This is a guest post by Professor Tom Gallagher. Tom’s new book, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, is published next month
Robert S. Mueller III, director of the FBI for nearly a decade, wrote to the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill in terms which have not been used by a senior US official to a friendly state, not even when relations were strained with France and Germany back in 2003 when the Americans removed Saddam Hussein. Perhaps it is necessary to go back to the late 1980s when a West European Haed of State, Kurt Waldheim was actually persona non gratae in the US.
What prompted him to write:
‘I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors…Your decision to release [Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed] al-Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice…I do so because I am familiar with the facts and the law, having been the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991. And I do so because I am outraged by your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of “compassion”’.
Could it have been MacAskill’s visit on 6 August to Greenock prison to meet the man convicted for blowing up the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie in 1988 with the loss of 270 people? This fuelled speculation about a secret deal and, within days, al-Megrahi would withdraw his appeal, one which family relatives and justice experts hoped might push fresh evidence about this murky affair into the public domain. The prisoner needed to take this step if he was to obtain release on compassionate grounds. Very soon indeed this was granted.
Is this the sequence of events which drove the FBI director to write that ‘your action makes a mockery of the grief of the families who lost their own on December 21 1988? Or did his outrage over MacAskill’s move stem more from the way that he turned the release announcement into a big media news drama with himself centre-stage. His 25 minute statement took up nearly the whole of BBC Radio 4’s The World at One and there’s little doubt the timing was also influenced by the fact that it was bound to be given a lot of prominence on the US morning news shows just starting up.
MacAskill’s endless insistence that al-Megrahi’s release stemmed from the genius of Scottish laws and collective social values must have also touched a raw nerve; as indeed I am sure did the announcement to a no doubt startled world that ‘the Scots are a compassionate people’. A look at the dark underbelly of Scottish life would suggest that the basis for a politician to crow in this way about his country is a flimsy one.
As the philosopher A.C.Grayling pointed out in the Guardian on Friday, al-Megrahi received infinitely better treatment while in custody than any terrorist’s treatment of his victims.:
‘The interests of justice and compassion often clash, though people forget that in a case like Lockerbie) compassion towards the families and friends of the 270 victims requires that justice be properly done: each individual member of those families and friends has a life sentence that can never be abbreviated. For mass murders, life sentences should mean life, no matter what: provided the conviction is secure’.
But thanks to the events choreographed by the Scottish government , how secure al-Megrahi’s conviction was is likely to remain shrouded in mystery. MacAskill and his government have been poor guardians of the Scottish legal system about whose qualities they have been so keen to inform the world. The centrality of a particular legal code was shown in the edgy response from Edinburgh to the US FBI Director: Macaskill’s office emphasised that, unlike its US counterpart, compassion is an integral element of the Scottish justice system.
Here the Scottish legal system is indeed probably superior to the one which locks up a disturbingly high proportion of its citizens. But if compassion for the families of the victims is set aside, and is weighted instead in favour of a man whose guilt for the deaths of their loved ones was established in court, then that compassion has a hollow ring to it. (Allowing al-Megrahi to live out his remaining months in a house near to the prison would have been infinitely more compassionate since it would have prevented the deeply hurtful scenes that awaited his return to Libya).
MacAskill had already started the grandstanding for the purposes of extolling his brand of political nationalism. He was no doubt egged on by his Machiavellian leader Alex Salmond who knows that it his impetuous colleague who will face the long-term opprobrium while the First Minister will make capital at home and renew his effort to strike a deal with wealthy Middle Easterners to finance his separatist plans.
But the SNP’s parochialism and infatuation with their own cause was shown by their total failure to comprehend that others would wish to turn al-Megrahi’s release into an even grander spectacle. The reception when al-Megrahi disembarked from the jet Colonel Qadafi dispatched for him was like the climax in Fidelio when the prisoner Floristan at last emerges from the dungeon of the wicked Pizarro. But, unlike Beethoven’s opera, al-Megrahi has not returned to a land of freedom but to a durable police state. The SNP’ showed the minor league it operated in by failing to realise that Qadafi was likely to turn it into a centre-point for marking the 40th anniversary of the sprightly Colonel’s revolution.
For a long time, the Libyan regime provided the Semtex for IRA outrages as well as training terrorists operating from the Philipines to West Africa. The SNP’s readiness to play into the hands of a regime with such a record surely prompted Robert Mueller to writer to MacAskill:
‘your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the name and roles of others who were responsible’.
