20 August 2009

Megrahi decision: Undevolved reaction...

And now, the reaction. Rumours vindicated, anticipations fulfilled. Scotland’s prison roll one man shorter, Liyba’s population (briefly) swollen by magnitude of one. As I said before, and at length, I believe this is the correct decision. I wanted, however, to seize this apposite moment, without much reflection, to note various aspects of Kenny’s address which will likely add piquancy to the subsequent coverage and sketch in its frame of reference. For the lazy, you can find various Scottish Government documents here, including the released medical report into Al Megrahi's terminal prostate cancer.

Firstly, the length of his address was a bit of a surprise. No brief statement of decision-made, but rather, a lengthy outline of the too often intertwining issues of prisoner transfer and compassionate release. Full transcript available here. Various elbows were thrown – respecting recent criticism of his in-person visit to Al Megrahi in Greenock Prison for instance which, assuming the Jack Straw quote alluded to is substantive, will connect smartly with Labour critics. The longer statement was, I believe, a cunning move. It gave a sense of the trajectory, an impression of the process, of deliberation. What is more, there is a distinct risk that the more disclosing one is when addressing an issue and the clearer the minister is about his own position, the more the mind lingers around the issues involved. As I’ve often argued here before, how you disagree with someone is almost as important as whether you disagree with them. Proper criticism gives reasons, rationales. After debate on such a level, we can have respect for the disagreeing interlocutor, confident that they have approached an issue and reached their decision by following their own lights. Equally, the bright places afford no corners or nooks for those who disagree. They too are pressed into a disclosure. How would you have done things differently? Why?

Secondly, MacAskill was clearly directing his speech at the Scottish audience. This may seem obvious, given the limited ambit of the SNP’s electoral and political ambitions, but look again. Much – most – of the commentary on the decision will emanate from a London-based, dominatingly English media establishment. In Brian Taylor’s (sadly, rather shallow) recent bit on 10 years of devolution, cock-eyed Boris Johnson appeared, ruminating that “Scotland seemed further away” than it had done previously, that Scottish stories were not filtering through into the UK press as, perhaps, they might once have done. Locating agency here is crucial, however, and contestable. Boris framed the changes he perceived in terms of Scotland taking a wider orbit, rather than the political planet-spotters in the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and Times failing to point their telescopes north. Both dynamics have, I think, been in operation, working to produce that political Otherness which Johnson alluded to.

The most important of the pair in the present instance, however, is the second. Media inattention and the media anonymity afforded to this alternative Scotland may divide our shared social capital generally, but obscures Scotland in England all the more significantly. Isolated Brigadoon Correspondents excepted, writing authoritatively on Scottish issues in London-based papers are not been a recent area of confidence or competence. Of course, this might not matter. If talkers and writers are disposed to address the problem more universally, namely should Megrahi have been let out of any prison anywhere on grounds of executive compassion, the debate will remain at that level. However, how can such a discourse react to the MacAskill statement? Perhaps predictably, to some objectionably, MacAskill located his decision with reference to what he perceives as a distinctly Scots cultural capital. He absolutely did not claim a monopoly over the works of mercy, but rather, codes his decision in terms of the (perceived) cultural importance of humanity in Scots public life. Some (I’m looking at you Scottish Unionist) may be primed to denounce this sort of stuff as inventive babble, fictionalising groupism, an attempt to staple the signed mandate for compassionate release to the Saltire. Up to a point, the empirical basis for such claims are always rather wobbly, can conceal unpleasant things, but as a generalised claim about normative Scottishness, I can envisage worse characteristics than an insistence that our justice should be tempered with mercy, and the hardfaces of our harshest (and fairest) judgements stand in paltry relation to the insistent tug of death at our elbow, calling us to follow him.

That is by the by. My brisker point was this. Precisely because of the way in which MacAskill couched his announcement in terms of a shared Scots cultural capital, locating his decision in the specificies of a Scottish experience, will undoubtedly strike strange notes in English jeremiads for or against this decision. How are they to take it? Clearly, they are not being encompassed by the way he was addressing it. Indeed, MacAskill pushed quite frankly against conducting the debate on the level of culturally-blind universals, where reasons could be exchanged along a single, flat axis. If he successfully couched his decision in these terms, listening Scots may identify with his comments, and the implicit national conceptualisation implied, while culturally detached observers, unable to identify with the commentary, may struggle to find the vitality in the vocabulary. Keep an eye out. Beyond these, of necessity, rather loose speculations of the implicit rhetoric of nationalism in small places, heaven knows how this one will run.


  1. Your last paragraph hits the mark. MacAskill's statement was studiously Scottish, in the contrived and exclusive sense in which he would project it. Perhaps the clearest example of that was when he said:

    “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.”

    In other words: youse English willnae unnerstaun.

  2. "youse English willnae unnerstaun"

    The sneering slurred words of a single issue hasbeen

  3. I don't think English people are bothered.

    It was more directed to an American/Scottish audience I believe - hence the very slow delivery, he must have been told to slow down or the Americans wouldn't understand him.

    I think he was genuinely trying to explain what the basis of compassionate leave is.

  4. "Scotland the Brave" sometimes has an artificial, hollow ring and can be put alongside the tartan and shortbread and tourist attractions, but yesterday was the real thing.

    This was true Government (with Kenny MacAskill acting in a quasi-judicial role) based on principles of justice and compassion. It was a real moment of truth for the Scottish Government.

    I don't pretend to know whether the original conviction of Al Megrahi was the right decision, but a Scottish Court, (sitting on Dutch soil) made a judgement based on the evidence and the law. There continues to be debate about Al-Megrahi's guilt or otherwise and a number of the relatives of the Scottish victims at Lockerbie seem to be convinced that the real plotters and perpetrators of the outrage have never been brought to justice. Many more of the American victims' families are equally convinced of his guilt and remain angry and sometimes vengeful. However, Al Megrahi - a convicted mass murderer - is a dying man.

    Seen through the eyes of the victims' families, all they ever wanted was to see their own loved ones walking down the stairs of a plane after that fateful journey. I did have mixed feeling watching the perhaps inevitable celebrations at Tripoli Airport and the strange site of St Andrew flags being waved, but it was a good day.

    Over and above the rights and wrongs of the case itself, what struck me most about yesterday's events was that this was a glimpse at the future. Scotland taking responsibility for its own affairs and the consequences for its actions.

    Despite heavy pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, in the full glare of the world's media spotlight, Kenny MacAskill made a brave decision yesterday and his clear and dignified statement set out the case convincingly. Scotland standing tall saying this is us, this is what we believe, this is what we stand for.

    The future is within our grasp.