Why did they do it?
A smile, or is it a smirk, is rarely off the face of the Scottish first minister but today he can scarcely conceal his delight. It's not just that he's unveiling his programme for government and plans for a referendum on independence (more on that on my colleague Brian Taylor's blog). It is that it's Gordon Brown, and not he, who is getting the flak for releasing the Lockerbie bomber.
Yesterday, he lost the vote in the Scottish Parliament but felt that was the end of his troubles on this issue and not the beginning of more to come.
It all raises the question what calculations lay behind the Scottish government's decision to act as they did. Just as I was pondering on this, I received an e-mail with the thoughts of Tim Luckhurst - now professor of journalism at the University of Kent - but a former editor of the Scotsman and adviser to Labour's Donald Dewar:
"Downing Street and the Foreign Office are being blamed for profoundly desiring a result they had no power to deliver. To achieve this release they had to make their sworn enemy, the SNP, do their bidding. How likely is it that the SNP simply volunteered? Think about it... The most likely explanation is that MacAskill released Megrahi despite intense pressure from London. That would explain why, in his statement announcing the release, he took care to explain that he was NOT releasing the prisoner under the prisoner transfer scheme and that the SNP had opposed the scheme from the beginning.
Remember that they had a choice of letting Megrahi die in Scotland - either in jail or outside it under heavy police protection; transferring him to a Libyan jail under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement - apparently London's favoured option or releasing him on compassionate grounds as they did."
So far, so uncontroversial, but Luckhurst then goes on to ask a contentious question:
"Was MacAskill bribed with promises of an increase in the Scottish block grant? Was Alex Salmond given an assurance that Westminster will tolerate the referendum on independence he is explicitly banned from funding?
If neither of these, then what?... did MacAskill believe his decision would embarrass Brown more than it has humiliated the SNP? That remains the most likely explanation. After all, the release has damaged UK interests. But it has damaged Scotland too and the alternative explanation, ie that Westminster offered Holyrood something valuable in exchange, now deserves thorough scrutiny."
Tim Luckhurst is, of course, no fan of the SNP, and given that Alex Salmond announced this morning that his spending powers for next year will fall by almost half a billion pounds and that Scottish Labour declared its adamant opposition to the referendum bill this morning, his first two theories seem unlikely.
There are plenty of other possible explanations:
• The SNP may have acted as ministers first and nationalists second, taking seriously the warnings of the economic, diplomatic and strategic impact of falling out with Libya
• The nationalists may have relished the prospect of their Scottish government taking a major internationally significant decision that set them apart from Westminster
• The prospect of Megrahi dying in Scotland, whether in prison or outside it, surrounded by dozens of policemen, could have raised fears about unrest or even a terrorist response
Of course, the real answer may simply be the one that the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, has given all along - that he followed the due process of Scottish law which culminated in an appropriate act of compassion for a dying man.
Speculation all, I grant you, but intriguing isn't it?