Let’s say for talk’s sake that you are Mr Tony Blair. Let’s further suppose that you have in your prison system a foreign national convicted of 270 counts of murder. You can probably be confident that he’ll be out of sight, out of mind for ten or twelve years, but eventually his health is likely to fail him, and you might be faced with the question of what to do with a dying man, to whom it would be deeply politically problematic to give a compassionate release. What do you do?
If you’re a skilled politician, or a treacherous weasel, you might do something like this:
- Sign a treaty with Colonel Gaddafi.
- Include in that treaty a clause on prisoner transfers, which is realistically only going to apply to one man.
- Devolve responsibility for this area to the Scottish government.
- When the time comes, stand back and chuckle as Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill wonder how they ended up with this steaming turd of a decision.
You think that’s overly cynical? Maybe you didn’t see Alastair Darling suppressing a definite smirk on the news. The beauty of this is that, as the media, American politicians and victims’ families get het up, it’s the SNP that’s going to take the hit for a situation not at all of their making. The Westminster government has washed its hands of the matter, and the O’Bama administration, which has no responsibility in the matter, can throw as many hardline shapes as it likes without affecting the outcome. We can rest assured that, whatever the huffing and puffing in London and Washington, nothing will be done to seriously affect relations with our new friend Gaddafi.
Taken on this level, the Megrahi case just illustrates a common approach by politicians to the criminal justice system, which is to indulge in tabloid-friendly grandstanding (in this respect we can mention Michael Howard, David Blunkett and John Reid as particularly culpable Home Secretaries) while at the same time avoiding taking unpopular decisions. You may remember a few years back that there was a minor scandal about paroled convicts committing serious crimes. Who, it was asked, had taken the decision to parole these men? It turned out that they had been paroled by a computer programme, which I would guess had been set up precisely to avoid any individual having to take the fall.
In principle, I suppose, one would like there to be an individual who will take the decision and stand by it. That would be the democratic, as opposed to technocratic, position. On the other hand, having seen Jack Straw’s contortions over Jack Tweed and Ronnie Biggs, sometimes you just want to shake your head and say, “Feck this for a game of soldiers, let the computer do the heavy lifting. It’s less likely to be living in fear of what the Sun and the Mail will say tomorrow morning.”
Great discussion at Aaro Watch, and special thanks to Flying Rodent for background.