Let’s examine the basic facts first. The Tories have had to withdraw a bill meant to bring fox hunting legally back to England. This is because they didn’t have all the numbers needed on their own benches (something that’s looking likely to happen a fair old bit this parliament), and if the SNP voted on the No side (as opposed to abstaining as they said previously they would do) then the Tories would have lost.
This about face by the SNP has caused a big kerfuffle in Westminster, with various Tory and centre-right commentators lobbing all sorts of things the Nats’ way. They are destroying the Union, or democracy, or both, we hear, with this U-turn. However, it has raised some genuine constitutional questions, this SNP hokey cokey on hunting foxes, ones for which it is worth trying to find objective answers.
I have to admit that I’m not really all that bothered about whether fox hunting is re-legalised or not, personally. Yes, I can see it’s probably not the most humane thing in the world, but it’s not like they’re torturing the poor things. Mostly, the whole issue seems to me like a class battle that I’m not at all interested in taking part in, particularly when it involves placards declaiming, “Votes for Animals”.
I’m simply interested in the constitutional angle. Is the SNP, in doing what they’ve done, namely threatening to vote on something that pertains to England only, perfectly within their rights – or are they taking liberties with the unwritten constitution and the stability of the Union? Let’s start with what Sturgeon actually said on the matter.
“Since the election, David Cameron’s government has shown very little respect to the mandate that Scottish MPs have. On the Scotland bill, reasonable amendments backed by the overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs have been voted down. The English votes for English laws proposals brought forward go beyond any reasonable proposition and look to make Scottish MPs effectively second-class citizens in the House of Commons. So, I think if there’s an opportunity – as there appears to be here – and on an issue where David Cameron appears to be out of touch with majority English opinion as well, to actually remind the government how slender their majority is.”
Pretty clear from the quote above that Sturgeon is doing this to be vindictive. But here’s the thing: whatever Sturgeon’s reasons for the SNP about-face on the topic, what happened here with the fox hunting repeal bill was democracy. In the parliamentary system, you either have the votes to get a bill through the House or you don’t. If the Tories could count on every one of their MPs voting for this, then whatever Sturgeon did or didn’t do would be of no concern. If the government can’t get a majority in their own ranks, other parties have every right to vote against the government. And until you figure out some EVEL thing and enshrine it into law, Scottish MPs can vote on whatever they feel is appropriate. That’s the point of having a union.
The people of England can either decide they like having the Tories kept in check and vote accordingly next time, or they can decide that they want the Tories to have more of a say and give them a larger majority at the next general election. Again, this is democracy in action.
So the Conservatives are just going to have to live with it. It all reminds me of when Peter Bone tried to outlaw deputy prime ministers for the rest of time: if you want a written constitution, one that sorts all of this mess out, then just say so. Otherwise, shut up, particularly when the cookie doesn’t crumble in your direction.