Not for the first time the English political establishment has cause to be grateful for Scottish devolution. The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill's, much heralded decision yesterday to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds, has given London the pleasure not just of a devolved Scottish government thrashing about in the deep end of international relations but also the perfect alibi to distance themselves from the resulting furore. "No good complaining to us about it," they can say (and no doubt have) to the US families of the victims and the White House which supports them. "It's nothing to do with us. Speak to Edinburgh."
Because it has been in England's interests to see this case buried by someone else, however, does not of itself mean that either the Scottish judiciary or its government have colluded in a plot to do so. The trouble with the Lockerbie case is that it has been overcast by the sense of the unresolved, the feeling that others were involved and the suspicion that, behind the conviction of one lone man, lies a story which has never been properly investigated – and may never be after this moment.
Certainly the withdrawal by Megrahi's lawyers of his appeal just as the decision to release him was being considered looks too neat to be entirely explained away by the need to clear the case from the books before he could be sent home. Scotland may not have benefited from a cessation of inquries. The families, who suspect that there is a great deal more to this case than meets the eye, hardly wanted it. But a British Government anxious to "move on" from the case and a Libya thus able to claim the man was innocent and his appeal never heard may well be breathing a sigh of relief.
We will probably never know the truth. But, stripped of the carapace of conspiracy that has attached itself to this case, at heart this is a simple judicial and human story. An incarcerated man, whatever he has done, is dying. The Scottish system allows – indeed encourages – the release of prisoners if within three months of their likely death. This is ultimately an act of compassion and the Scots should be congratulated for it.