19 August 2010

New Lockerbie case poll on US Senate games...

Seems Richard Baker has decidedly misjudged his electorate. You may recall the Swine Pursuivant's caterwauling on the radio, sternly demanding that Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill should schlep across the Atlantic to line dance before the US Senate, while the question of Jack Straw's attendance was "purely a matter for him". Such a flexible fellow he is. As you will all undoubtedly know, Senator Menendez et al's peremptory summons was timely and fatally rebuffed by the Scottish Government. My sense throughout has been that many Scots would not take kindly to being kicked around by canting scoundrel American politicians, whatever their views might be on the release of Megrahi itself. Recall, after all, Galloway's celebrated jaunt to Washington. The still-present twinge of disgust at the perceived pandering of British political figures to American interests. Remember, in short, Blair's bichon frise routine. That underdog mentality, itching to raise two fingers to startle the presumptuous and ignorant and high handed American hypocrite - that is a tale calculated to resonate with many Scots, tingled by the small but significant frisson of independent-mindedness and the spirited resistance to a stronger power. Menendez instead had to contend with silence. He was denied his judicial moment in the chair. In his panic, he burbled to himself, for company's sake, reduced to increasingly shrill accusation, grasping at the rags of decorum to cover his nakedness.  

On any reading, Eck's sharper epistle to Senator Menendez was a excellent riposte, serving to concentrate these themes. And with tightrope poise, it balanced twin burdens. While the language of the text was sufficiently polite not to cause an risky hoohaa, the inflammatory sentences were pointedly crafted and by consequence, it was these that were covered in the media. Basically, as far as the Scottish electorate is concerned, he managed to wave an archer's salute at the American senators without causing the scandal which a more direct "awa' an' bile yer heid!" would undoubtedly have caused. Those were my suspicions and best guesses. This morning the SNP released some details of a poll exploring Scottish public opinion on precisely this question and I would suggest that the results overwhelming bear out that analysis. The poll's total sample size was 1,212 Scottish adults and the fieldwork was undertaken between 17th - 18th August 2010.  Here are the questions asked, with respondents' percentages for each response:

Question (1) A US senate committee invited representatives of the Scottish government to appear before their committee to explain their decision. The Scottish government declined to attend, on the grounds that they are accountable to the Scottish Parliament, not to US politicians. Do you agree or disagree with Scottish Government’s decision not to attend?
  1. Agree – they were right not to attend 72%
  2. Disagree – they should have attended 20% 
  3. Don’t Know 7%
Question (2) Some US Senators have argued that commercial lobbying of the UK Government by BP played a role in the release of Al-Megrahi, while the Scottish Government insists that the Scottish Government was not lobbied by BP and that the Scottish Justice Secretary’s decision to grant compassionate release to Al-Megrahi was based solely on the rules and regulations of Scots Law. Regardless of your own view on the decision, which of the following best reflects your view?
  1. The US Senators are correct – BP Lobbying played a part in the release of Al-Megrahi ~ 14%
  2. The Scottish Government is correct – Al Megrahi was released solely in line with Scotland Law ~ 54%
  3. Neither ~ 11%
  4. Don’t Know ~ 21%

Question (3) Al-Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish Court and served his prison sentence in Scotland. Regardless of whether you think Al-Megrahi should or should not have been released, who do you think should have made the decision on whether or not to release him?
  1. The Scottish Justice Secretary ~ 76%
  2. A Minister in the UK Government ~ 13%
  3. Don’t Know ~11%

Just a few points I want to emphasise. Needless to say, 72% to 20% supporting the Scottish Government's non-attendance is a mighty difference to make the politick would-be positioning of Richard Baker and the Scottish Labour Party look ill-judged to say the least. Also notice the difference in don't knows answers to question (1) and (2). 21% suggested they could not be certain about what the decision to release Megrahi was premised on, whether BP was involved or only the processes of Scots Law were observed. However, only 7% of don't knows were undecided when it came to whether a Scottish Government delegation should have headed to Washington. We can't tell from these figures how far the responses to the two questions correlate. For example, it is possible albeit unlikely that someone suspecting BP involvement might nevertheless not much care for American institutions and thus support non-attendance. Equally, however, it seems more probable that the 14% difference represents just how potent is that strand of opinion I attempted to describe at the outset. 

One final thought. Although I've no spy in the heart of the party's hierarchy, I would be exceedingly surprised if the SNP took this opportunity only to ask these three questions and weren't canvassing more generally on what the Scottish public make of Megrahi's release one year on, in the context of his ongoing life, if not vitality. Perhaps they did not do so on this occasion and indeed only posed these three enquiries, however, it beggars belief that no attempts are being made to gauge any "Lockerbie case" effect on 2011's Holyrood elections, however macabre that becomes. If so, I'd be exceedingly curious to know if such polling has been commissioned and what information the party has refrained from releasing into the public domain thus far.


