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Kenny MacAskill: Taking the radical road

Kenny MacAskill MP by Anna Moffat

Kenny MacAskill: Taking the radical road

When Kenny MacAskill, the former justice secretary who achieved global infamy for freeing the only person ever convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, left the party he had belonged to for over four decades, the SNP responded with its now familiar bad grace, saying his exit was “somewhat of a relief”.

It is fair to say that feeling of relief was mutual – as MacAskill tells me he didn’t leave the SNP, the SNP left him.

MacAskill is a veteran of the independence movement. Long before any of the more recent party acolytes, who he disparagingly refers to as being part of the ‘New SNP’, were even born, MacAskill was already stirring things up as a member of the radical, left-wing ’79 group which also included Alex Salmond, Roseanna Cunningham and Margo MacDonald. The group was a more fundamentalist faction of the SNP that was impatient with the slow progress towards independence. It was largely made up of intellectuals committed to establishing a socialist, republican, independent Scotland, and was impatient, noisy, and extremely critical of the established party leaders. Its stance eventually led to its members, including Salmond and MacAskill, being expelled. And although they were later readmitted following a bitter appeals process, history will show the debacle set the ball rolling on the resurgence of a party, which previously was largely seen as on the loony fringe of politics, onto a new path, Those youthful protagonists eventually becaming key figures in making the SNP more electable and they eventually rose to high office in government.

MacAskill, a solicitor, considered a serious character and a deep thinker with little time for the fripperies of politics, was elected to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999 on the Lothians list and re-elected in 2003. In 2007 he won the constituency seat of Edinburgh East and Musselburgh from Labour – the first time the SNP had won a constituency seat at Holyrood. And with the SNP forming the first minority government, Salmond made his close ally justice secretary.

MacAskill was perceived by some as a solid pair of hands in justice, to others as far too close to its institutions, but he came to global prominence in 2009 when he made the decision to release the so-called ‘Lockerbie bomber’, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, from prison on compassionate grounds so he could return to Libya to die having been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

MacAskill took sole responsibility for the controversial decision and delivered it to a specially recalled parliament with all the gravity of a Presbyterian minister giving a sermon. He said Megrahi faced a sentence imposed by a “higher power”, adding: “It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”

My driver used to always lock the car doors, not drop me off in certain places, insist on driving me even when I wanted to walk

It felt at the time that the decision to free Megrahi was a truly momentous one and that the eyes of the world were on Scotland. Opprobrium was heaped on the justice secretary from the relatives of the US victims of the bombing and political figures, including President Obama and the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke out against it. I remember being in the gym at the Holyrood Hotel on an adjoining treadmill to MacAskill on the night before he announced Megrahi’s release and feeling the weight that surely must have been on his shoulders. I chose not to interrupt him with my questions but simply kept running alongside, almost in silent solidarity – of what, I’m not exactly sure. He kept going for well over an hour, out-running me, and seemed untroubled by whatever he was wrestling with.

Almost 35 years to the day that Pan Am Flight 103 came down over Lockerbie, I ask MacAskill how heavy that decision had weighed on him.

“It didn’t, I just did what was my job to do,” he says, dismissively, in his distinctive sing-song tone. “I remember going to speak to special advisers when we found out Megrahi was ill and it was all agreed this would be my decision alone, you could lose a cabinet secretary, but you cannot lose the government. So that put a firewall around it in terms of the correct procedures. You also have to remember, it was actually a very short period of time because although he was diagnosed earlier, there was a frenetic summer that basically went, June, July, and that was it, it was over. 

“My recollection of it all is that I was assisted by a remarkably able civil service team. Especially the very close team and my private secretary because they shared the risks, not that there necessarily were any, but you know, I remember things like noticing that my driver used to always lock the car doors, not drop me off in certain places, insist on driving me even when I wanted to walk, give me a row when I left my headphones in when I was out running. You do notice small things like that.

“I have to say, though, I get gobsmacked when I see people going on about abuse and hostility and social media these days. I’ve been through it, seen it, and it was all BlackBerries in those days, but I remember my BlackBerry just getting all these messages coming in, you know, all these ones from America, saying things like, ‘I pray every day for you to die a gasoline death’, and I’d think, what God do you pray to, son?

“Honestly, I just switch off, turn off and don’t get involved. I think, yes, with today’s social media it would be worse and also I am male so I don’t get the repulsive threats that go with being female, but when I look at some of the squeals of protest at the moment because someone said something on Twitter, I think back to when I had the real threat to my life that meant I had police driving around my house all the time, I had a panic alarm installed – they took it away, actually, because it went off accidentally and the cops came rushing in and I was in my jammies. Hopefully it went to some domestic violence case that actually needed it. 

