Friday, 28 August 2009

The Quality of Mercy

The furore over the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed near Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, killing all 259 on board together with a further 11 people on the ground onto whom parts of the aircraft fell, continues. This is the kind of thing which seems to happen to governments and Prime Ministers on the run, and given that the crew and most of the passengers were from the United States, the response of the US government is understandable. Understandable, but not necessarily right.

The release was made under the powers of the Scottish Justice Minister in section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993, an Act of the Westminster Parliament, which permits the Minister to release a prisoner in Scotland on compassionate grounds after consulting the Scottish Parole Board. Prior to devolution under the Scotland Act 1998, this power was vested in Ministers of the UK government, in practice the Secretary of State for Scotland, but post-devolution it is now vested in Scottish Ministers. There is similar power available to the UK Minister of Justice (Jack Straw) in relation to England and Wales. Both these statutory powers are a restatement of the Crown's pre-existing prerogative of mercy, one of the remaining aspects of the Royal Prerogative.

Mr al-Megrahi is said to be suffering from terminal prostate cancer and has only a short time to live. The Scottish Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, appears to have gone about it the right way, as he made his decision after considering all the circumstances and listening to the views of the Scottish Parole Board. Someone had to make the decision and he made it. I have not seen all the evidence, but personally I have considerable sympathy with the decision that Mr MacAskill made and I think he was quite probably right. With all honesty, if Mr al-Megrahi had been tried, convicted and imprisoned in England, I would not have trusted Jack Straw to have made a better one. In fact, I would rather put my money on Mr MacAskill to make a good decision than Mr Straw.

The press have raised a number of issues about this in the context of devolution. One might have expected a decision having an effect on foreign relations and creating international controversy to have been taken by the UK government. Undoubtedly, though, the power in section 3 of the 1993 Act is now vested in Scottish Ministers and was a decision for Mr MacAskill to make. Could Gordon Brown or the Foreign Secretary (David Milliband) have intervened? They could certainly have expressed a view, but Ministers of the UK government could not formally have intervened in any legal sense without changing the law and in particular either amending the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 or the Scotland Act 1998.

It should be remembered however that the Westminster Parliament still retains full legislative authority throughout the UK - the vesting of powers in the Scottish Parliament on devolved matters did not extinguish those of the Westminster Parliament on those matters. But for Gordon Brown to have intervened as a matter of law rather than exhortation with a view to stopping the Scottish Justice Minister releasing the person concerned, the Westminster Parliament would have needed to have been recalled and an emergency Act passed overriding the rights of the Justice Minister. The UK government would never have succeeded in this, even if they were to have wanted to, which they did not. The Lords would have stayed on holiday for one thing. In addition, a majority in the House of Commons would never have voted in favour of overriding the devolved government in this way. Furthermore, under the Sewell convention it would only be in the most unlikely and unusual circumstances that the UK Parliament and government would intervene on a matter within the competence of the Scottish Parliament - it would probably require a failure of all effective government in Scotland before anything like that would happen.

The press have been referring to the fact that Scotland has "a separate legal system" as a clue to how it is we have reached where we are, as did Jack Straw three days ago, but all that that in fact means is that Scotland has not by virtue of the union acquired English common law, either on civil or criminal matters, nor vice versa as regards England/Wales in relation to Scottish civil law. Scottish civil law is in some respects and particularly contract law (the law of obligations) rather closer to a continental civil law than a common law system, but subject post-1998 to the Sewell Convention as described above, the law in Scotland can be changed or added to by statutory provision made at Westminster in the same way that the common law can in England, and as it frequently was between 1707 and 1998, and as now can be done by the Scottish Parliament after 1998. Scottish civil law was as it happens irrelevant to the Scottish Justice Minister's decision, which was taken under statutory powers.

From the Scottish perspective, Gerry Hassan has an interesting view on Lockerbie here which I would generally agree with and which is well worth a read. He suggests that those outside Scotland are ignorant of devolution and its effects, and that "this ignorance, this absence of an understanding of Scotland and the nature of the union, matters, and matters when it spills over into in places to uncontrollable rage and fury at a small nation and polity daring to do things differently".

Ignorance there may be, but I do not think he should be too critical of those south of the border, so far as concerns the press or the ordinary man or woman in the street at least. It seems to be government policy not to remedy that ignorance within England for fear of stirring feelings in those living there that they may like some of it too. When, for example, the government refers in its policy papers to its policies for Britain they are often in fact, by virtue of devolution, either its policies for England and Wales or for England alone. That appears to be deliberate, rather than ignorance within government of the effects of the government's own devolution legislation, and represents a kind of obfuscation arising from a sublimated fear of the West Lothian Question.

This may also lie behind some of the curious silence from Gordon Brown on Lockerbie: viewed from the perspective I have mentioned, the less he makes of it the better. Personally, however, I think the government needs to be maturer than that and to trust the judgement of those in England. That is going to have to happen at some point in the future.