Macaskil has forgotten the wisdom that has been painstakingly acquired down the ages about how far the preservation of freedom is depended on maintaining order and adherence to the rule of law. The decline of this culture of received wisdom occurred during the Dark Ages, again for a time during the collapse of the medieval world in the 14th century, and of course with the rise of totalitarianism n the 20th century. George Bernard Shaw was not the only thinker who was able to glimpse that if no norms are observed, men behave like the beats from which they are ascended (see his 1921 play Back to Methuselah).
In his 1930 book The Revolt of the Masses, Jose Ortega y Gasset delivered a warning to America. Its civilization would not endure if it was severed from European culture. He believed that the American civil order shared with European civilization a common patrimony. Its principal elements (due allowance being made for the time he was writing) were thought to be the inheritance of the Christian faith (and its Judaic roots), a Roman and also medieval heritage of ordered liberty; and contested contributions from the 18th century Enlightenment where rationality and romanticism were, however, uneasy bedfellows.
By now, the rupture which Ortega and others had feared has surely already occurred but not in the way perhaps anticipated. The European inheritance still endures but it is in America itself that the best of it can now be found, certainly in terms of civic endeavours, belief in freedom, and intellectual renown (as clearly shown by how the best of its universities eclipse those of Europe).
America is also perhaps the most successful international society in history (leaving aside the Roman Empire). It is able to absorb huge waves of immigrants and because of the strength of its institutions and a social order which emphasises common value and inclusion, this provides the basis for liberty and order to co-exist (of course with exceptions that Louis Theroux and others are given prime television slots in europe to pore over).
Europe by contrast encourages its still much smaller wave of immigrants to embrace ‘diversity ‘and their arrival has coincided with the creation of a vacuum of feel good slogans where there once was a common set of values (however imperfect and in need of modification). The multi-cultural left and the far-right now struggle to fill that vacuum, both championing the affirmation of ethnic identity for their respective target groups over citizenship based on common values.
Alex Salmond has been particularly active in this work of deconstruction. Not only does he champion separation for a small country despite its precarious economic condition but he has been busy encouraging ethnic and religious separation within its boundaries.
These facts are surely well-known by now to the US authorities (and allegations from the more militant Nats of CIA ‘interference’ are surely not long to follow). Perhaps the vigour of FBI Director Mueller’s remarks stem from recent discovery of disquieting cooperation between the SNP and deeply anti-American forces occurring just beneath the radar screen. Given the company Salmond keeps, Mueller will know that ‘compassion’ was not uppermost in his party’s mind when al-Megrahi was released. It is a foregone conclusion that tomorrow when the Scottish Parliament has its special session, nobody is even likely to bother putting on record what were the bonds that once drew Scotland and the USA so closely together – commercial, religious, and intellectual ones as well as shared social reform efforts, and similar popular cultures.
Scoto-American ties were exceptionally close for 175 years and perhaps their moral and practical high point was reached in January 1941 and, if asked for a place, I would nominate the North British Hotel in Glasgow’s George Square. It was the worst period of the war and Britain appeared totally alone. German U Boats stalked its waters, Stalin was still maintaining his non-aggression pact with Hitler, and isolationists still counted for much in the USA. A light in the darkness was provided by Harry Hopkins, an architect of the New Deal and later one of Roosevelt’s chief diplomatic troubleshooters. He had been sent by the President to assess the determination of the British people to continue the fight and the likely effects of American help. His hosts were Tom Johnston, the Scottish secretary of State and Patrick Dollan, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, both from the Labour Party; Churchill too was there. Energised by their defiance and that of the ordinary people he had met on his tour, Hopkins delivered an emotional speech promising that he would do all in his power to ensure the support of the US for Britain’s stand against Hitler.
If a new peril arose and all the objectionable features of America suddenly vanished with the realisation that its help was imperative, where are the prominent Scots an Amercan envoy would meet. Would Alex Salmond for example introduce the visitor to Lesley Riddoch, the doyenne of Scottish broadcasting who in Friday’s Guardian hailed the SNP for not ‘kow-towing to the world’s most powerful nation’. Or to the Pope of multicultural Scotland, Chair of the Scottish Arts Council and much else besides, Bishop Richard Holloway who wrote in Saturday’s Guardian: about he ‘bravery’ shown by the Scottish government in resisting ‘the enormous pressure they were under’. I think if Hopkins had met such people in January 1941 he would have assumed that his plane had been diverted to Vichy France.
There are virtually no Scots left who are prominent in public life and who could talk with knowledge and feeling about how the common defence of freedom and responsible conduct in the world should bind together Americans and Scots as occurred in previous epochs. Instead, astride Scotland is a party which makes no secret of the fact that a love of county implies disdain for another, across the Atlantic, and the values, some of which were set out in Robert Mueller’s letter.