Thursday, September 24, 2009

Memo From Edinburgh

When Doing the Scottish Thing Backfires

Published: September 24, 2009

EDINBURGH — The news the other day wafted poisonously along the tartan and whiskey shops that dominate the tourist-attracting Royal Mile here. One of Scotland’s best-known brands, Harris Tweed Hebrides, had decided to “de-Scottishify” the image of the brand, one of its executives had told the newspapers, so as not to alienate American consumers angry about the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, left, has defended before Parliament his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, saying that humanity “is viewed as a defining characteristic” of Scotland.

The next day, the company’s chief executive, Ian Angus Mackenzie, hastily backtracked, dismissing the idea as “daft.” But the uneasiness did not go away. Scots are very touchy these days about the decision to free the bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, and very worried about their international reputation.

Mr. Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, was freed from prison on compassionate grounds in August, having served less than a third of his 27-year sentence. Ill with terminal prostate cancer, he is now in intensive care at a hospital in Tripoli, his lawyer said. But the debate over his release rages on.

Indeed, there has been a great deal of talk about conspiracies and backdoor deals between Britain and Libya over Mr. Megrahi’s case. Britain wants to have better relations — both politically and financially — with Libya, and it is clear that the Megrahi issue came up repeatedly in discussions. As a condition of improved cooperation, Britain had to withdraw its demand to get Mr. Megrahi’s name removed as an exception when it negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

But the conspiracy theories ignore the parochial nature of Scottish politics, and also the political agenda of Alex Salmond, the leader of the governing Scottish National Party. Relations between Mr. Salmond and Gordon Brown, the British Labour prime minister, are said to be particularly frosty, and the last thing Mr. Salmond wants to do is appear to be taking orders from London.

He has enough troubles at home. In the Scottish Parliament, the justice committee is to conduct an inquiry into how the decision was reached, putting the nationalists on the defensive.

The National Party, which has a plurality but not a majority in Parliament and so clings to power tenuously, is at heart a single-issue organization: it believes that Scotland should be independent from Britain. As a result, its critics say, the party badly wants to prove itself, but has ended up looking foolish in the highest-profile decision of its governing time.

“They are desperate to be players on the international stage,” said Richard Baker, a member of the Scottish Parliament who is justice spokesman for the Labour Party here. “But there’s a huge arrogance within the S.N.P. in claiming that they speak for Scotland.”

The Scottish government hopes to hold a referendum on independence later this year, but such a referendum would have little chance of passing. Even some people who believe Mr. Megrahi was unfairly imprisoned and deserved to be free are annoyed at the way the government handled his release.

This may not be the most opportune moment for independence, either. Scotland, which always prided itself on its prudence, has been proved financially vulnerable in the recession. Its largest bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, had to be bailed out by the British government last year. The government — along with Britain’s — is also facing the prospect of having to make severe cuts in public services.

Although it means little to outsiders, particularly families of the victims of Flight 103, the Scottish government insists that there is a huge distinction between releasing Mr. Megrahi under the prisoner transfer agreement — which London may have tacitly supported had it happened, but which Scotland refused to allow — and releasing him on compassionate grounds, an extremely Scottish move.

In Scotland, opinion polls show a mixed reaction to the Megrahi release. A BBC poll found the majority were opposed to the decision. But polls in local newspapers found heavy majorities applauding it, and in an Internet poll conducted by the Firm, a magazine for lawyers, judges and others in the legal profession, some 69 percent of responders said they supported the release.

And, as a complicating factor, many Scots — including influential members of the legal establishment — feel that Mr. Megrahi was unjustly convicted and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

Among them are Robert Black, the lawyer who helped broker the deal to hold the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands rather than in Scotland; and Hans Kochler, the United Nations observer at the trial, who called the guilty verdict “inconsistent” and “arbitrary,” and has been a harsh critic of Scottish justice.

Mr. Megrahi has always maintained his innocence. His first appeal failed, but an influential group called the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission then referred his case back for another appeal, saying that it believed he “may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.”

Mr. Megrahi dropped the appeal in August, a tactic that he thought would help his chances of being released early, his lawyer said. But he has begun publishing on the Internet the legal arguments he had planned to use, as a way toward establishing his innocence.

In the Scottish Parliament, Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice secretary, defended his decision to release Mr. Megrahi on compassionate grounds, saying that humanity “is viewed as a defining characteristic” of Scotland.

In fact, releasing terminally ill prisoners is fairly standard practice in Scotland. Since 1997, 31 prisoners, including Mr. Megrahi, have applied for compassionate release. Twenty-four have had their applications granted; the remaining seven did not meet the medical criteria, in which, generally, the prisoner is deemed likely to die within three months.

“Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available,” Mr. MacAskill told Parliament. “Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.”

On the Royal Mile, Gordon Nicolson, who owns a kiltmaking shop, said that Mr. MacAskill’s efforts had backfired.

“They’re trying to show that Scotland can be politically independent,” he said. “But if this is the kind of decision they make, this calls into question Scotland’s ability to make good decisions.”

This is a huge mistake for the Scottish Tweed industry! HUGE!


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