“At the end of the day, I stand by the decision I made. I think history has proven that, and Abu Agila Masud is currently in a US prison having been charged with making the bomb. The only thing that continues to irritate me is those that view Megrahi as some, you know, Arab saint – he was involved. He was low level, he was the highest-ranking Libyan that the Libyans were prepared to hand over, and he was the lowest down the rung that the West was prepared to accept. But he was released following all the rules and guidance and on a point of principle. He lived longer than expected, which caused some difficulties, but equally, that was because he was getting treatment that we didn’t offer on the NHS and, more importantly, as everybody knows, if you’ve got a reason to live, then you do live longer, as opposed to being sad in a lonely prison cell on your own and you turn your face to the wall. I’ve seen that with family in hospital, they just decide life isn’t for them, and so that’s what happened. I have no doubts that the right decision was made, none.”

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi | Alamy

There is no denying MacAskill’s legacy in justice, politics and in the independence movement, and yet for many in the party, that has been erased by his more recent past. Having been sacked by Nicola Sturgeon in her first cabinet reshuffle after becoming first minister in November 2014, the party went into the 2016 election, at which he stood down, fighting on various fronts in justice that he had overseen, including the controversial merging of eight regional police forces into one which then experienced huge teething problems. 

Meanwhile, he stayed out of frontline politics, focusing on writing books following various high-level but ultimately unsuccessful job interviews for international roles, until he was tempted back to stand in the 2019 UK general election as the SNP candidate for East Lothian. He overturned a Labour majority of over 3,000 and took up his seat at Westminster. A few months in, he called for the office of lord advocate to be split, in response to the trial of former first minister Alex Salmond, to avoid potential conflicts of interest – a move now similarly being proposed by the MP Joanna Cherry. In February 2020, he authored Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland’s radical history – from the French Revolutionary era to the 1820 Rising. And he became a vocal critic of Nicola Sturgeon’s government through various newspaper columns. In March 2021, amid much speculation about who might or might not jump the SNP ship to Alex Salmond’s newly formed political party, Alba, MacAskill was the first big name to announce he would. 

The former first minister launched Alba in March 2021 ahead of the Scottish Parliament election in June of that year, as a means to create a “supermajority” of pro-independence supporters in Holyrood. And while electoral success evaded Salmond’s new political project, MacAskill’s defection was followed by his SNP colleague, MP Neale Hanvey, giving the party two MPs. That was followed more recently by SNP leadership contender Ash Reagan, who now sits as an Alba MSP in Holyrood.

At the time of MacAskill’s departure, the then SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “He has been an increasing embarrassment to many in the SNP and his departure is somewhat of a relief.

“That he is joining a party with serious questions to answer about its leader’s suitability for public office is no surprise.”

Two years on, and while he still hasn’t committed to standing in the next general election, MacAskill remains happy with the decision he made to defect.

Who do these people think they are? What is their legacy?

“Mandy, I had 40 good years in the SNP, I made many friends, and I have great friends still in it. I think we achieved a lot, and I’m proud about that. Of course, there’s things I would change if you could go back, but you know, I’ve got no regrets there and I’ve got no regrets on leaving, it was the right thing to do. I look at what the SNP is now and while it’s not really for me to comment because it’s no longer my party, I look at the damage that it’s done to the wider independence movement, and I have a mixture of grief, contempt, and of rage at what it has become. As an illustration, I recently picked up a story from one of my staffers who had been speaking to another staffer in the SNP who’d been saying that their member was expecting to lose their seat but given their age, it wasn’t too much of an issue for them and, you know, I know the area represented, I know the people, I know the blood, sweat and tears that went into winning that seat, and I despair at just this ability to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘oh, well, we’re going to get rolled back a bit, it has been a blast being an MP but hey-ho’, I just despair at that attitude. Who do these people think they are? What is their legacy?

“When I was a minister, I always used to say to a junior minister, you only get one chance, if you are fortunate, you might get longer, but you essentially get one chance, so what do you want to do – do you want to say I was there, or do you want to say, I achieved an A, B and C? And I look at the SNP, and whether it’s in the Holyrood administration, or indeed at Westminster, and ask what they have achieved because I think an awful lot of them are simply happy to say they were there.