Coincidentally enough, it turns out that one of the respondents involved in this YouGov poll was Nairn and Spain-based blogger and twitterer Bill Cameron. He has exceedingly helpfully been able to confirm that he was indeed asked several additional questions in the course of the poll, including the crucial questions about respondents' attitudes to Megrahi's release. That answers my if question.  The SNP is clearly taking a close look at public opinion here. So what might the rest of the answers have been? Unlike the figures disclosed above, no doubt the responses to the central questions are somewhat more nuanced, breaking down along a number of lines and may take some time to digest. It may be that the other responses will never see the light of day. Either way, I'm sure they're giving someone a fascinating insight into this knotty ethical and political conundrum. . 


  1. No-one asked me. However, in general, I think the Scottish Government was right to let him go, was right in its (stated) reasoning in deciding to do so, and right to invite Senator Menendez to go forth and multiply. So it is disappointing they are offering to meet the self-publicising pipsqueak, if he can screw up his courage sufficiently to cross the pond. No doubt this polling gives some background to what otherwise appears to me to be a gesture too magnanimous even for our famously magnanimous leaders.

    However, at bottom, my views are conditioned by the fact that, though I don't know whether Mr Megrahi is guilty or not, I certainly do know, having done the exams, that the standard of proof in Scots criminal cases is "beyond reasonable doubt". And here there was a shedload of reasonable doubts. Don't ask me - ask the SCCRC. So the man really shouldn't have been in jail in the first place, and it would redound to the greater credit of all if they would just make that point instead of professing (probably mendaciously) to believe there was anything correct about the original conviction, as opposed to the kind of raison d’état at which Lord Braxfield himself might well have balked.

  2. I disagreed with the decision to release Mr Megrahi.

    In discussions with friends over the last 12 months, I have found it nearly impossible to separate the issue of 'compassionate release' from that of Megrahi's guilt or innocence.

    Almost all my acquaintances who approved of his release did so on the basis that "I don't think he was guilty of the crime".

    And, of course, if he was innocent then that would be a particularly excellent reason for releasing the man.

    But, the fact is that the only tribunal who heard all the evidence found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. His first appeal was refused. His second, SCCRC sponsored, appeal was dropped in circumstances which are still not clear.

    He thus stands convicted of the most atrocious crime ever committed in the United Kingdom (by-the-by, some of my friends occasionally throw into the mix the fact that there was 'no jury' as though that was a sinister flaw in the proceedings - but that was, of course, entirely Mr Megrahi's choice - a Scottish jury was available to him if he had wished).

    So, was he entitled to compassionate release?

    This time last year I carried out a wee (non-scientific) experiment - I asked all those I knew who agreed with Megrahi's release whether, in the event of Bilal Abdullah (the surviving Glasgow Airport bomber)becoming terminally ill they would extend the same compassion to him and release him from his 32 year sentence.

    Not one of them would.

    And yet, Abdullah didn't kill a single person. Indeed, such injuries as occurred were thankfully minor.


    The issue had nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with proof.

    Abdullah can rot in hell because we saw him do it.

    Megrahi can go home because we don't have film of him putting the bomb in the suitcase.

    (May I note en passant that Abdullah received a sentence of a minimum 32 years for conspiracy to murder, though he didn't in fact murder anyone, as against Megrahi receiving a sentence of a minimum of a mere 27 years for actually murdering 270 people - it seems as though the 'we saw you do it' principle was working even at the sentencing stage).

    It need hardly be said that I am not an authority on the mountains of evidence led in the Lockerbie trial, and therefore I do not feel as bold as Am Firinn in suggesting that "there was a shedload of reasonable doubts".

    I am not very keen for the criminal justice system to be run on the basis of public acclamation - however influential an article in Private Eye or elsewhere may be, however sincere Mr Swire's or Professor Black's beliefs are, the only way of determining issues of guilt and innocence is in the Court.

    Megrahi was convicted - thus he committed the crime - that was the basis on which Mr MacAskill made his decision, and it is the only reasonable basis that we can work from.

    In my opinion, and I may well be completely wrong, Megrahi's crime was so grave, and the period of his elapsed sentence so relatively short, that 'compassion' was not appropriate in his case. It is, unfortunately, very easy to be compassionate when you are yourself not the victim.

