Saturday, July 24, 2010

Holyrood's opposition politicians look like (even) smaller people tonight

The last 48 hours or so have provided yet another textbook example of a lack of imagination on the part of opposition politicians in Holyrood, and (to invert Andrew Marr's infamous phrase) they look like rather smaller people tonight as a result. A much more thoughtful response to the Scottish government's refusal to send ministers and officials to testify in person at the US Senate would have been to echo Jack Straw by noting how unusual - verging on the unheard-of - it would be for such testimony to occur before the legislature of another sovereign nation. That observation would not in any way have compromised the opposition parties' established stance that Megrahi should not have been released. Indeed they could have reiterated that point volubly, underlining that they only oppose the government where there's a principled disagreement, and not for opposition's sake. But it was always too much to hope for that the likes of Richard Baker would show that sort of class. For him, if a decision has got Alex Salmond's name on it, it's an outrage - end of story...

"It is quite extraordinary Kenny MacAskill has ruled out appearing before the US Senate inquiry. He and Salmond are the men responsible for the decision and they are now running scared."

A comment that now begs the obvious questions - is it "extraordinary" that Baker's senior party colleague Jack Straw has also ruled out attending the hearing in person, for near-identical reasons? Would Baker care to tell Straw to his face that he's a coward?

I dare say Labour's response to what I've just said (indeed as far as I can see it's the only conceivable defence they've got) would be that devolution offers the Scottish party scope to diverge in its views from its Westminster colleagues. Well, I'm all for that principle - but in reality, does anyone seriously believe that there would be so much as a cigarette-paper between Baker and Straw in any other circumstance than an opportunity to bash the SNP?

While Annabel Goldie might not have to worry about contradicting her London overlords, her own contribution to proceedings has been pretty poor as well -

"The SNP would be the first to complain if anybody refused to co-operate with them so they must comply with this request from the US Senate."

Come off it, Annabel. Alex Salmond is indeed noted for insisting upon proper respect for Scottish institutions, but the idea that he would be arrogant enough to demand that a senior member of the US government or the governor of a US state should appear before a committee of the Scottish parliament upon request (which would be the rough equivalent of what is being asked of him) is utterly risible.


Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Scotsman's report on Straw's snub to the Senate is the suggestion from his aides that he is effectively being invited to speak on behalf of the Scottish government, for their decision to release Megrahi. Whereas the Scottish government, for their part, are declining the invitation partly on the grounds that they are effectively being asked to answer for the UK government's collusion with BP over the Prisoner Transfer Agreement. Is there a contradiction here? No, because the Senate committee is indeed absurdly demanding that both administrations answer for the other by muddying the waters in the stated focus of its inquiry between two separate issues that aren't and can't possibly be linked. It seems to me Kerry and co have got to decide whether they're investigating a) the release of Megrahi on compassionate grounds, or b) BP's involvement in the 'deal in the desert'. If they persist with their boneheaded insistence that it's c) "the link between the two", then the least they should be expected to do is specify their grounds for reasonable suspicion that such a link might exist. "Megrahi is a bad guy, BP are bad guys and I've got an election to fight in November" does not constitute such grounds.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"The various claims from the Scottish government raise more questions..."

Or so the US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has said. I don't think she realises quite what a revealing utterance that is, as she's effectively admitting that she and her colleagues (just like John Bolton on Newsnight) have been shooting their mouths off without bothering to inform themselves on the Scottish government's position, and the legal and constitutional basis on which the decision to free Megrahi was made. As far as I can see, there is literally nothing that Alex Salmond has said in his letter to John Kerry that hasn't been pointed out many times before, and therefore nothing that should have come as a surprise to anyone who had been following the story with anything more than a passing interest.

