Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Morning at the Pantomime - Holyrood Megrahi Debate misses the mark

So, our Parliament gathers to scrutinise one of the biggest decisions ever taken by a Scottish Minister. Yes, the mood is going to be tense, but you would expect an air of industry, of gravity. You expect the contributions to be full of detailed analysis and careful consideration. You would think that everyone would absolutely be on their best behaviour, knowing that the rest of the UK and potentially America is watching.

This is a Parliament that usually produces some quality when the chips are down. In its ten years it's done some great work to pass some great legislation, such as abolishing tuition fees, the smoking ban, a fair voting system for our Councils and giving mothers the right to breastfeed in public. The contributions of MSPs from all sides working together have made these laws better. We have good reason to take pride in Holyrood.

Unfortunately, our MSPs can occasionally be relied upon to behave with all the decorum of a roomful of 2 year olds fighting over a single bag of sweeties and today was one of these occasions. It was as if the nation had dressed its parliamentarians up in their best clothes for the big occasion and crossed its fingers and hoped for the best that they would be on their best behaviour.

It didn't take long for the fun and games to start. You would have thought that Alex Salmond, as First Minister, would see for himself a certain responsibility to ensure that the debate started on the correct note of solemnity, of gravity. I am not immune to the man's many charms and talents. At his best he can be funny, engaging and persuasive, but, like the girl with the curl in the centre of her forehead, when he's bad, boy is he horrid! He can be boorish, aggressive and more interested in showmanship than substance. Today, unfortunately, was not a good day. Before the debate had even started, he was on his feet cheekily asking if it would be in order for Labour to amend their motion given the developments overnight (of Bill Rammell confirming that Brown didn't want Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail). It was blatant political posturing, and you could actually feel the atmosphere in the Chamber, even diluted through the television, turn ugly and hostile. He did himself no favours, and I count myself as being on his side for the purposes of this debate. He certainly doesn't make it easy for people to take his side, sometimes.

We then had Kenny MacAskill propose his motion which he did competently except for one significant point. I think from what he said, and I'll edit this posting and put in the exact words, that there is sufficient reason to doubt whether Megrahi was advised that he did not need to drop his appeal for his compassionate release application to be considered. Like many, I would have preferred to see that appeal come to fruition. It also seems that Kenny MacAskill couldn't really remember what was said at the meeting. Surely all this should have been properly recorded. He did make one very good point though - telling Parliament that no compassionate release application where the evidence presented was in favour had ever been turned down by a Minister.

Richard Baker followed for Labour and to be honest, he was lamentable. All he seemed to be interested in doing was getting the SNP rather than properly examining the issue. His erratic delivery of a poisonous argument did him no credit.

Things started to improve after that. Bill Aitken for the Tories talked a lot of rubbish about how Megrahi could have been cared for in Scotland - completely ignoring the fact that his family were in Libya - but he did seem to at least get the tone right.

It had been a bad start, but it started to seriously get better from this point on. I always expect great things from Lib Dem Justice spokesperson Robert Brown. I might not always agree with him, and I wouldn't have voted for his amendment today, but I totally respect what he had to say. He made some very serious and measured points about whether the Minister had been properly advised, and whether he had read and followed all the guidance on compassionate release. It was a valid point to make, and one which never really got a proper answer. It did highlight a flaw within the process which I think a future Justice Minister would do well to learn from. Unfortunately, that's as far as I got with his speech because the tv coverage stuttered to a halt and he'd finished by the time it came back on.

Patrick Harvie got it spot on - pointing out that the features of the justice system lauded by Labour as being as far as compassion should extend, parole and appeals, were actually the bare minimum that you'd expect.

Elaine Murray, the MSP for Lockerbie gave a passionate and emotional account of the effect of the events of 21 December 1988 on the town. She felt very strongly that MacAskill, if he was taking representations from the US Families, should have actually met the people of Lockerbie who might not have lost anyone in the incident but were still traumatised by the events of that night. She described the account of one woman who had contacted her who had been terrified for herself and her 3 month old baby as the plane fell out of the sky. It was appropriate that Parliament should hear these accounts so that the people of Lockerbie could at least feel that someone was taking notice of them. Jim Hume, the Lib Dem MSP for South of Scotland echoed this call.

My own MSP, Angela Constance, also gave a solid and worthwhile contribution. Others from the SNP benches did the usual toadying Government bench stuff, but she actually had some different and good points to make. She talked about how she'd been around the constituency listening to people's views and she got the impression that most people were calm about it whether they agreed with MacAskill's decision or not. I'd say she was spot on with that. She also pointed out that Hillary Clinton, although she'd condemned the Scottish Government's decision, had also met with Gadaffi's National Security Adviser.

Michael McMahon started his speech with some low political blows and I was just about to leave the room in disgust to make a cup of tea when he started to take Kenny MacAskill to task about the "Higher Power" comments in his earlier statement. I'm glad somebody did - although McMahon didn't do it quite as well as Kelvin.

Other contributions which impressed me came from Dr Ian McKie, who, as a GP will hav treated many Cancer patients and will have witnessed at first hand how quickly things can change and how a condition can deteriorate, and Shirley Anne Somerville whose speech was pretty anodyne but at least got some of the good international press for the decision on the Official Report.

The end of the debate was not conducted in such a principled tone, though. Rather than giving Kenny MacAskill the chance to respond to the debate and answer the many valid questions that had been raised, Salmond decided to do his usual pugnacious grandstanding, throwing political punch after political punch was just not appropriate. Certainly, he'd had to listen to the same sort from the other side, but I'd hoped he'd rise above it. He said at the beginning of his speech that he'd respond to the political rubbish first and then the serious points - but he never got to the serious stuff

While Salmond ended the debate badly, I was determined not to end this posting on a negative note. I'd say that the man of the match was again Malcolm Chisholm, though clearly and calmly sticking by his principles and stating that if it was not a free vote he'd back the Government. Exactly the sort of principled stand you'd expect from someone who has shown such courage and wisdom before. I think that many people across Scotland, across the political spectrum, will admire what he did today.

I hope that there is a chance to move on, now. Parliament has now had its say and the Government has been, unfairly in my view, defeated.

4 comments:

Stephen Glenn said...

Excellent post Caron. I've got more of a feel of the debate from this than I'm liable to get from the political sketch writers in the morning.

Shame about the vote though.

Richard Thomson said...

Good post, Caron. Like Stephen, in my view you've covered this with an impressive degree of fair-mindedness throughout.

Norman said...

A good overview, although you do not convey just how odious the Tory contingent were.

It was very a disappointing debate, with the speeches generally of poor quality and following party lines dictated by political opportunism. I am less impressed than you are with problems raised by the Greenock visit and it is clear that McAskill followed the approporiate guidance. I agree with you that Ian McKie's contribution was valuable. I got the impression that those MSPs questioning the medical evidence simply wanted McAskill to hunt around until he got evidence preventing release.

Anyway, it's all a storm in a teacup as there will be no vote of confidence and McAskill will not resign.

James said...

Agreed, a good fair summary. But then I would say that, seeing as you were nice about Patrick..

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