Opposition puts Kenny MacAskill on trial

There are several ways to approach the challenge of facing trial in a criminal case.

The accused may try "the mode defiant": staring boldly at prosecuting counsel or solicitor, perhaps uttering the odd oath (other, that is, than the one pledging to tell the truth.)

Then there is "the mode absent": aka doing a runner. It is this which particularly exasperates the police and court authorities.

Finally, there is "the mode humble". Our subject today opted for that.

Arms folded, head slightly bowed, making no comment. Just a tiny, puzzled, pained quarter-smile on display - of the sort affected by the more fastidious members of the clergy when in licensed premises.

You could see the thought process of Kenny MacAskill - for it was he.

'Inappropriate behaviour'

How would this end? Conviction? A community sentence? Not exile to the back benches surely?

He listened as the charges were read by his two accusers, Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson.

His behaviour, it seems, had been "inappropriate". That, you will not be surprised to learn, from Ms Lamont: it was probably a word she used daily in a past life when chastising her pupils.

Ruth Davidson resorted more to hyperbole. (Well, she was a journalist.) Mr MacAskill's actions had been "wrong and offensive". They had been "shameful to watch".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has been steering the reforms through parliament

His contribution was "the most ill-judged and intemperate" in Holyrood's history. (Given the competition, that is quite a charge.)

What, exactly, were they talking about? To recap once more, it was the issue of the general requirement for corroboration in Scottish criminal cases.

Mr MacAskill is advancing a bill which, inter alia, proposes to scrap said requirement on the grounds that it will enable more cases to proceed to trial: particularly cases of rape and domestic abuse which, almost by definition, may be reliant upon a single piece of evidence, the testimony of the complainer.

Faced with objections that this may lead to miscarriages of justice, the justice secretary announced a review group under Lord Bonomy to seek safeguards.

But he wanted the bill to proceed to enactment before Bonomy reported. And said so in a debate six weeks ago - firmly and bluntly dismissing points raised by political opponents.

Previous behaviour

Yesterday, the back track. The bill is now to be delayed for a year to allow Bonomy to conclude.

So what's not to like for the opponents who had demanded such a move?

This. They sought to condemn the justice secretary for his previous behaviour, rather than his repentance.

They sought to draw the court's attention to other matters: Megrahi, Police Scotland et al. And they invited First Minister Alex Salmond to share their critical standpoint.

Which brings us back to the mode humble. How would Mr Salmond respond?

Anything short of full endorsement would be interpreted as criticism. This is the Court of Public Opinion - not that of Session. Nuance matters.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The issue of corroboration dominated question time in the Scottish Parliament

In the event, the response from the FM was decidedly supportive. He had "enormous confidence" in the justice secretary. He had done the right thing.

Further, he had presided over rising police numbers and falling crime rates - "the real issues that matter to people".

In his front bench dock, the accused relaxed, visibly. Indeed, he even joined - faintly - in the sustained SNP applause which greeted the FM's prolonged list of his virtues and achievements.

Perhaps understandably, Mr Salmond sought to deflect attention from process - from the parliamentary tactics of his justice secretary.

Instead, he dealt with the substance of the plan which, he noted repeatedly, had been welcomed by Rape Crisis Scotland and Victim Support Scotland.

The potential trap for his opponents was obvious. Condemn the justice secretary - and, by implication, you are putting yourselves in opposition to organisations speaking up for victims.

Complaints dismissed

Given its obvious nature, said opponents steered clear.

Labour broadly supports ending corroboration, the Conservatives are deeply sceptical. (Indeed, Ms Davidson again suggested that the Bonomy remit be extended to include the question of whether corroboration should be retained.)

But both sought instead to focus their remarks upon the behaviour and attitude of the justice secretary, suggesting en passant that he had form.

Mr Salmond vigorously dismissed both complaints. Along the bench, shades of the prison house palpably dispersed for the justice secretary.

He beheld the light. He saw it in his joy.

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