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Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

Murdo Fraser Might Yet Be Very, Very Canny…

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, Regional politics on September 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

‘Canny’ is a singularly appropriate word when discussing Scottish politics. It comes from the Gaelic ‘can’ – to know, and hence has come to mean (especially used derisively by Englishmen of Scotsmen) ‘with an eye for thrift or a chance’.

Canny is also a singularly appropriate word to describe Murdo Fraser’s plan to separate the Scottish Conservative party from the UK Party. Not just because it detoxifies the brand of the most loathed party in Scotland. Not just because it allows Fraser to cast himself as the uniquely Scottish defender of the Union, without being in hoc to London.

Canny because it allows the Scottish Conservatives to play the voting system by using ‘decoy lists’.

The Scottish Parliament uses the ‘Alternative Member System’. Voters have two votes – a constituency vote and a regional vote. Constituencies work as they do for Westminster, but the regional seats are distributed like a PR list system, except with penalties for the parties that did well in the constituency rounds; thus, hopefully, balancing out some of the improportionalities of the FPTP constituency system. This is how the Green Party, with a relatively low level of support spread widely across Scotland, have been able to gain a seat or two at Holyrood – since they won no constituencies, they are not penalised in the regional lists like the other parties.

The ruse here assumes that Fraser’s new party (call them the Scottish Tories) will be in, at least, a loose alliance with the Conservative Party. Essentially, they would function as the coalition between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU functions. And here’s the trick: one of the parties, say the Conservative Party, runs for the constituencies, and one, say the Scottish Tories, runs for the regional lists.

What this means is that the Scottish Tories have no constituency MSPs, so they are not given any penalty when it comes to calculating the regional list seats. Thus the Conservative Party wins all the constituency seats it otherwise would have, and the Scottish Tories win additional seats on the regional lists, since they have no penalties for winning constituencies, whereas all the other parties have.

To give an historical example, Italian lower chamber elections used to run on a similar system – but instead of regions, they did the proportional vote over the whole country – like an Italy-wide regional list. In 2001, both major coalitions put up two lists, and told their voters to vote for one list in the constituency elections and one list in the national list election. Their constituency lists carried 360 of 475 constituency seats, despite receiving 0.2% of the national list vote; everyone had voted for their coalition under list-title A in the constituencies, and for the same coalition under list-title B in the national list vote. The national list ruse was so successful for the victorious House of Freedoms coalition that one of its members, Forza Italia, had to surrender 12 seats because they had not submitted enough candidates on the national list to fill them!

And just for political balance, Labour have tried this too. They are so strong in the Glasgow constituencies that they stand very little chance of winning Glasgow regional list seats. But instead of saving money by not submitting a list, they tried to submit candidates from the Co-Operative Party in 2007. This would have had exactly the same effect as with Forza Italia, since every Labour voter in Glasgow would have switched their regional list vote to the Co-Operative Party, meaning Labour/Co-Operative would have won many constituency and regional seats. But the Electoral Commission struck it down on the grounds that, since no-one could be a Co-Operative Party member without also being a member of the Labour Party, they were essentially the same party.

But, with Fraser’s plans for an independent Scottish Tory party, the Electoral Commission will find an arrangement between them and the UK Conservative Party much harder to strike down. This needn’t be a problem for the other parties: the Lib Dems can follow their natural dividing lines and reform as an allied SDP and Liberal party. Labour can detach the Co-Operative Party. The SNP might struggle, but there are muted internal divisions which could lead to the formation of two mainstream nationalist parties.

The effect of this would be to make the regional lists completely separate from the constituencies. No party would receive penalties from their constituency seats, and so the regional list vote would essentially become full-blown regional PR, as their would be no penalties applied to groupings who had done well at the constituency level. This would make it easier for the two major parties – Labour and the SNP, who currently carry the most constituencies and so attract the most penalties – to gain an outright majority, which is currently very difficult (making the SNP’s recent victory all the more incredible).

I don’t know if this plan is in Fraser’s mind. I suspect not, because as soon as he goes down the decoy list route, so will all the other parties. Thus he will actually reduce his electoral advantage, because the Conservatives are currently advantaged relative to the other parties, since they do not win many constituencies and consequently attract fewer penalties. Having said that, if he plays his cards right, he could use this ruse for one election earlier than the other parties, and thus hope to gain some sort of incumbency advantage.