“Having been part of that movement that was first elected in 1999 and then went into government in 2007, I know we were lean, we were hungry, we knew what we wanted to do. We were committed, we were activists who were fortunate enough to be elected to parliament. I think there are still people like that within parliament, to be fair, I know them, but there are people who, frankly, I do not know and do not recognise, and I’ve no doubt they are committed in their own way to independence, but I have to say, they don’t have either the hinterland nor indeed do they have the hunger that others had before them. And I always remember chatting away to Henry McLeish about the emergence of the young men in black suits and red ties in New Labour, and saying to Henry that I knew why he was in the Labour Party, he came from mining stock, it was his community, and he stayed by his values, but I looked at these other young guys and couldn’t see why they were there, other than they sought a career and power. And I have to say, I’ve got to the stage where I’ve looked at the SNP and yes, I would still see people, John Swinney and others, who I know why they’re there, but then I would see some young women dressed, you know, in a black dress and a yellow blouse, and I have no idea what they’re doing there. It’s performative. And as I say, there’s a synergy between the black suits and red ties of New Labour and the black dresses and yellow blouses that now exists in the SNP. What are they there for? What are their politics?

“I put the blame for this change firmly down to Nicola Sturgeon and those around her because the party became highly centralised. I mean, the whole Hydro, almost glam rock stuff, that’s not the personality-led politics that I joined the party for.

“Yes, Alex certainly has an ego, as do we all, but I’ve never experienced anything like those Hydro-type events. That cult-like adoration. I never went to any of them but what I saw, I just found gobsmacking – quite unhealthy, actually. 

“There are people who are outstandingly talented, and Nicola has great talents, and you know, they have to be given their moment in the sun, but it’s one thing to get a standing ovation at your party conference, it’s another to be viewing that as some method of communication of your policies. 

“I think what we saw there was the SNP moving away from a party of ideas to one of performance – an empty vessel – and it reminds me of the criticism I used to make of Labour back in the early noughties.  

“With the changing of the guard from Alex to Nicola, I think I always assumed the party would move more to the left but other than the gender-balanced cabinet, it didn’t really do much more and Nicola moved the party, frankly, just to one with no ideology, no direction, which is the real problem. Even if she’d gone to a centre-right direction, it would have been more coherent. All we got were fripperies, a bit of this and a bit of that, that looked good, made marginal differences, the baby box being a classic example but on the big-ticket items and the reform of public services, nothing was done. To be fair, when I was in cabinet, Mike Russell made big changes in education, I reformed police and fire, and nothing was done with health under Nicola.

“But actually, the real damaging change for me has been in the defenestration of party democracy and the surrounding of the leadership team by lightweights. I have great sympathy for Humza, he has inherited, frankly, a disaster, and that comes back to Nicola Sturgeon. He has inherited her mess. For months now I’ve been saying history will not be kind to her, and we’re already seeing that, but it’s not just historical, it’s contemporary, and the budget debacle that we now face is catastrophic and has long roots. And frankly, I remember back in 2014 when I stepped down from office, the senior civil service team took me for a nice meal out, it was very kind of them, and they included somebody who would then become the top banana, and they were all saying then that the sums just don’t add up. The sums didn’t add up then, and that’s now coming up for 10 years ago, and the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Given all he has said, I ask MacAskill whether he would agree with Enoch Powell’s view that all political careers ultimately end in failure, and will he be able to look back and honestly say that he changed things or that he ‘was just there’?

“I think I did achieve things, some minor things. And actually, some major things. Aside from the big things that people remember, I think I helped make some cultural shifts when I took over as justice secretary, in terms of how we viewed people. For instance, the word ‘neds’ first appeared in our national lexicon, there was even a film called Neds, but for me, there was just an awful lot of troubled laddies and sad lassies, and I think I did help to change thinking around that, and around female offenders and prison. There were minor things, such as lowering the drink-drive limit, and they are still pushing on that elsewhere and the BMA has made it a big plank of their manifesto in England; there was the licensing of air weapons; and we made in-roads in tackling serious organised crime and on the approach to drugs. There are things I wish we’d gone further on and there are things I wish I had also put my shoulder to the wheel on, but you can only do so much. I’ve actually enjoyed my time in politics and, importantly, stood by what I believe in. 

“I remember when I stood for the SNP in Bathgate in 1992 against the Communist Party, which was imploding at the time, and there was an old guy, Eric Atkinson, who was one of those characters of the Jimmy Reid era, very learned despite having left school probably at 15, if not younger, and I remember him chastising me about what I read and getting me to read the likes of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Jack London. I remember that despite the fact that his party was crashing and burning around his ears, Eric was pragmatic that this is still what he stood for, what he believed in, and to some extent, I look back at Eric, and I think, all I can do is remember that I came into politics as what would have been described then as the radical independent left, it was the ‘79 Group, then it was the SNP, and it is now Alba. So, you know, of course there are things I wish I’d done better. There are some things you probably would change if you could go back. But in the main, I have fought for what I believe in, and I’ll continue to do just that.”

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