14 July 2010

"Decision to release Megrahi was correct"

That is the surprising title of the Herald's leader article this morning, following on from Lucy Adams' "exclusive" on the state of Mr Megrahi's health - "so ill he could die if he gets a cold", she claims. The editorial is surprising, not least in that I can't recall the paper being so direct or so effusive in their support for the decision at the time. Certainly they were not howling for MacAskill's bonnet, certainly attentive but critical and poised. All of which falls rather serendipitously in step with my attempt to read the runes on how Mr Megrahi's compassionate release might be used by the Labour party or others in the 2011 Holyrood election campaign. The paper suggest that:

"A small fortune in political capital has been made from the fact that, nearly a year after being released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is still alive."

I'm not sure if I precisely agree with their accounting. It seems to me rather unclear quite how investing arguments in the Lockerbie Case have really or might substantially pan out. Certainly, folk in certain quarters hope to get an electoral return from their Lockerbie footnotes. Equally certainly, the compassionate release remains a somewhat uncomfortable issue for Scottish ministers - but one they have consistently handled firmly and in accord when pressed in public. We might also reflect on the fact that this constancy is in itself somewhat surprising. When Holyrood discussed the case, the division was largely partisan. This seemed to me implausible on both sides. I doubt all SNP representatives wholeheartedly concurred, I'm sure that the same can be said for those party-loyal parliamentarians in opposition. Yet to the best of my knowledge, there have been no secret briefings, no attempts by fellow Scottish ministers quietly to let it be known that they "had their doubts" about MacAskill's decision. That, of itself, is perhaps a significant and eloquent detail.

To be mildly ghoulish about the matter, with due apology for the unavoidable macabre nature of the speculation, there is another strategic irony implicated in the plots of those attempting to profit politically from Megrahi's continuing survival. Having passed through the nimble fingers of Clotho and Lacesis - however controversial the latter's measuring might be -  Megrahi will unerringly feel their sister Atropos cut the final fibres of the ever-attenuating thread of his life. Human rhetorical creativity despite, I'd guess that critical arguments about the length of his survival are unlikely to survive the man himself. Most of the vitality will have left the critical case, when the riposte is "but now it is finished. After life's fitful fever, etc..." Thus, if political opponents substantially hope to benefit from these arguments come Maytime 2011, these public critics of his survival will simultaneously have to privately hope Megrahi survives. Otherwise, all their innuendo may have been in vain. This is thuggish, unattractive stuff, frankly. Raw, serpentine calculation. Interesting, then, that the Herald have taken such a clear stance here and now. Perhaps they will have done us all a favour, having ramped up the difficulty and peril assailing Iain Gray and Labour's attempts gingerly to find an advantageous, opportunistic position on the subject. The Herald end their peroration on another exceedingly important point which I largely neglected in my earlier discussion:

"MacAskill should not feel embarrassed that Megrahi has managed to cling to life for longer than his doctors expected. If he turns out to have been innocent, the decision not to compel him to die in prison and in pain will be deemed just as well as compassionate."

I mostly preceded on the wobbly premise that the public assume Megrahi to be guilty of the Lockerbie bombing. Such a presumption, however, is not nearly universally held. Indeed, for those entertaining mild or acute doubts about the man's culpability and hence the righteousness of his being in prison at all, his survival will take on a profoundly different significance, as will political criticism of that survival.

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