It comes as almost second nature to the SNP to wrap itself in the saltire. ‘Standing up for Scotland’ is arguably just as much a part of its DNA as is its quest for independence. Certainly it is a trait that is widely recognised by the Scottish public and is one that inclines some to vote for the party, in Holyrood elections in particular.
So it should have come as little surprise that the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill should have laced his justification for releasing Mr Al-Megrahi with a substantial dose of tartan. Not for him the simple argument that it is inhumane to keep a dying man in any prison, anywhere in the world. Rather he argued that humanity was “a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people”. True to his nationalist roots, Mr MacAskill hoped to secure support for his controversial decision by appealing to national pride and sentiment.
But in so doing he was setting out on a dangerous path. By justifying his decision on such grounds, he gave his party’s political opponents the chance to argue that, far from standing up for their country, the Nationalists were letting Scotland down. The decision had not only put Scotland at odds with much public opinion in the United States but President Obama himself. The resulting loss of goodwill and tourism would inevitably do little to enhance the country’s economic wellbeing.
Then, of course, matters were made worse for Mr MacAskill. It should have come as little surprise that the return of Mr Al- Megrahi was greeted with joy in Tripoli. But the Government probably did not anticipate that anyone in the Libyan capital would happen to have a saltire to hand, ready to wave as the freed prisoner walked down the aircraft steps. That image, beamed across the world, gave the Nationalists’ opponents all the ammunition they needed.
No less a figure than former First Minister, Jack McConnell, was put up to make what nowadays was a rare intervention into the domestic political fray, “The sight of Scottish flags welcoming home a convicted bomber to Libya has shamed Scotland,” he opined, “and the damage done will take years to recover”.
But in truth, Mr MacAkill’s line of defence looked dangerous even before Mr Al-Megrahi had left his Greenock prison cell. Mr Al-Megrahi is not simply, in Mr McConnell’s words, “a convicted bomber”.
He is a man about whose guilt considerable doubt has been expressed. Indeed after an extensive four-year investigation into the case, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled two years ago that there were sufficient grounds for referring the case to the High Court of Justiciary for further review.
So there is a serious possibility that Mr Al-Megrahi has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice – and if so, a miscarriage delivered at the hands of the Scottish legal system. That possibility is hardly a testament to Scotland’s supposedly unique sense of humanity.
Yet that was a thought that Mr MacAskill did not dare entertain.
When quizzed by journalists about the doubts that have been expressed about the handling of the Lockerbie case, the Justice Secretary simply spoke of his pride in Scotland’s police and legal system handling of the case. True, he acknowledged that “there remain concerns to some on the wider issues of the Lockerbie atrocity”. Yet he regarded this as “a global issue, and international in its nature” – and thus one that lay beyond “the restricted remit of the Scottish Government”.
Of course there are questions to be asked about the actions of others who have been involved in the Lockerbie case. The British Government certainly does not come out of the affair smelling of roses. It negotiated the prisoner transfer agreement that provided one of the grounds for releasing Mr Al-Megrahi on which Mr MacAskill had to rule. At the same time it has denied Mr Al-Megrahi’s defence team access to an allegedly key document in the case, on the grounds of national security.
But the fact that there are doubts about the actions of others hardly constitutes sufficient grounds for washing one’s hands of the questions that have been raised about what has happened on the home watch. Yet this seems to have been the line that Mr MacAskill has chosen to take.
Moreover, by taking longer than he was required to do by law to make a decision about Mr Al-Megrahi’s application under the prisoner transfer scheme (despite his emphasis on ‘due process’), the Justice Secretary may perhaps have contributed to the Libyans’ decision – just 48 hours before the announcement of his release – to abandon his appeal, and thereby foreclose the one clear opportunity to determine whether Mr Al-Megrahi really was responsible for the awful atrocity that befell Pan Am 103.
Mr MacAskill has claimed the abandonment was Mr Al-Megrahi’s decision and a matter entirely for him, his legal team and the court.
Yet in practice, it means that a large cloud has been left hanging over the Scottish legal system. And that surely cannot be regarded as in Scotland’s collective national interest?