Friday, June 08, 2007

A Memorandum and a Misunderstanding?

So. The UK government has reached a 'memorandum of understanding' with their Libyan couterparts, which will see both sides "commence negotiations" over prisoner transfers, extradition and mutual assistance in criminal law.

Let's be clear - this is unexceptional in itself. However, given the sensitivity of these issues as they pertain to the justice system in Scotland, where a Libyan national is currently serving a life sentance for the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 in December 1988, it is a subject which you might think would have been raised in advance with Scottish Ministers.

Alas, no such consultation ever took place, either with the outgoing or the incoming Scottish government. The outline deal was struck on 29 May, yet it took until Monday 4 June for details to be revealed to Scottish Ministers. While incidences of cock-up tend to outnumber those of conspiracy where government is concerned, it's still a massive discourtesy, and a huge embarrassment at best.

In spite of this, the Scottish Government's response has been remarkably restrained so far, with Alex Salmond writing to Tony Blair to seek an explanation. This, together with the measured tone he has adopted, must come as a bitter disappointment to those determined to find the first evidence of the SNP Executive picking a fight with London. Indeed, that was the approach taken by Newsnight, which led with the story this evening on the UK-wide section of the programme. Bizarrely, despite Salmond having already taken part in the UK programme, the later Scottish opt-out seemed able to take umbrage at his not appearing to be asked the same questions by them ("he never writes, he never phones", was their take on proceedings. Don't they get phone calls from their colleagues in London either?).

But back to the main event. Presenter Kirsty Wark took up a line of attack which even the most rabid and partisan attack dog would have struggled to sustain. And struggle to sustain it she did, repeatedly shouting Salmond down and trying to cut him off mid-sentence at the end when there was little time pressure to conclude the interview. It was an approach which seemed very out of character for a presenter who ordinarily manages to generate far more light than she does heat.

Now, Alex Salmond knows how to handle himself, and certainly doesn't need anyone's help to defend him in an interview. If it had been me, though, the temptation to tell her to away and bile her heid would have been overwhelming, so kudos to him for keeping his cool, and reminding her that not only did he accept that Westminster had the power to do what it had done, but that her supposedly 'killer revelations' that no formal deal had yet been signed, or decision made regarding any individual prisoner, were ones that he himself had already placed on record earlier in the day in Parliament.

To show how extraordinary the Newsnight approach was, here are responses from other leading figures to the revelation of the existence of the memorandum:

Labour leader Jack McConnell: "As former first minister I would have expected and demanded no less than prior consultation on such a memorandum.

Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie: "Tony Blair has quite simply ridden roughshod over devolution and treated with contempt Scotland's distinct and independent legal system."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell: "The Government's ineptitude in handling this matter has given Mr Salmond precisely what he wanted. Westminster and the Labour Government have given the impression of disdain for the Scottish authorities.

Labour MP Tam Dalyell: "Surprisingly I am sympathetic to Mr Salmond. The only way that Megrahi can prove his innocence is through the Scottish legal system."

And from long-time spokesman for the Lockerbie victims, the dignified Dr Jim Swire, whose lost his own daughter in the outrage, we have: "Incredibly it seems that we are being asked to believe that this concerns other Libyan nationals, but not Megrahi. No mention of any discussion was given to us, the Lockerbie relatives. Mr Salmond should indeed remain indignant: Scotland has been insulted."

You can see the First Minister's statement to Parliament here.


Anonymous said...

I see (from the Tartan Army Messageboard) that the Newsnight producers have apologised for cutting Salmond off so abruptly.

It was not Kirsty Wark's finest hour by quite some way.

Richard Thomson said...

Maybe a wee holiday in Majorca will help smooth things over.