Although I was tending towards the view that it might be a good thing for Alex Salmond or Kenny MacAskill to testify in person before the Senate committee, that was simply on the basis that they had such a watertight case to put forward and were bound to emerge well. There was certainly no moral imperative for them to do so, and any criticism of their decision not to go will ring distinctly hollow, given the open contempt with which the US government has routinely treated external probing into its own affairs, whether by international bodies or the institutions of other sovereign nations. Salmond's refusal to testify in person makes an important statement about equality of esteem between nations, although of course far more importantly it demands an acknowledgment of the clear demarcation lines between two separate issues that the senators are cynically (or perhaps ignorantly) trying to blur - the shady lobbying of the UK government by BP on the one hand, and the actual process that led to Megrahi's release by the Scottish government on the other. If Kerry's committee ever shows the slightest interest in probing a matter the Scottish government actually has responsibility for, perhaps Salmond's response will be different.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

American TV's version of the truth over Lockerbie

I've just had a first taste of American television's coverage of the recent Megrahi controversy by watching on online clip from ABC News. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's a one-and-a-half minute "report" that shamelessly and risibly portrays the four US senators as morally righteous pursuers of truth, fearless in taking on the powers-that-be. Funny that, because to me they look uncannily like a part of the powers-that-be, brazenly setting up a smokescreen to distract from the real issues surrounding Lockerbie.

As you might expect, apart from the general distortion and highly selective use of fact, there is one outright inaccuracy in the report. It claims that Megrahi was released on the basis that "the doctor said he had only three months to live, but now one of those doctors says that he could live for another ten years or longer". That sentence doesn't even make logical sense (ie. the singular 'doctor' suddenly becomes 'doctors' plural) but it is clearly Karol Sikora that is being referred to, and the Scottish government has repeatedly made clear that Sikora was not "one of the doctors" that informed Kenny MacAskill's decision to release Megrahi. In any case, Sikora made clear that in his view there was a less than 1% chance that Megrahi would live for ten years or more. Now, I wonder why ABC would have omitted that rather important caveat?

Israel's deceptive inequalities

An absolutely jaw-dropping story from Israel, where a Palestinian man has been jailed for having completely consensual sex with a woman, on the basis that it was "rape by deception" because he pretended to be a Jew. There a couple of issues here - the first and most obvious one being the question of race. Israel repeatedly scoffs at the notion that it is an apartheid state (although the similarities with pre-1990s South Africa are uncanny) but if a man can be jailed essentially for pretending to be a different race or religion than he is, what does that sound like to you? Quite honestly, it sounds like the sort of thing that might have happened in 1930s Germany.

But there's a broader issue as well, because clearly the 'rape by deception' law applies to Jews as well as Palestinians, and to a wide range of possible scenarios. In CNN's report, an expert gives a couple of examples of "meaningful" lies that could fall under the scope of the law, the first of which would be so outrageous that it could indeed only be defined as "rape", whereas the second is so daft it would probably criminalise about 10% of the population of the UK -

"For example, where a doctor persuades a woman to have sex claiming it would be a part of the medical treatment. As for this particular case...the court emphasized the fact that he claimed to be single while he was married, which would be relevant in the context of a romantic relationship."

The obvious question that forms in my mind at this point is - does this law really apply equally to all Israeli citizens, specifically to both men and women? Many countries frame their laws in such a way that it is either literally or virtually impossible for a woman to be guilty of rape, except perhaps in cases where she directly assists a man committing the offence. But whatever women's physical capabilities, they are certainly just as capable as men of luring a potential sexual partner by means of verbal dishonesty. So are Israeli jails full of women convicted of "rape-by-deception"? I have my doubts.

View from the periphery

I'm very pleased I watched Newsnight Scotland tonight, because I realised as a result that the premise of one of the points I made the other night was wholly wrong. I'm thoroughly relieved to be reminded that the law isn't quite as much of an ass as I took it for - Megrahi could, of course, have been granted compassionate release without dropping his appeal. I think the reason for my confusion was my recollection that the last thing Kenny MacAskill said to Megrahi during their meeting was that, under the rules, the appeal would have to be dropped if the application was to be approved - but of course the application he was referring to was for prisoner transfer, not for compassionate release. In a way the whole conversation was utterly superfluous, because we all know that pigs would fly before an SNP minister would have approved a prisoner transfer to Libya under Blair's tainted 'deal in the desert' framework. So should MacAskill be criticised for leading Megrahi up the garden path, and saying something that may have led to the appeal being dropped needlessly? Absolutely not. He was there to talk specifically about the application for prisoner transfer and that alone, under the legal provisions that granted Megrahi the right to put his case in person. As I understand it, there is no such provision for compassionate release applications. Had MacAskill given a nod and a wink and said "you don't really need to drop your appeal, old chap, because there's no prospect of me granting your prisoner transfer request anyway", that would have been deeply inappropriate. He played a completely straight bat, and simply informed Megrahi of the rules relating to the application they were discussing.

