The SNP used the Megrahi affair to indulge in some distasteful nationalist posturing. Where justice is reserved the events formed a cautionary tale of the possible effects of its devolution.
But how do they reflect the workings of devolution, as it currently operates, and what do they tell us about possible political dynamics, as they might develop in the immediate future?
What the case illustrates most strikingly is that a Westminster government can be powerless in the face of an internal policy decision which directly impacts upon its interests on the international stage.
It has been alleged, as I intimate below, that the Scottish Justice Minister’s determination was convenient for the national government and consistent with its foreign policy objectives. It has even been suggested that pressure was brought to bear on the SNP administration, or that a deal was struck. It is a plausible point of view, derived by seductive reasoning, but it does not negate the hard fact that a recalcitrant devolved minister has the capacity to frustrate national foreign policy, in certain circumstances.
One suspects that, from the perspective of the main parties at Westminster, devolution is frequently considered, if it is considered at all, in rather abstract fashion. Perhaps this exceptional situation will emphasise that it can have very real, enervating consequences for the primacy and competencies of parliament.
Enoch Powell observed that ‘power devolved is power retained’. It was an exposition of constitutional fact, but it did not reflect the difficulty of reversing devolution once it is put in train. The self-styled ‘Scottish Government’ might derive its sovereignty from Westminster, but it wields it without recognising that fact and uses it solely to undermine the source from which it is drawn. So, if we accept that much of the damage has already been done, how can it be mitigated? And how can separatist forces better be contained?
I suggested yesterday that David Cameron’s unionist instincts gave him a chance to confound expectations and underline the interdependence of Westminster and the devolved regions. The Conservative leader yesterday responded to MacAskill’s verdict with a strong rebuttal. It was, he contended, a ‘very bad decision’. The Guardian politics blog takes this to indicate that relations between the Scots Nationalists and a unionist Tory government would be ‘fiery’, despite Cameron’s contention that he wants more constructive engagement with Holyrood.
I have no doubt that the SNP, if it still forms the Scottish executive, will attempt to foster a rocky relationship with whoever exercises power at Westminster, beyond the next set of elections. That, of course, is the party’s style and that is the means by which it has chosen to pursue its objective. The way to counter its intentions is not thoughtlessly to disperse ever greater quantities of reserved power, nor is it is supine acquiescence in nationalist schemes. Cameron must work to oil the interfaces where Westminster and devolved institutions interact and increase the frequency of those interactions. A Conservative administration should take its duties as the government of the United Kingdom seriously, rather than viewing devolution as an excuse to forget about inconvenient problems. The party’s leader has, it should be acknowledged, begun to outline new interactions which might be to the mutual benefit of both the Westminster government and the Scottish executive.
Whilst the nationalist narrative of interference has a certain potency (let’s face it, the purportedly unionist DUP is not averse to its deployment), it is more difficult for an administration to avoid constructive engagement, without appearing churlish. Through subtle engineering Cameron can assert Westminster’s central role in the life of the nation, without adding to the separatists’ appeal. The approach of involvement, explanation, interaction and engagement is applicable to each of the devolved regions.