in today's edition of The Herald by Ian Bell, probably the most consistently interesting columnist writing in the print media in Scotland today. The article reads in part:]
Monday morning was enlivened by the sight of Tony Blair on the BBC advising Egyptians as to the proper handling of the democracy thing.
He has a certain panache, our former prime minister, and a certain – what shall we say? – psychological resilience where truth and reputation are concerned.
Tuesday sparked up with another WikiLeak. Once more, it fell into the broad category of things-you-guessed. It slotted into the existing record, however. It also filled the gaps left open by the persistent refusal of innumerable freedom of information requests, north and south of the border. It left Mr Blair – deja vu has a familiar ring, doesn’t it? – with questions to answer.
So: he cuts a prisoner transfer deal, ignoring the Scottish jurisdiction, with Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. There is only one relevant prisoner, and a single atrocity at issue.
So: a big energy deal follows. Atrocities are negotiable.
So: American diplomats record that a junior Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell, has tutored the Libyans in Scots law, with particular reference to section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act (1993), and the notion of compassionate release. A civil servant, Rob Dixon, has meanwhile joined the dots for the American friends.
The Libyans catch on quick. They follow this FO advice – denied and deniable – to the letter. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, “the Lockerbie Bomber”, certainly has cancer, and will certainly die because of it, sooner or later. Mr Gaddafi’s tame patriots also issue the usual threats to British interests. Ergo: “compassion” suits everyone. But it also suits Whitehall to have a Scottish patsy when – says the WikiLeak – (Alex) “Salmond told” (Jack, then Justice Secretary) “Straw that he would make the decision based on humanitarian grounds, not foreign policy grounds”. That’s not how the story was spun. American ire, Hillary Clinton’s ire, was directed at Edinburgh when Washington and London certainly knew better. Much better.
Still, a Union is a reassuring thing, isn’t it?
Despite anything US senators might say, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill played it straight. Despite anything the American bereaved have been told, Edinburgh did not spring Megrahi to placate Libya, facilitate oil deals, “pick a fight with Westminster” or obscure the truth of Lockerbie. That, like all the back-channel work, was London’s doing. Mr MacAskill allowed a dying man to go home.
In some quarters, even that is nefarious. Al-Megrahi has had the impertinence to go on living. That mass murderer, feted yet gasping, has escaped the horrors he visited upon his victims. This is, for many, intolerable. How so?
First up, the idea that our dull devolution settlement is, in American eyes, just a perfidious British thing. Edinburgh did London’s dirty work to hide a dirtier deal, they think. But how does that fit with the second charge? Namely: why didn’t Gordon Brown “order” Mr Salmond to pursue justice, when foreign policy is Westminster’s preserve?
One possibility: because the US Consulate in leafy Edinburgh did its job, and explained the Alex and Gordon relationship?
So why was Megrahi given his liberty when other terminally ill prisoners of the Crown in Scotland have enjoyed far fewer courtesies? “Compassion” is not a notable feature of Scottish justice. And Al-Megrahi wasn’t just any prisoner. The fact that he was obliged to abandon his appeal against conviction in order to – a legalism – get free, wasn’t trivial. How come? (...)
Why was it so important, for so long, to so many people, that Megrahi should be dead, or at least out of the way?
He didn’t do it. That statement suits no-one. The important thing to remember, in Scotland, is that Megrahi abandoned his appeal. Such was the price of his liberty.
No-one has dealt with the fact that the US Department of Justice sanctioned payments of $3 million to a pair of Maltese “witnesses” – Tony and Paul Gauci, for their “crucial evidence” over clothes and a suitcase – or whether a Scottish court, even one in a foreign country, allows bribery.
No-one has dealt, for that matter, with the evidentiary status of a bit of plastic, a fragment of the alleged timer on the bomb that killed so many people. There is not a forensic expert in the world, given freedom of contract, who buys it.
Yet the Scottish Government, otherwise defamed, will not entertain the idea that Megrahi’s conviction was unsound. I find that fact more interesting than all the predictable WikiStuff about Mr Blair’s ministers and their devious memos. When did that fix go in? If we insist, as we must, that Scotland’s justice system is inviolable, and fundamental to the Union, we had better ensure that our system is as good as it gets. Refusing to carry the can for Mr Blair’s games is one thing. How – dispassionately – did a Scottish court convict Megrahi, and why does Scotland juridico-political establishment go on calling the conviction safe?
WikiLeaks reminds journalists that paper is rationed, when it matters. Where Megrahi is concerned, numerous questions are literally, actually, rigorously, unanswered. I do know, however, that the government of Scotland entertains no doubts as to the Libyan’s conviction for the worst terrorist massacre ever perpetrated on these islands. I’m also aware of distinguished Scots lawyers who don’t give that idea the time of day.
It’s a thought. There should be a means to examine such a thought. Instead, we insinuate and speculate endlessly. We can say that noble Scottish judges and a Scottish Government have been cleared of double-dealing, thanks to indefatigable WikiLeaks. What’s the score on single dealing, then?
What’s the score on a Union that defers each choice, almost sublimely, to a higher power, in another country? Asymmetric is only the first of the ugly words. Scottish justice, Scottish traditions of jurisprudence, were supposed to be guaranteed under the old deal, and in writing.
Perhaps some forensic examination is in order.
[A version of this article also appears on Ian Bell's blog.]