9 July 2010

Labour set to make Megrahi a campaign issue?

Just a thought.

Yesterday evening, I discussed some of the issues that might be at stake in the Holyrood election in 2011 and in the calculating political phase that precedes it.  A risky time, both for Government and for opposition. A last hour to try out lines, set final tones and generally dip testing toes in Scotland's thrawn political waters. To whit, I'm starting to wonder if we should anticipate a certain not-ghost to make an appearance at the Maytime feast - and political hay to be made from the continuing quickness of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. You may recall that during the Westminster general election, the "issue" of Megrahi's continuing survival - however tortured by suffering his existence may or may not be - put in an appearance during one of the Scottish debates in Edinburgh. Off the top of my head, I can't bring to mind what Jim Murphy said at that juncture. Yet owing to a few US Senators' recent letter to the UK's ambassador to the US, calling for some further "independent investigation" of the compassionate release, the matter was mooted once again on BBC's Question Time last night. The panel's arguments were familiar, focussing on MacAskill's meeting with the prisoner and other shapeless gripes about the procedures followed. Some of you may recall that when Holyrood's Justice Committee conducted its own doggedly partisan investigation and report into that process, I attempted to engage with these objections and make a case for the justifiability of the visit. Doubtless, whether or not you find my argument convincing, the visit has undeniably left MacAskill open to hostile critique. Last night was no exception, with Douglas Alexander connivingly referring to MacAskill "negotiating" with Al Megrahi. Masterly innuendo, that. That said, however, I'm not sure that most of the populace are wildly concerned with forms. The procedural argument against the release may interest law-folk and politicians looking for a lofty perch from which to micturate on the Cabinet Secretary, but most people who took a view on the release were moved and agonised by the substantial decision, not the way in which MacAskill reached his decision. The lesson should be obvious. Procedural arguments will rarely be emotionally-compelling, coruscating stuff. They may well be the best instruments to ensure the quashing of a conviction in the Court of Criminal Appeal, but are hardly the tools to sweep a rabble-rousing politician to office.

Thus, if Labour hope to use Megrahi's continuing survival as an instrument of their own advancement, some adjustments will have to be made. Of course, they may stick with slurry-canon politics, simply adding another issue to the sweltering welter of innuendo and allegation flung. However, I suspect they've got more low animal cunning than that. There is a more focussed and subtle alternative, in  which they attempt to associate the compassionate release of Megrahi into another theme, transforming the objections from dry-dust legalisms to something more visceral, more comprehensible, more reprehensible. During the last FMQs of the season, one sentence in Gray's peroration on knife-crime and the quasi-abolition of short-sentences caught my ears, with its one, very relevant, surprising inclusion...

"Well we are going to need extra police on our streets, because the First Minister is going to release 7,000 criminals on to those streets. Those 7,000 criminals currently go to jail. If his purpose in ending three-month sentences was to save money, that should have been said yesterday, but that was not the reason that was given. Look, we should not be surprised that the Government ends this year by releasing 7,000 criminals from our jails. It started this year by releasing the Lockerbie bomber from jail. In between, the First Minister was found out providing testimony for a drug dealer. His deputy was caught trying to keep a serial fraudster out of jail. Why is it that Alex Salmond is always to be found on the side of the criminals and never on the side of the victims?" (FMQs 1st of July SP Official Report Col 28135)

This combination was clearly scripted - we should take note.  Gray has kicked off his shoes, peeled off his socks and is sitting with legs dangling in the electoral waters, eddies forming around his questing toe. Expect Megrahi to recur, and recur.


  1. Lallands

    On QT Wendy's Bro had a threesome of rehearsed spinnings on Megrahi and very clever they were too. However, he answered the inquiry question with a resolute "no". I suspect Labour have more to lose than the SNP if the prisoner transfer shenanigans come to the fore. Remember that the sitting government is a bit different now , and they may have less reservations about regurgitating this matter.

    If they make too big a thing of Megrahi, it may blow up in their face, so I suspect, like you, a low-level repetition of these points, to grind away at the SNP leadership.

  2. I'm not sure how sensible a pursuit of this matter is for the greeting Opposition. You will recall that, at the height of the teeth-gnashing last year, polls suggested that a significant percentage of the Scottish public supported the release of Mr Al-Megrahi. A considerably higher percentage, interestingly, than vote SNP.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Andrew, Anonymous.

    Just to enlarge a bit on your respective allusions to the risk that Labour (and other opposition parties for that matter) could be "hoist by their own petard", if they misjudge or overemphasise one or two of the gamut of issues potentially implied in the whole late Lockerbie business.

    On Anonymous' point, there is clearly a macabre calculation going on about the implications of Megrahi's continuing survival and what wider, critical point elements of the opposition might use it to imply. Although prima facie, Megrahi living beyond his three months always appeared problematic for MacAskill, equally it isn't terrifically easy to work out how couch any allegation against him.

    What argument can they make? Medical misjudgements? Insufficient caution by the Cabinet Secretary? - He should have hesitated and didn't?

    Again, this seems to me a pretty weak argument. Folk will be concerned with the substance, yea or nay. Those who were always against may feel vindicated. The calculation, it seems to me, is whether the relatively sympathetic public opinion at the time has been - or can be - chipped away at by Megrahi's sickly vitality.

    Most importantly, such speculation is patently ugly, the use of a sickly man's existence for sly political advancement highly unattractive. Reasons, therefore, for Labour to be uneasy and handle the whole issue on this front decidedly gingerly. Or as in the case of Gray's speech - obscurely, rhetorically, dishonestly, irrelevantly. In Andrew BOD's very apt characterisation and phrase, "low-level repetition", letting the audience take what they will from it, without Labour having to take too firm a stand themselves.

    As you say, one imagines they wouldn't care to revisit the apparent dubiety of the ex-PM or the grimy geo-political detail of the "deal in the desert"