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The folly of devolution

The furore over the release of the Lockerbie bomber may hasten the decline of the union

In the confused aftermath of the release to Libya of the one man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, one truth is clear: try as it might, the government cannot escape responsibility. Whether or not Gordon Brown discussed the release with Colonel Gaddafi in July, and whether or not the Tony Blair administration brokered a "secret deal" with Gaddafi tied to the 2007 prisoner exchange with Libya, attempts by Labour to pass the buck to the Scottish Executive are wrong in more ways than one. However, the real failing is in devolution itself. This is precisely the sort of decision that should be taken - and be seen to be taken - at a national level by the British government, not by nationalists in one part of the UK. But devolution has led to a grave failure of accountability.

The suggestion that Gordon Brown wanted the Scottish National Party to be damaged by the decision, one explicitly condemned by President Obama and the director of the FBI, is implausible. If the Prime Minister had opposed the release, he would surely have taken the opportunity to criticise it. On the other hand, his silence on whether it was the right thing to do is consistent with Labour's opportunistic and short-termist approach to Scotland. Among his prophetic arguments against devolution, when the move was first considered in the 1970s, the Labour MP and vocal unionist Tam Dalyell pointed out that the party's chief, and ignoble, motive was to see off the nationalist threat in its Scottish constituencies.

After 18 years of a Tory government for which relatively few Scots voted, and having been used as a laboratory for the poll tax experiment, Scotland welcomed devolution in 1997. But Tony Blair's mistake was to accept uncritically his predecessor John Smith's policy on devolution, instead of making the case for a national Labour government that would redress some of the damage of the Thatcher years. Today, the latest BBC Scotland/ICM poll shows that only 38 per cent of Scots would vote for independence while 54 per cent support the union. But amid a gradual, diminishing sense of cohesion, there are new fears that the controversy over the Lockerbie release may further expose the flaws of the devolution settlement and thereby hasten nationalist moves towards the 300-year-old union's demise. This would be a tragedy for the British nation state, which remains far greater than the sum of its parts.

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According to reports, the Roman Catholic convert Ann Widdecombe fancies the once-obscure job of British ambassador to the Vatican. Such speculation is a testament to the transformative role played by the incumbent, Francis Campbell, about whom I wrote a profile in the New Statesman on his appointment in 2005. Back then, Campbell was, at 35, already something of a precedent-breaker: our youngest ambassador, the first Roman Catholic in the post since the Reformation, and - from Newry - the first Irish-born Catholic envoy since partition in 1921.

In recent years, the record of this former Downing Street adviser on secondment from the Foreign Office has surpassed all expectations in Whitehall. Tony Blair visited the Holy See in 2006, and again in his last official engagement as prime minister in 2007. Gordon Brown did the same as chancellor, and as prime minister-in-waiting in 2007, and again as PM this year, while a number of ministers including Foreign Secretary David Miliband have also been out to Vatican City.

Amid the unprecedentedly cordial relations between the UK and the Holy See, there is even talk of a papal visit before Campbell's expected departure some time after the general election next year. Campbell is a career diplomat who got the job after answering a newspaper advertisement. Now that he has raised the profile of the post, his successor will almost certainly be a "political" appointee. Sources at Westminster say that as well as Widdecombe, the fellow Tory MPs Michael Ancram and John Gummer and the former Labour ministers Paul Murphy and John Battle, are among the runners and riders. One to watch.

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The shadow home secretary and Tory "attack dog", Chris Grayling, has compared modern Britain to the death-and-drugs-ridden US city of Baltimore, as portrayed in the brilliant HBO series The Wire. He said "in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too". This outlandish parallel - the series, not for the faint-hearted, features scores of brutal murders - falls under the unpatriotic "broken Britain" theme pursued by David Cameron (but dismissed as "piffle" by Boris Johnson). More importantly, it spectacularly misses the point of The Wire, created by the liberal crime reporter and screenwriter David Simon.

The hero of the third series is Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin (pictured left), a police chief approaching retirement and with nothing left to lose. In a radical experiment aimed at meeting impossible demands for crime reduction, he secretly cordons off a section of the city, "Hamsterdam", where police turn a blind eye to drugs trafficking and prostitution. Although the result is an unprecedented reduction in street crime across Baltimore, as well as health and education outreach to those in need, the revelation of the project sparks fury among the city's conservative politicians. So, conventional policing returns, and with it death on a grand scale. I hope Grayling finds time to watch all of it.

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The fashionable tendency in Westminster to ridicule Gordon Brown's personality (he is "autistic" and a "mad hatter", according to the shadow chancellor George Osborne) appears to have penetrated through to the mainstream. I did a double-take in a London bookshop the other day after spotting a greetings card, made by a company called Hat Trick, with a picture of a grinning Brown. Below it was the caption: “While doing a spot of cleaning at No 10, the Prime Minister finds a tuppence piece behind the sofa." Perhaps it is a gag about the recession or some play on the misplaced stereotype about moneygrubbing Scots - but whatever the point of it, isn't this a rather strange development?

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years