LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 25th April 2014

Kenny MacAskill is in trouble again. Scotland’s justice secretary is like one of those skate-boarders who always seems to be tumbling towards a fall but always manages to stay upright. This time he’s been forced into a u-turn on “corroboration”.

Kenny MacAskill  Justice Secretary
Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary
His Criminal Justice Bill has run into mounting opposition for proposing to abolish the ancient tradition in Scots Law of two independend sources of evidence being required before a case can be brought to court. His idea is to increase the low rate of prosecutions in cases of rape, sexual assault and child abuse. Victims, he says, should have their day in court, even if their case does not pass the corroboration test.

To me, this whole issue is just a semantic dispute, since I don’t suppose there is a country in the world – or at least in Europe – which would put someone on trial without there being some sort of credibility test applied to the allegations, whether you call that “sufficient” evidence or “corroboration”. But the lawyers and the opposition parties have got themselves into a fury over it and now Mr MacAskill has been forced to postpone that part of his bill until a review of the “safeguards” is undertaken by a former judge Lord Bonomy.

Alex Salmond MSP Lowest level of crime
Alex Salmond MSP
Lowest level of crime
At first minister’s question time on Thursday, Alex Salmond faced calls from Labour and the Conservatives for Mr MacAskill to be sacked for the way he has handled the affair. And, of course, they had a list of previous “offences” which they said should be taken into account – the introduction of a single police force, the closure of many local court houses, the legal delays over the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, the high rate of stop-and-search operations in Glasgow, and his decision in August 2009 to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

But Mr Salmond pointed out that Mr MacAskill had presided over the lowest level of recorded crime for nearly 40 years. It’s dropped 22 per cent since he’s been justice secretary. He declared his “enormous confidence” in Mr MacAskill. As well he might, since Kenny MacAskill has been a firebrand member of the SNP since the beginning of nationalist time.

He rose through the ranks of the party while working as a lawyer. He has the craggy good looks and speech delivery of an evangelical preacher but off-stage he’s amusing and surprisingly laid-back. His hobbies include writing books on SNP theology and following the Tartan Army wherever they go. One football match he missed, however, was Scotland against England at Wembley in the Euro 2000 competition when he spent the entire game in a police cell due to “a misunderstanding” on his way to the match.

Alex Salmond has kept a stable team
Alex Salmond has kept a stable team
It’s inconceivable that Alex Salmond would ever sack Kenny MacAskill, however accident-prone he might be. It’s not the sort of thing Mr Salmond does. In fact the SNP front row have been remarkable in how well they’ve play together and remained loyal to each other despite the ideological differences there must be between them. The fight for independence is a strong unifying force.

No amount of the flag-waving south of the border on Wednesday, St George’s Day, could deter Alex Salmond going to Carlisle to declare that an independent Scotland would be good for business in the North of England. He even made a cheeky offer to start building the new high-speed rail line from Scotland, without waiting for the Westminster government to get going from its end.

Kenny MacAskill wasn’t the only one to stumble this week. The business organisation the CBI thought it would be a good idea to register as an official supporter of the “Better Together” campaign, presumably because it could then hold a few fund-raising dinners without falling foul of the referendum spending rules. But that prompted a rush of resignations by organisations I didn’t even realise were in the CBI, like the universities and the broadcasters, government quangos and the Law Society, all of whom said they must remain neutral in the independence debate.

Russian Bomber (MoD)
Russian Bomber
(MoD)
With the Russians pouncing on Crimea and clanking along their border with Ukraine, we’ve all become a little sensitive about Russian military manoeuvres. So when a couple of bombers appeared off the North East coast of Scotland on Wednesday afternoon, the RAF was sent to investigate. Two Typhoons were sent up from Leuchars and confirmed that the bombers were indeed Russian “Bears”, Tupolev-95s. The RAF chaps warned the Russians they were coming dangerously close to Scottish – or rather British -air space and they’d better turn back.

It then transpired that there had been a similar incident at sea a few days before when a Type 45 destroyer had to be sent out to shadow a Russian warship, The Kulakov, on manoeuvres off the north coast of Scotland. Apparently, we’re not to panic. Such incidents happen all the time – there were eight last year – and they are all part of routine operations to test our defences. But, right now, they certainly test our nerve. What would happen, I wonder, if there is one of those “misunderstandings.”

David Moyes Sacked after 10 months
David Moyes
Sacked after 10 months
I certainly misunderstand the decision by Manchester United to sack that fine Clydesider David Moyes after only 10 months as manager. OK, he’s had a bad run of 11 defeats but his illustrious predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson took time to find his form. Clubs rise and fall, that’s what football is all about thesdays. Paying a reputed £10m severance fee to a man who’s hardly started the job seems to me crazy. But apparently it’s pleased the shareholders, such is the bizarre world of high finance. Moyes will probably walk into another job next week, a richer and wiser man, so my tears are less for him than for the fallen state of professional football.

Another man who’s been shedding tears this week is Andy Murray, but this time tears of joy. He was overcome by emotion when he was given the Freedom of Stirling at a ceremony in his old school in Dunblane. He left the town as a promising young player, 15 years old, to train to be a world champion in Spain. He too has experienced the ups and downs of sport but he said the people of Dunblane have always supported him. It’s a lesson that could well be learned in Manchester.