Misunderstanding Scotland and the Nature of the UK: The al-Megrahi Episode
The al-Megrahi case has many dimensions and sides, and no doubt many more will be revealed. There is the geo-political aspect of how the UK Government does business, the realpolitik of oil companies such as BP, and the manner in which the West views the Middle East.
Then there is the Scottish dimension. The Lockerbie bombing occurred over the Scottish town, and al-Megrahi was convicted under Scots law and served part of his sentence in a Scottish prison. He was released under Scots law by a Scottish minister.
When the story of his release broke last year the very existence of Scots judicial and legal systems was broadcast around the world. To many this story was an introduction to the fact that there was a nation called ‘Scotland’, or that a ‘modern Scotland’ different from the ancient land of kings, battles and myths still existed. And there was an entity called ‘the Scottish Government’ with a ‘First Minister’, Alex Salmond, who was a self-confessed ‘Scottish Nationalist’ or ‘separatist’ in the eyes of some.
The al-Megrahi case has revealed that such ignorance and misunderstandings don’t just exist far away – where there is some excuse for it – but much closer to home – in the UK. And this tells us something about the condition and health of the UK.
Several commentators, including centre-left ones such as James McInytre, have blamed the whole episode on devolution, arguing last year that the al-Megrahi decision was the sort of decision that ‘should have been taken – and be seen to be taken – at a national level by the British Government’ and that ‘devolution has led to a grave failure of accountability’.
This is a fundamental error, given that the processes which led to the release of al-Megrahi were based on Scots law – which has been in existence for centuries and long predate the current Scottish Parliament.
Some voices have even stated that Scots law is subordinate to British law which in ‘the national interest’ should overrule the Scots in this case. This is constitutional vandalism of the highest order. Scots law as any good constitutional lawyer will tell you is the complete equal in law of British law. It is absolutely irrelevant that one covers the domestic affairs of five million people, and the other sixty million. The constitutional arrangements of the UK have put both on an equal footing.
Daniel Kawcynski, Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Libya, called for an investigation of what he described as ‘the constitutional aspects of this case’. When invited to further elucidate what aspects of MacAskill’s decision were ‘unconstitutional’ he answered that the decision impacted on ‘UK relations with the Arab world and the United States’.
David Cameron’s decision to voice his ‘violent agreement’ with Barack Obama in Washington against the al-Megrahi release is worthy of note. Cameron choose to vociferously collude with Obama in denigrating the Scottish Government – which is part of the sovereign terrain of the UK.
This is illuminating because the previous UK Government in the form of Gordon Brown picked their words on this very carefully. Cameron trashed his own much vaunted ‘respect’ agenda between the UK and Scottish Governments; at the same time he has decided to pussyfoot around whether he approves or disapproves of the Blair inspired Prisoner Transfer Agreement with the Libyan authorities.
All of this matters in the case in question and beyond. Once there was a powerful sense of Britain which informed our political elites as well as the populace. The governing credos of these isles was informed by the different histories, cultures and backgrounds of the nations of the UK, and in its ‘high unionism’ celebrated and felt comfortable with this.
This powerful glue has now mostly dissolved at the popular level along with any belief in such voodoo rubbish as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, while the statecraft, élan and faith in Britain which once characterised British elites has dramatically declined.
The British political class, the Westminster village and the world of politicians, civil servants and experts, no longer understand the nature of the UK, and have lost any pretence that they care. This matters to the future of the UK, our goverance arrangements and political institutions, and ultimately to the state of our democracy. It does not auger well for its future prospects that more and more of our nomenklatura seem to exhibit a political illiteracy about the UK, something which can only aid the gathering storm clouds on the horizon, and those making the case for an independent Scots foreign policy.