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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Megrahi case exposes constitutional illiteracy

Megrahi case exposes constitutional illiteracy

It's not just foreigners who seem confused – the British political class no longer understand the UK and Scotland's place within it

Gerry Hassan, Guardian, Saturday 24 July 2010 17.00 BST

The Abdelbaset al-Megrahi case has many dimensions – how the UK government does business, the realpolitik of oil companies such as BP, and the way in which the west views the Middle East. Then there is the Scottish dimension.

The Lockerbie bombing occurred over the Scottish town of that name, and Megrahi was convicted under Scots law and served part of his sentence in a Scottish prison. He was released under Scots law by a Scottish minister.

When the story of his release broke last year, the very existence of Scots judicial and legal systems was broadcast around the world. To many, this story was an introduction to the fact that there was a nation called "Scotland", or that a "modern Scotland" different from the ancient land of kings, battles and myths still existed. And there was an entity called "the Scottish government" with a "first minister", Alex Salmond, who was a self-confessed "Scottish nationalist" or "separatist" in the eyes of some.

The Megrahi case has revealed that such ignorance and misunderstandings don't just exist far away – where there is some excuse for it – but much closer to home, in the UK. And this tells us something about the condition and health of the UK.

Several commentators, including centre-left ones such as James McInytre, have blamed the whole episode on devolution, arguing last year that the Megrahi decision was the sort of decision that "should have been taken – and be seen to be taken – at a national level by the British government" and that "devolution has led to a grave failure of accountability". This is a fundamental error, given that the processes that led to the release of Megrahi were based on Scots law – which has been in existence for centuries and long predate the current Scottish parliament.

Daniel Kawczynski, Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and chair of the all-party parliamentary committee on Libya, called for an investigation of what he described as "the constitutional aspects of this case". When invited to further elucidate what aspects of MacAskill's decision were "unconstitutional" he answered that the decision impacted on "UK relations with the Arab world and the United States".

David Cameron's decision to voice his "violent agreement" with Barack Obama in Washington against the Megrahi release is worthy of note. Cameron chose to vociferously collude with Obama in denigrating the Scottish government – which is part of the sovereign terrain of the UK.

This is illuminating because the previous UK government, in the form of Gordon Brown, picked its words on this very carefully. Cameron trashed his own much-vaunted "respect" agenda between the UK and Scottish governments; at the same time he has decided to pussyfoot around whether he approves or disapproves of the Blair-inspired prisoner transfer agreement with the Libyan authorities.

All of this matters in the case in question and beyond. Once there was a powerful sense of Britain that informed our political elites as well as the populace. The governing credos of these isles was informed by the different histories, cultures and backgrounds of the nations of the UK, and in its "high unionism" celebrated and felt comfortable with this.

This powerful glue has now mostly dissolved at the popular level along with any belief in such voodoo rubbish as "parliamentary sovereignty", while the statecraft, elan and faith in Britain which once characterised British elites has dramatically declined.

The British political class, the Westminster village and the world of politicians, civil servants and experts, no longer understand the nature of the UK, and have lost any pretence that they care. This matters to the future of the UK, our governance arrangements and political institutions and, ultimately, to the state of our democracy. It does not auger well for its future prospects that our nomenklatura seems increasingly to exhibit a political illiteracy about the UK, something which can only aid the gathering storm clouds on the horizon, and those making the case for an independent Scots foreign policy.

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