Maybe it will just show up the system for its convoluted and absurd nature. The last survey done on public understanding of the Scottish voting system (in 2003) showed that only 39% of people understood the system, which had decreased (somehow) since its introduction in 1999. When you consider that this is also the system used in Wales and London, and is very similar to the AV+ system the Jenkins Review recommended (the only difference in AV+ is that constituency seats are elected on AV rather than FPTP), the possibilities for complicated coalitions and system subversion multiply greatly.

At any rate, Fraser’s plan to break away the Scottish Tories is canny itself, even without this fiddle of the voting system. But coupled with it, even for one election, it has the potential to win the Conservatives massive gains in Scotland.


Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.

Scottish National (Partly) Justice

In America, Events, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics on September 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

Kenny MacAskill may not be an instantly recognisable name. Indeed, it may have continued forever in glorious obscurity had it not been attached to the Scottish Justice Secretary who released the equally splendidly named Abdel Basset al-Megrahi (whom some of my friends have mistaken for an Arabic liquorice allsort). Given that the SNP are unlikely to be returned at the next election, it seems reasonable to ask what this man’s significant contribution to law and order in Scotland has been.

For the benefit of those not familiar with Scotland, it does, in fact, have its own legal system. It is not dissimilar to other European systems, being most similar to the Irish, with Roman, Norse and Saxon influences. It runs alongside the English system, deferring to a UK system on only a few topics, such as extradition, while also accepting the European system, and ultimately, the ICJ. It is an historical oddity that Scotland preserves a distinct legal tradition; the Act of Union in 1701, and subsequently the Treaty of Union in 1707 was controversial enough then, and no-one has thought to go back and put the two now united kingdoms on the same legal footing. While this raises an interesting question about whether legal systems should run in parallel, and to what extent, we shall leave this to one side. Instead, we shall try to divine (since we Englanders never hear it explained) the judicial philosophy of the SNP.

The first act of Kenny MacAskill was to lift a ban on alcohol sales at rugby union games at Scotland’s main stadium, Murrayfield. This was a popular move, but ultimately had little effect on ‘Justice’ and its implementation in Scotland. After the abortive terror attacks on Glasgow airport, he made some remarks that the terrorists did not come from Scotland, as indeed they didn’t. He was progressing towards an inoffensive period in office.

However, he must have got somewhat bored. In this upcoming parliament, his department proposes two significant pieces of legislation. The first is to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol, due to an alarming amount of drunkenness in Scotland. The second is to allow those acquitted of serious crimes such as murder to be tried again should more evidence come to light. He also made the controversial decision over the Lockerbie bomber, for which he takes full responsibility.

The minimum price on alcohol could be seen as something of a reverse from his previous libertarianism at Murrayfield. The argument is that young people are drinking copious quantities of cheap beer and cider, purchased from supermarkets, then becoming drunk and disorderly. The counter-argument is that this measure – essentially a poll tax on alcohol – affects the poor much more greatly, and punishes the responsible drinker. It is interesting that MacAskill, who so vehemently opposed Thatcher’s poll tax, should introduce this. It takes the view that the state should actively remove those items that cause crime, even when the vast majority of people use it responsibly for the vast majority of the time. We might initially react that this is quite a pleasing move. After all, we all want to see less crime, and if the government can rake in some money to boot, what is wrong? Yet, how far should we extend this? Do we suggest a levy on kitchen knives, so often the weapon of choice in domestic assault, for instance? Do we add an additional tax on violent computer games, which some studies suggest lead to crime?

We can take this the other way – if alcohol is not restricted, and people use it irresponsibly, why do we restrict guns? I would say that alcohol and guns are essentially different; a gun is designed to cause harm, whereas alcohol is not. It may be a pragmatic measure to reduce drunken behaviour, but it lumps the innocent in with the guilty for no readily apparent reason. With guns, it is easy to see how an accidental discharge or opportunistic villain could cause great harm, and so there is a case for restricting them. But with alcohol, the SNP seem to be tarring all people with the same brush.

