CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says the SNP’s U-turn on the England and Wales foxhunting vote may have scored points against the Tories but is ultimately detrimental for Scotland
BACK in May I argued that the key points behind calls for the SNP to intervene on the issue of foxhunting (morality, solidarity and symbolism) were all flawed and that SNP MPs should maintain their policy of abstaining on issues which clearly have no impact upon Scotland.
While Nicola Sturgeon’s mind has changed, the arguments – and my opinion – have not.
The decision to actively oppose the government’s plan is not, no matter how much some may want to believe it, a principled move aimed at protecting defenceless foxes or extracting greater respect for the democratic mandate of the 56 SNP MPs; it is about delivering a bloody nose to the Tories as revenge for their refusal to consider any amendments to the Scotland Bill with, as Peter Arnott has argued, the added bonus of embarrassing the Labour Party.
Nicola Sturgeon has, to all intents and purposes, said that it is acceptable to do something her party have always argued is wrong because the big bad Tories did it first.
It looks like schoolyard, tit-for-tat politics because that is precisely what it is. Nicola Sturgeon has, to all intents and purposes, said that it is acceptable to do something her party have always argued is wrong because the big bad Tories did it first, that turnabout is fair play.
There are two main problems with the SNP’s approach. Firstly, in exchange for a very minor victory – which will do more to massage SNP egos than help the people, or foxes, of Britain – a long-held democratic principle has been completely abandoned; behaviour which SNP MP Pete Wishart recently described as an “outrage” is now, it seems, party policy.
Sadly, when given the opportunity to score a few political points the SNP simply could not resist playing the Westminster game. There will be plenty of excellent opportunities to embarrass the Tories on issues which do have an impact on Scotland (even if it is indirect); this was not it.
The other issue is that while the SNP’s volte-face may play well to the terraces (and Twitter) it also plays right into the hands of David Cameron.
The Conservatives were as surprised as anyone else at their outright election victory in May, but the fact remains that a majority of just 12 is extremely fragile, especially for a party which is far from united on a range of difficult issues.
Sadly, when given the opportunity to score a few political points the SNP simply could not resist playing the Westminster game.
Why, then, would they be so eager to introduce a bill on which there was always a serious chance of defeat (even without the votes of 56 SNP MPs)?
The answer is obvious: they wanted the SNP to intervene, abandoning the democratic moral high-ground and boosting the Tories, both internally and in their ongoing battle to destroy the Labour Party and reclaim votes from Ukip.
It looks for all the world that the SNP has been baited by the Conservatives who have now, despite the transparency of their trap, been handed exactly what they wanted – proof that the Scots have far too much power within the United Kingdom and that the SNP are a threat to ‘English democracy’.
David Cameron’s next speech on the constitutional future of the UK now all but writes itself: “No matter your stance on the issue of foxhunting, there is a basic question of fairness to be addressed here. English MPs cannot alter foxhunting legislation north of the border, yet SNP MPs have acted to impose their will on this issue on the people of England and Wales.
“How many more times must we be subjected to their flagrant disregard for devolution? We simply cannot continue with this democratic imbalance.”
Does anybody really think that these arguments, valid or not, won’t hit home in middle England?
As Lallands Peat Worrier has already pointed out, the SNP may even have been goaded into handing the Tories a clear justification not for their existing Evel plans – which, viewed objectively, are fairly anaemic given that they would still allow Scottish MPs to block English-only legislation – but for a much more rigorous, and dangerous, form of English votes for English laws.
There is a big difference between a change in policy and the complete and opportunistic abandonment of a long-standing and entirely correct principle.
The government has been forced to suspend plans to give English and Welsh MPs a veto over non-Scottish legislation due to opposition from its own benches, but has now reopened the debate on the very day on which the vote on foxhunting was to take place.
But the disputed solution to the West Lothian Question is not even the worst aspect of this SNP intervention – that dubious honour is reserved for the party’s public abandonment of its principles.
In February of this year Nicola Sturgeon reasserted her party’s support for the position that, when an issue has no impact on Scotland, it would be wrong for Scottish MPs to do anything other than abstain on voting. Her specific example of such an issue was, of course, foxhunting.
Of course politicians should be willing and able to change their minds – the fact that they cannot do so without being accused of a U-turn is one of the most poisonous aspects of political discourse – but there is a big difference between a change in policy and the complete and opportunistic abandonment of a long-standing and entirely correct principle.
And principles matter. In fact, they matter so much that Mhairi Black – in an extremely impressive maiden speech to the House of Commons – made a point of challenging the Labour Party MPs to be signposts, pointing towards a better society instead of weathercocks which “spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they may have to compromise”.
During the indyref campaign (and, indeed, for many years beforehand) the SNP and others attacked the obscenity of a situation where governments and policies that Scotland did not vote for can be imposed upon us; now, in pursuit of an ultimately worthless victory, they have simply turned with the wind.
The SNP has essentially claimed Scottish MPs should influence foxhunting, or any other non-Scottish issue, south of the border, but that English and Welsh MPs should have no reciprocal rights to affect change in Holyrood – as a consequence they have made hypocrites of themselves and undermined the principles upon which devolution is founded.
The SNP has essentially claimed Scottish MPs should influence foxhunting south of the border, but that English and Welsh MPs should have no reciprocal rights to affect change in Holyrood.
And it was all completely unnecessary. Having explicitly stated that his proposed changes to foxhunting would simply bring key aspects of the law (such as the number of dogs which could be used to ‘flush out’ a fox) into line with Scotland’s far laxer approach, Cameron left himself vulnerable to a much bolder move from the SNP: an announcement that they would legislate to not just tighten the law in Scotland, but to end hunting with dogs entirely.
This would have piled the pressure back onto the Conservatives while being more moral, progressive, symbolic and – critically – democratic than the mess that is now unfolding; in short, it would have been the right thing to do.
Instead, Nicola Sturgeon has grabbed the Conservatives’ sacrificial pawn and left herself, her party, and Scotland more vulnerable to the black advance than they were before.
For another perspective on the debate, read Yvonne Ridley’s column: Let’s get this straight – the SNP move to vote on foxhunting was not a U-turn.
Picture courtesy of Scottish Government