As someone who has long doubted Libya's responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, Hans Köchler's concerns over MacAskill's meeting with Megrahi, and the reasons for Megrahi subsequently dropping his appeal, certainly deserve to be treated with a good deal more seriousness than the transparently partisan complaints we've heard from other quarters. However, Megrahi's decision was scarcely an illogical one - he may well have been advised (however erroneously) that prisoner transfer was a runner and that the best way of maximising his chances of release was to withdraw his appeal. Furthermore, while I can understand Köchler's wish for more light to be shed on these matters (although I'd very surprised if there's anything untoward to be discovered as far as the Scottish government is concerned) I'm slightly puzzled as to why he feels a US Senate Committee is the appropriate body to be probing a domestic Scottish decision.

Jim Swire also seemed surprisingly optimistic that the Senate inquiry might yield something valuable. For me, Murray Leith hit the nail on the head - the US Senate is a vastly powerful institution with the legal clout to get to the bottom of just about anything if it wants to. John Kerry and co have shown literally zero interest in investigating anything to do with Lockerbie other than what Swire correctly characterises as an issue "right at the periphery" - ie. Megrahi's release, and the fact that he has outlived the central estimate for his life expectancy. It's rather akin to the Bloody Sunday inquiry only being interested in probing the moral outrage of one of the soldiers being incorrectly attired.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One 'mistake' that a senior UK minister has correctly identified

Much as Nick Clegg isn't exactly going to be my nominee for Man of the Year, there was something symbolically rather satisfying about finally seeing a senior UK government minister stand at the dispatch box and unequivocally declare the invasion of Iraq "illegal". Spain had its 'purging' election in 2004 when the enthusiastic Bush cheerleader Aznar was ousted by Zapatero, and even the US itself eventually elected an opponent of the Iraq war as President. But it appeared that the British electorate were never going to have the opportunity to express their disgust at the events of 2003 in such a clear-cut way, due to the complicity between the Labour and Tory leaderships over the issue. Probably what happened today was just about the best we could ever realistically hope for.

And George Osborne and William Hague's faces when Clegg said the words were an absolute picture. They had obviously built themselves up to nod their heads furiously and shout "Hear, hear!" regardless of what Clegg said during PMQs, and they didn't quite manage to pull out of their approving facial expressions in time.

David Miliband's severe case of false memory syndrome

Alex Salmond was of course absolutely right to highlight David Miliband's hopelessly clumsy attempts to shift his ground on the Megrahi case, and if this skewering helps to finish off the elder Mili-brother's leadership bid, I certainly won't be crying any tears for him. But listening to the recording of Miliband's latest comments, what leapt out at me the most was his claim that "there is a problem" because we had been told Megrahi's release was ordered on the grounds that it was "certain" he would be dead within three months.

Well, there's a problem all right, David, and it appears to be with your memory. Let's have a look at what Kenny MacAskill actually said at the time...

"Mr Al-Megrahi was examined by Scottish Prison Service doctors on 3 August. A report dated 10 August from the Director of Health and Care for the Scottish Prison Service indicates that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate. The advice they have provided is based not only on their own physical examination but draws on the opinion of other specialists and consultants who have been involved in his care and treatment.

He may die sooner - he may live longer. I can only base my decision on the medical advice I have before me."

Now, I wonder where precisely in those words Miliband was detecting such a degree of "certainty"?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kenny MacAskill is already 'nationally accountable', Mr Kawczynski

The Megrahi affair seems to have caused a subtle shift in the devolution narrative in some parts, with the novel idea being advanced by the likes of Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski that it's somehow an unforeseen flaw in the system that Westminster doesn't have a way of "holding Scottish ministers to account from a national perspective". Newsflash for Mr Kawczynski : the whole point of devolution is that Scottish ministers should - within the limited scope of their responsibilities - be accountable first, last and always to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people, and never to Westminster. Not even to the august body that is the All-Party Group on Libya. But he need have no fear - there is a very simple mechanism by which Kenny MacAskill will indeed be held to account on a 'national basis', and that will occur when the country which elected him in the first place holds its next national parliamentary elections in May. And if the 'respect agenda' has any meaning at all, David Cameron's response to Kawczynski's letter should be predominantly concerned with explaining that principle to a member of the Tory parliamentary party who clearly doesn't quite 'get it' yet.