    Finally (and apologies for rambling) Kenny made great play a year ago about the Scottish capacity for compassion. I think that's largely tripe - if I may revert back to the Glasgow airport attack - I am morally certain that everyone in Scotland who saw the first bomber fully ablaze thought to themselves, "Burn you bas***d, burn"

  3. Telling and interesting remarks in both cases, Am Firinn & Almax. On the possibility of an informal meeting of Senator Menendez (or one of his creatures), to refuse that would no doubt be an act of churlishness, despite his rubbish.

    It is interesting to return to what I was writing around this time last year. I wrote this post on "confusing justice with mercy" which precisely makes your point. In brief, I found then - and as you say, now - that many people reasoned thus - if he did it, he should stay inside, if he didn't, he should be released.

    However, for myself, I found this reasoning pitched me into a terribly imbroglio - to have the rightness of this decision rest on my ignorant apprehension of the justice of what transpired in Camp Zeist seemed and seems absurd.

    That is why I think you're right - your friends are in error and have mistaken justice for mercy. They are being inconsistent, this inconsistency facilitated by the familiar phrase "tempering justice with mercy". Detached from its forgecraft origins, this dominating metaphor sees the two ideas not as oil and water - but commixing to produce a single right result. Unless we distinguish the two issues clearly, mercy collapses into justice. We lose sight of why mercy may be a distinct human virtue. For myself, I prefer this formulation to "compassion" and would insist on significant distance being put between either of these two concepts and "forgiveness".

  4. His guilt or innocence isn't really the point Almax. Compassionate release is not extended on the basis that the prisoner might be innocent. It is extended on the basis that he or she is dying.

    Whether Megrahi died within three months or whether he has managed to cling on until now is also not the point. He is dying and is clearly too sick to be in prison. That is why the Prison Governor, medical officer and social work said that he should be released.

    The idea that he could stay in prison was and is a non-starter. The prison service did not want responsibility for his care because in their view he was too sick to remain incarcerated. So he was released.

    That’s actually the norm – I think part of the issue with this for the SNP is that people wrongly assumed that Kenny MacAskill intervened to make sure that Megrahi did not die in jail, based on the false assumption that releasing dying prisoners is unusual. I remember someone saying to me that Myra Hindley had died in jail and so should Megrahi. But Myra Hindley did not die in jail. She died in hospital – where she was taken as soon as she became too sick to remain in prison.

    The argument could then be made why was Megrahi not put in a Scottish hospital or kept under medical supervision in a private residence so that he could die in Scotland. Well let’s imagine what would be happening today if that had happened ,with half the world’s press surrounding him desperate to get a shot and shouting “Why aren’t you dead yet Mr Megrahi?” Seriously, the media hype and general hysteria there has been over this case during the past 12 months would have been magnified ten-fold if Megrahi had been kept in Scotland. Far simpler just to send him back.

    The only thing in my view that Kenny MacAskill got wromg was the way he pitched the release. I understand why he did that and he probably did have to make the attempt to connect with the Americans and explain his decision. But the truth is that there is too great a gulf. We have just ended up with debates about compassion against vengeance which simply extend the gulf. Let's face it, most Americans would have chosen to see Megrahi executed. That's just the way they are and nothing Kenny could have said or done would have made any difference.

  5. Indy has a point. Ever since the current guidance on compassionate release was brought in, all the prisoners who met its conditions have been released. I am pretty sure the civil servants will always advise their Ministers to do so, to avoid invidious discussions about Ministerial favour for one prisoner over another. And Ministers of whatever stripe have, in my view wisely, accepted this advice. And yes, I would think that advice was correct if it concerned Bilal Abdullah (whose sentence was deplorably disproportionate)or even Peter Tobin, who is very probably a much nastier piece of work than the other two.

    I have admitted my view that Mr Megrahi was improperly convicted. However, let us, as Almax suggests, accept that his conviction was the only reasonable basis we can work from. Even if he is as guilty as Satan Incarnate, I don't think anyone believes he came up with the plan to blow up Flight 103 himself. He was carrying out orders. I readily accept that is no excuse. But, in the version where Mr Megrahi is guilty, the person who ordered the bombing is now persona grata to both the US and the UK administrations. To shake the hand of the mastermind while keeping the mortally sick minion in jail is, frankly, immoral. Moreover this immorality is compounded by the fact that the US and UK alike harbour many of their respective operatives who have killed many more civilians than Mr Megrahi has, in this version. I don't see us handing over our killers to Serbia, Iraq or Afghanistan for condign punishment. In these circumstances the view that we should have kept Mr Megrahi in jail till he died is a fine example of double standards.

    Anyway, is there anyone out there who would want to swap lives with Mr Megrahi? I thought not.