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Into the Colonel’s Tent

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In politics, the quality of mercy is usually strained through several layers of dirty washing. The Westminster and Edinburgh governments now boast a ‘justice secretary’ each (Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill respectively). In the old days, it was left to judges to ensure that justice was dispensed without fear or favour. Now it has to be entrusted to politicians.

The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has kicked up a sandstorm in the dank and lawyerly chambers of Holyrood. Commentators have deplored the ‘sickening’ spectacle of the saltire being waved at Tripoli airport by Gaddafi’s claque, and Secretary MacAskill’s politically inept audience with al-Megrahi in HMP Greenock. But bad politics is sometimes good politics. We now like the Libyans, emeritus members of the Axis of Evil. As Lord Trefgarne, of the Libyan British Business Council, indicated last week, al-Megrahi’s release opens the sluicegates for contracts such as a projected £450m exploratory drilling investment by BP. This summer, Gaddafi’s son Seif has hobnobbed in Montenegro and on Corfu with Lord Mandelson, who took representations about al-Megrahi’s release, presumably in his role as business secretary.

Al-Megrahi’s conviction is of course widely seen as unsafe. Doubtless to limit political damage to the Scottish government, the SNP’s Christine Grahame has pledged to name the ‘real’ bomber under parliamentary privilege in next week’s Holyrood debate. The Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) between Libya and the UK ratified in April could have been used to shift al-Megrahi to a Libyan jail. But when London tried, behind its back, to cut a deal with Tripoli to ship al-Megrahi home under the PTA, the SNP government’s nose was put out of joint, so it found another pretext to remove him. Politicking between Labour and the SNP continues, despite their agreement about the release. Straw prompted the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, to suggest that MacAskill had exceeded his duties under the PTA by visiting al-Megrahi in Greenock. Nonetheless, Gordon Brown can’t risk treading on nationalist toes over the release. Administering criminal justice is devolved under the 1998 Scotland Act. Nor, with next year’s referendum on Scottish independence and the UK general election looming, can he afford to sound off about craven capitulation to terrorists, and hand First Minister Salmond a propaganda bonanza against both London’s dominance of the Union, and Sassenach Atlanticism in general.

It served nobody’s interests to have the Lockerbie bombing conviction debated in open court. Hence the great good fortune of al-Megrahi’s terminal prostate cancer, which sped his release from Greenock. With a ‘compassionate’ wave of the biro, the SNP administration has rid itself of a high-profile prisoner with an unsafe conviction and enhanced, or created, its international profile. The UK government can keep in with the Libyans and protect its commercial contracts, on the plea of respecting devolved powers. Meanwhile, in a rerun of the Cold War great game, we need to oil our way into the Colonel’s tent ahead of the Bear: recently Russia has been angling for a naval base in Benghazi. So even the Obama administration has reason to mute its complaints. It’s almost enough to make one believe in divine providence.

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