The second piece of interesting legislation introduces double jeopardy for serious crimes. This currently occurs in England, but not in Scotland, which does not admit any form of double jeopardy at present. With the application of new techniques, such as forensic science, police are discovering more data in ‘cold cases’, which lead them to the conclusions they had already drawn, but a jury did not uphold. It seems reasonable that the accused should be confronted with this new and additional evidence, and brought back to court. Yet there is the age-old principle that you can’t keep dragging a certain person before a court for the same reason again and again until the judge or jury, now thoroughly bored, hands down the desired verdict. However, this assumes malice on the part of the state and idiocy on the part of the jury. By and large, the state does not have it in for certain individuals, and juries are perfectly capable of understanding that if a person was found innocent before, a great deal more evidence needs to be presented for them to return a guilty verdict. If it were up to me, I would allow double jeopardy on all criminal trials for exactly this reason, allowing the transcripts (and a summary) of any relevant previous trials to be provided. I don’t think there would be that many takers without a significant new wad of evidence.

There is an oddity in the Scottish system that invites this. Scottish juries may return one of three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and ‘no evidence’ – this latter being a way of a jury saying: ‘we think he did it, but the burden of proof has not been met by the prosecution.’ It seems incredible to me that there should be no double jeopardy with the return of such a verdict. The reform that is coming now is coming late, and is not coming in as full a form as the Scottish system needs. Incidentally, civil trials are more difficult, as a lot can be put down to interpretations of individual clauses or words. Civil law makes me very glad I’m not a lawyer; with cases such as libel, it can be terribly difficult to judge one way or another, and judges hand down different interpretations of the same law. Because it is not so clear-cut, I would not be so eager to have double jeopardy on civil cases.

Now, for Abdel Basset. MacAskill’s decision could have been motivated by any or all of three factors: genuine compassion on grounds of ill-health; lobbying from UK and corporate interests to improve relations with Libya; a need to avoid an embarrassing appeal, in which it might become apparent that al-Megrahi’s conviction was not as watertight as might be desired. I don’t buy Salmond’s line that the Scottish people are exceptionally compassionate – they’re about as compassionate as the next people group – but the medical reports do seem to suggest that al-Megrahi was on the point of dying when he left, and it was the compassionate thing to let him go. To me, it seems unlikely that BP exerted too much influence either, though this is what many in America would like to believe, to enhance the somewhat insipid narrative of the essential evil of BP. Libya has for a long time been positioning itself towards the West, since it can no longer guarantee support from an increasingly unpredictable Russia, nor that Islamic extremists will be happy to ignore Gaddafi’s crushing of Islamic-minded opponents. If Private Eye and some relatives of Lockerbie survivors are to be believed, al-Megrahi’s appeal may have had some weight behind it. I shan’t go into details, nor express an opinion here, but it seems that MacAskill has avoided a sticky and complex appeal that would likely have frayed US-UK relations, as al-Megrahi would be able to give a public airing to suggestions of incompetence of investigators.

It seems to me that MacAskill made a pragmatic decision here; he decided that it would be better to risk the flak of America claiming compassion rather than defending allegations of incompetence on the part of the UK-US team. It would have been even more unfortunate for him if al-Megrahi had died during appeal; he had already served 8 years while authorities delayed the appeal. It seems that, in this instance, MacAskill shied away from having the truth, whatever it looked like, out. The question of whether absolute truth is required for justice is again a tricky one, but it seems that al-Megrahi has essentially been granted a pardon (he is in Libya where no-one believes he is guilty) without actually being excused of the crime. A rather pragmatic and unsatisfactory solution.

This is what encapsulates much of the SNP’s approach to Justice in its four-year term. We can undoubtedly see that much of it is pragmatic, but when we take a look closer, we find that the thoughts behind it don’t quite fit with what we thought we’d find – a coherent philosophy concerning the nature and role of justice. Perhaps this arises from the SNP being a minority government, or perhaps it’s that the SNP is still a single issue party, and that single issue is not Justice. We’ll see who holds Holyrood come May 2011. My guess is Kenny MacAskill won’t feature in the cabinet, one way or another.

The Lockerbie Bomber’s Release: Right or Wrong?

