Chris Marshall: MacAskill must come out fighting

On the independence campaign trail, Kenny MacAskill was almost invisible. Picture: John Devlin
On the independence campaign trail, Kenny MacAskill was almost invisible. Picture: John Devlin
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WHILE Scotland may have voted No last Thursday, the past few days have been good for the SNP.

A glut of new members has swelled the party’s ranks to the point where it could soon overtake the Liberal Democrats to become the UK’s third largest party. Meanwhile, the perceived threat to extra devolved powers as a result of squabbling at Westminster looks set to strengthen the Nationalists’ hand at Holyrood yet further.

All of which makes the apparent disappearance of the Scottish Government’s justice secretary all the more surprising – while many of his cabinet colleagues were high-profile figures on the independence campaign trail, Kenny MacAskill was almost invisible.

He may have been out canvassing, but his media profile – though admittedly not the be-all and end-all in politics – was virtually non-existent.

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The SNP’s reluctance to put Mr MacAskill on the frontline cannot bode well for the minister who is currently overseeing a contentious reform of the criminal justice system.

In April, he announced he would delay passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which will scrap Scotland’s centuries-old principle of corroboration. Coming amid mounting criticism of the proposals from the legal fraternity, his critics accused Mr MacAskill of “parking” the controversial legislation until the referendum was safely out of the way.

Former solicitor-general and High Court judge Lord McCluskey, one of Mr MacAskill’s fiercest critics, has been particularly outspoken on corroboration, describing plans to scrap it as “bizarre”.

Last month, the former judge stepped up his attack on the minister, calling for him to resign over his “secretive” arming of the police.

With inquiries into the decision to allow a small number of officers to carry handguns currently being undertaken by both the Scottish Police Authority and HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, the issue is not going to go away. But despite Lord McCluskey’s accusation, the most damning aspect of the decision for Mr MacAskill seems to be that he had very little role in it.

He was notified by Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, but that appeared to be his total involvement. Effectively we have arrived at a situation where Scotland’s most senior police officer can take a huge decision with very little political oversight.

It remains to be seen what shape the SNP cabinet will take under Nicola Sturgeon if, as expected, she becomes the next leader of the party. But if Mr MacAskill is to win the debate on corroboration and armed police, he will have to come out fighting.