Andrew Whitaker: MacAskill’s change of approach

Kenny MacAskill's change of approach has provoked criticism. Picture: Julie Bull
Kenny MacAskill's change of approach has provoked criticism. Picture: Julie Bull
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ONE of the SNP’s flagship claims during its first four years in power was that it took a more measured approach on the issue of law and order than the previous Labour-Lib Dem administrations.

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill made great play of policies such as the abolition of short-term jail sentences as the SNP sought to portray Scottish Labour as promoting hardline, reactionary and counterproductive policies on crime.

Mr MacAskill won plaudits for his approach from liberal voices in Scotland, many of whom praised his controversial decision to approve the release from jail of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

The SNP minister also resisted Labour’s call in the last parliament to impose automatic jail sentences for those convicted or carrying a knife.

However, several years on Mr MacAskill, once a radical lawyer who championed striking miners and fought the Poll Tax, is viewed by some commentators as the problem minister in Alex Salmond’s cabinet.

For a start, Mr MacAskill is at the centre of a row over an apparent overnight policy change by Police Scotland to allow officers to routinely carry arms – a decision the minister seems content for the national force’s chief constable Sir Stephen House to make, without the need for a parliamentary debate.

There were also Mr MacAskill’s remarks during a bad-tempered Holyrood debate on the SNP government’s plan to abolish corroboration earlier this year, when he accused Labour of “selling out the victims of crime” after it raised concerns about ending the requirement for evidence in Scottish criminal trials to come from two sources.

Mr MacAskill’s approach smacks of the authoritarianism that characterised some of New Labour’s excesses in power.

Former home secretaries such as David Blunkett, Jack Straw and John Reid were at times perceived as promoting a message of “either hand more powers to the state or risk helping the terrorists”, during their time as New Labour ministers.

Mr MacAskill, after more than seven years as a minister, has begun to come across as alarmingly relaxed about the increased centralisation of power in the hands of the police and appears unprepared to challenge them on any substantial issue.

To take just one more example, it’s hard to understand why Mr MacAskill has refused to allow a Hillsborough-style inquiry into the convictions of Scottish miners from the 1984-85 strike – other than that he fears upsetting the single police force he himself introduced.