In Home Affairs on August 28, 2009 at 12:02 am

On Thursday 20th August, Adbelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber, was released from Greenock Prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds. Megrahi is suffering from terminal Prostate Cancer. The question is, is his release the right thing, or should life mean life?

In 1988, Pan-Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and crew members; 13 years later, al-Megrahi, who’d been on the FBI’s most wanted list for over 10 years, was convicted of the bombing by a Scottish High Court of Justiciary in the neutral venue of Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

Less than 10 years after Megrahi started his life sentence, with a minimum of 20 years before he was eligible for parole, he was released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Was MacAskill right to do this, or is the storm of criticism currently being flung his way right?

Some quarters, namely the USA, in the shape of Joint Chiefs Of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Joe Lieberman (Indep-Conn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) have called the decision “obviously political” and have said that it was a decision to improve British-Libyan trade. Lieberman linked the release of Megrahi to British interests and oil exploration in Libya; however he stopped short of accusing the UK of deliberately brokering a deal for his release. Ben Cardin however, went one further and definitely insinuated that the UK had indeed brokered a deal with Libya, a current OPEC member, for oil in return for his release.

Another position articulated by the USA, this time in the form of current FBI director Robert Mueller, is that the release of Megrahi gives “comfort to terrorists.”

While justice in Scotland falls under the remit of the devolved Government in Holyrood, The Westminster Government articulated it’s own position on the matter. A spokesperson for Gordon Brown said that the release has not given “succour to terrorists” but he also stated that the matter was purely a matter for the Scottish Government. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said “we understand the upset. We understand the disagreement. But we have to do what is right in terms of our legal system, what we are duty bound to do.”

Opposition Parties on both sides of the border have condemned the decision, with Nick Clegg saying “Although the decision to release Megrahi was a Scottish one for which Gordon Brown was not personally responsible, the fallout puts the UK at the centre of an international storm;” and the Leader of Scottish Labour, Iain Gray said “Last Week, the Scottish Government made a wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences.” This furore has led to Buckingham Palace confirming that the Duke of York will not visit Libya on a trade trip next month.

The Libyans are, obviously, rather pleased about the decision; Megrahi landed in Tripoli to crowds cheering and waving Libyan flags and Scottish Saltires. This reaction comes on the back of relations between the UK and Libya warming up after Tony Blair visiting Libya and Gordon Brown talking to Gadaffi at the G8 in Italy.

So, now we know the positions of the various parties involved in the debate, it is time to pull it all together into an analysis.

Under Scottish Law, Megrahi qualified for compassionate release as he was diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than three months to live. However, the huge manhunt involved in trying to capture Megrahi and the time spent on the trail in search of justice for victims indicates that Megrahi should have been forced to spend his life in prison. His sentencing details, life imprisonment with a minimum of 20 years without parole have not been observed.

Many people, including the USA and the British Opposition Parties, will argue that under these conditions, Megrahi should have died in prison, as countless others before him have done. His crime was tantamount to a mass murder bigger than that of Dr. Harold Shipman who killed a minimum of 218 people. Shipman’s sentencing conditions stated that he never be released, a decision confirmed by the Home Secretary. In the eyes of the law, what makes Megrahi so different to Shipman? Both killed many, many people, and therefore, in the eyes of the law, Megrahi should have an equal, if not harsher sentence than Shipman.

However, on the 6th August 2009, the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was given compassionate release by Jack Straw because of a serious bout of pneumonia that doctors said was probably fatal. However, Bigg’s health has since improved, but there have been no questions about his release. Although Biggs has not killed anyone, his robbery and subsequent escape from Wandsworth Prison are two of the most notorious events in British Criminal History.

So what makes Biggs any different from Megrahi? Both have committed atrocities, albeit in different criminal spheres, both inspired large manhunts and used a lot of time in their capture and trial and, in Bigg’s case, re-capture; and both are suffering from life threatening illnesses. So what makes them different in the eyes of the law? Why should Biggs be released and Megrahi shouldn’t be?

There is no concrete answer here, it is down to individual viewpoints, but in my view, Biggs and Megrahi are no different, Both committed heinous crimes, and both caused the criminal justice system countless man hours and piles and piles of cash; and both have life threatening health problems. So therefore, both should be released to spend their last months or days with their families without the fuss and condemnation that the release of Megrahi has generated.