For anyone already bitter at the early release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison, the sight of the reportedly terminally-ill Libyan receiving a hero’s welcome Thursday in Tripoli was hard to stomach.
Hours earlier, the only person convicted of the murder of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, was freed on compassionate grounds by Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary in Scotland’s first nationalist-run devolved government.
But while the spotlight elsewhere has focused on the outrage of US officials and victims’ relatives, in Scotland the affair is the latest chapter in the bitter battle between the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and its political opponents.
Tim Luckhurst, a former editor of The Scotsman newspaper and critic of the SNP, pointed out that when powers were devolved to Scotland in 1999, the British government was careful not to hand over responsibility for foreign affairs, “in order to avoid to avoid giving nationalism the capacity to embarrass Britain abroad.”
“Britain cherishes its relationship with Washington and the Megrahi case handed the Scottish National Party the chance to disrupt it,” he wrote in The Independent. “This was not the behaviour of a grown up government.”
On the other side, the decision was applauded by Ewan Crawford – a former aide to an SNP leader – who described it as brave and principled, given that links with the US are crucial to the SNP.
“Many Scottish pundits and opposition politicians were consumed by what is called the Scottish cringe – the idea that some decisions are just too big for bonny wee Scotland and that Scots will inevitably make a mess of them,” he wrote in The Guardian.
“Far from being an embarrassment, perhaps the real shock is that it has been demonstrated to the UK that the relationship with America does not have to be based on utter subservience or strategic interests.”
Away from the partisan debate, others such as Jonathan Hearn, director of nationalism studies at the University of Edinburgh, were struck by how the SNP’s handling of the issue had echoes of the party’s strategy of opposing the Iraq war, which paid off for it in public support.
“While accepting that people have principles, and that Mr. MacAskill made his decision on that basis, I think there was also an opportunity to assert the degree of autonomy that exists here,” added Dr. Hearn, an expert in Scottish nationalism and its politics of devolution in the 1990s.
On Thursday, anyone watching McAskill announcing Megrahi’s release heard him frame the decision in the context of supposedly specific Scottish values, which he named as mercy and compassion.
Beside him was a large screen carrying the slogan “The Scottish Government” – a reminder perhaps about just who was running the show.
Not a Union flag was in sight. Not a mention of Britain made.
By the time Megrahi’s plane touched down in Tripoli however, Scottish flags were also being waved among the Libyan crowds. This was the hero’s welcome many, including the SNP, had feared.
David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, told Radio 4 today that this was a “Scottish decision.”
“Obviously the sight of a mass murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Tripoli is deeply upsetting, deeply distressing, above all for the 270 families who grieve every day for the loss of their loved ones 21 years ago and also for anyone who has an ounce of humanity in them. I think that is the overriding emotion that people will be feeling today," said Milband.
Will Qaddafi meet Megrahi personally and publicly? Will he be released?
The US has requested that he be placed under house arrest.