As for Kawczynski's argument that Britain as a whole has a stake in MacAskill's decision because it affected the country's image abroad, I'd have said that above all else that's a compelling argument for British representatives beyond these shores to do a far better job of explaining the nature of Scotland's constitutional relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Anyone who heard the brazenly ignorant John Bolton (a former US ambassador to the UN, for pity's sake) on Newsnight last week will know there's a mammoth job to be done on that score. But, there again, Kawczynski might want to be careful what he wishes for - the Americans may have been angry about MacAskill's decision, but American opinion is not the same thing as world opinion. (Admittedly the two are all too frequently conflated.) Does Britain really want to give up on the reflected glory of Nelson Mandela's high praise for MacAskill's courageous decision, for example?

It's struck me more and more in recent days that the real tragedy of Megrahi's situation (well, one of the many) is that if it hadn't been for the severity of his illness, he'd probably by now be well on the way to establishing his innocence, along with all the consequences that would bring - a long-overdue spotlight being shone on the American law enforcement agencies' central role in the miscarriage of justice, for instance. But, because of a cruel quirk of fate, and the stupidity of the law that insists compassionate release can only be considered for those who have dropped all outstanding appeals, the likes of Kawczynski and the US senators are now free to self-righteously prattle to their heart's content about the release of a "mass-murderer", and know that the law will permanently be on their side in defining Megrahi in that way. Instead of the widespread and irresistible calls we would by now be hearing for inquiries into the serious issues surrounding Lockerbie, ie. the identity of the real culprits and the Americans' motives for framing Megrahi, we are left - absurdly - with angry calls for 'investigations' into, of all things, Kenny MacAskill's conduct. This affair is fast starting to resemble a black comedy, and I dare say there are quite a few people on both sides of the Atlantic who can scarcely believe their luck.

You don't actually have to believe in Megrahi's innocence to see why the rules that have put us in this situation are cruel and indefensible. Any legal system that contains an appeals process is a legal system that tacitly acknowledges its own fallibility. By definition, therefore, any seriously ill prisoner protesting his innocence and still in the midst of an active appeal might just be telling the truth. So why force such a person to make the impossible choice of either giving up on his chance of compassionate release, or giving up his appeal? The widespread suggestions that Megrahi was admitting his guilt by opting for the latter course of action in such impossible circumstances are beyond idiocy. I can, I suppose, see the rationale for the principle that a prisoner in normal circumstances cannot be granted parole without dropping all appeals, but compassionate release for a man who has no realistic prospect of seeing his appeal through to its conclusion is a different matter entirely. It's a curious notion that the law has far less compassion for a man who it tacitly acknowledges might yet turn out to be innocent than it does for one it regards as guilty beyond all dispute.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Public opinion? Nick's phoned his mates to find out...

Nick Clegg's response to the anger over his decision to hold the AV referendum on the same day as the Holyrood poll, made without any consultation whatsoever -

"I really struggle to understand why the extensive and wide-ranging debates about the future of Scotland, about the Government of Scotland, the politics of Holyrood would in any way be subsumed or overshadowed or overturned by a separate, very, very clear, simple yes or no vote on how in future people vote for their MPs...

I am genuinely trying to work out what the allegation is. I speak to friends of mine who will be voting in Scotland and they say they see no complexity at all."

Hmmm. Wouldn't it be a wizard idea to also check with a few people who aren't his friends, and therefore aren't 100% guaranteed to tell him exactly what he wants to hear? For all I know the answer might be no different, but I'd have thought it would be a worthwhile exercise all the same, just to be on the safe side. After all, the last time the concept of Scottish public opinion was mixed up with "whatever the minister's mates think" the government managed to convince themselves that the poll tax was a really popular idea in these parts.