Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, took to the airwaves yesterday with a robust defence of his beleaguered government's decision to repatriate the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. But Mr Salmond was not the only one taking his case to a wider audience, as the furore showed no signs of dying down.
His predecessor as First Minister, Jack McConnell, denounced al-Megrahi's release as a "grave error of judgement" that had damaged Scotland's reputation internationally. Also weighing in, from across the Atlantic, was the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, who published a furious letter he had written to the Scottish Justice Secretary, expressing his "outrage" at the release and describing it as "detrimental to the cause of justice".
And from Libya there was President Gaddafi's son, Saif, letting it be known that he had not intended to suggest the release was directly linked with trade – a claim the British Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, had called "offensive". Four countries, four sets of accusations and counter-accusations: but how much of this is real, and how much diplomatic and political shadow play, calculated to defend or shield particular interests?
Take the most obvious. Mr McConnell is an opposition politician and an aggrieved one at that, having lost power to Mr Salmond's SNP. He would take issue with his judgement, wouldn't he, especially on the eve of an emergency Scottish Parliament debate and with a UK general election less than a year away.
Take then the FBI director. As the assistant US attorney-general in charge of investigating al-Megrahi originally, Mr Mueller's professional pride was at stake. As an appointee of George Bush, he can also be assumed to share his views on the "war on terror". But his fury also serves as a useful lightning rod for US public anger.
As someone in high office, but associated with the previous administration, Mr Mueller's broadside against the Scottish Justice Secretary takes the heat off two parties who seem, so far quite successfully, to be flying above the fray: the US administration of President Obama – who restricted himself to describing the release as "a mistake" – and, more cynically, perhaps, the British Government of Gordon Brown.
With virulent criticism being hurled at Scotland in general and its Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, in particular, US-UK relations have remained a small sea of tranquillity – which is doubtless how both sides, but particularly Mr Brown and his ministers, hope to keep it. If the outrage, from whatever quarter, can be confined to Scotland, then US-British relations can sail serenely on, as though nothing untoward had happened at all.
It is a deceit, of course, to speak of damage to US-Scottish relations, as Mr McConnell and others have done. Scotland's judiciary is devolved, but its diplomacy is not: US-Scottish relations outside the judicial sphere are something that, strictly speaking, do not exist. But it suits everyone, and especially Britain, to maintain the pretence. Any suggestion that Mr MacAskill consulted on the decision with London, that Mr Brown corresponded amicably with the Libyan leader, or that Lord Mandelson talked business with Mr Gaddafi's son endangers the illusion. If the uncertainties surrounding the Lockerbie bombing itself were not enough, the role of the Westminster government in al-Megrahi's release cannot but raise a great many more.Reuse content