Political opportunism. Every politician or political figure denies that they engage in it, and the public claims that it is among the things that disgusts them about politics, which in some respects, amounts to messing with people's lives. Yet, almost every politician does engage in it, and – so often – the public laps up to it.
However, many highly skilled politicians are adept at covering their tracks to disguise U-turns and climb-downs as “changes of heart”, “political evolutions”, and other emollient terms, so as not to be accused of seizing something for political advantage.
But in the recent case of the SNP with regard to fox hunting in England and Wales, the opportunism was out for all to see, and in some respect, they were bragging about it.
Back in February as it became increasingly clear that the SNP were on course to do very well in the UK General Election, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote in The Observer that with regard to legislation at the UK Parliament in Westminster:
“The SNP have a longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England – such as foxhunting south of the border, for example – and we stand by that. Where any issue is genuinely “English-only”, with no impact on Scotland, the case for Evel [English Votes for English Laws] can be made.”
Suddenly this week, the party made a dramatic U-turn and announced that its 56 MP's (out of 59 in Scotland) would be voting against the legislation to repeal the 2004 Hunting Act, which applies to England and Wales. This forced David Cameron – who has a wafer-thin majority in the Commons and gave his Conservative (Tory) MP’s a free vote on the issue – to delay a vote on the matter, lest it be humiliatingly defeated by a coalition of MP’s from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Tory backbench rebels, as well as others.
The ostensible reason for the change of heart, according to Sturgeon, was that a “progressive alliance” in England called on her party to do so, and because the party believes it is wrong for hunters to use more than two dogs to flush out foxes during pest control hunts.
First of all, to what extent if at all was this English “progressive alliance” a barometer of English political opinion which compelled the Sturgeon to break her own promise of not having her MP’s taking a vote on the issue? In a Channel 4 News interview, Sturgeon claims that during and after the General Election, her party has been lauded by many people in England as well as Scotland for taking the position of thinking about issues outside the “Scottish interest”, and to have a voice on matters affecting only England in the British Parliament at Westminster.
Effectively, Sturgeon is saying that people in England and Wales wanted her 56 SNP MP’s to vote on the hunting issue because they feared that the Tory government would get the bill through on the basis of English and Welsh-only votes, where the Tories have a bigger majority than throughout the overall UK, and in face of polling which shows that a majority of the British public is opposed to relaxing the law.
This is fair enough because MP’s from Scotland (including the SNP MP’s) are British MP’s like everyone else, and as such, are equal in being allowed to vote on all matters that come before Parliament – despite the fact that some matters, like fox hunting, are effectively English-only in scope because of devolution to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
For that matter – and more crucially – if the SNP really cared about fox hunting, they should be doing something about it at Holyrood – where there is a separate law from that of the one that applies to England and Wales. Ironically, the fox hunting law in Scotland is more lenient than the English and Welsh one (since it allows the use of more than two dogs), and even more interesting is that the legislation before Westminster is designed to bring the rest of the UK in line with – you guessed it – Scotland!
This makes the SNP’s hypocrisy more evident – so rank that even the angels in Heaven cannot have refuge from the stench of it all. Indeed, since the SNP have been in power for eight years (and having had an absolute majority for half of that time), they could have done something about this practice that they find so offensive to the cause of animal rights in general and to foxes in particular. If it was an issue of burning importance to the collective conscience of the party leadership, they should have brought Scotland in line with the more “humane” law in England and Wales.
This is a further example of how the SNP will sanctimoniously criticize the policies in other parts of the United Kingdom and blame Westminster for such policies, while failing to attend to matters in its own house. Perhaps this is because the fox hunting issue in Scotland is a) not important to folks in the big urban areas, and b) may prove to be problematic amongst some of the SNP voters in the rural constituencies who once voted Tory.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson said that his party was opposed to fox hunting, and “when there are moves in the Scottish Parliament to review whether the existing Scottish ban is strong enough, it is in the Scottish interest to maintain the existing ban in England and Wales for Holyrood to consider.”
What is there to consider? If this is an issue the SNP feels so strongly about as much as their supposed principle of not voting on matters relating only to England, then this issue of supposed great importance demands action, and where the SNP could really make a difference for their constituents, they are failing to do so.
And why is that? Because the issue really is not about fox hunting at all. This – as with virtually everything about the SNP – is about achieving their goal of breaking up Britain. If the party had any principles, it would a) have abstained from voting on the matter, and b) have taken action at Holyrood where the matter is devolved (unless they feared losing English and Welsh hunters seeking relief from the law down south).
But aside from secession, the SNP is party with no principles – only platitudes and high-flowing rhetoric. It has demonstrated time and time again that it will shape-shift into any form necessary, so that it can gain votes from just about anywhere and win elections.
Such a lack of ideological consistency is perhaps not that unusual, for all political parties will say and do what it takes to win, but the SNP is the party that has beaten Labour over the head for its supposed “betrayal” of left wing values and for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the “wicked” Tories, and has conflated all UK-wide parties as being “Westminster”, a place that does ghastly and unspeakably horrible things to Scotland.
However as Simon Jenkins of The Guardian has pointed out, by engaging in this cynical U-turn on fox hunting, the SNP has joined the “Westminster club” it claims to despise – quite literally since Nicola Sturgeon personally met with her 56 MP’s at Westminster to discuss how the party would vote on the issue.
Some Nationalists will say that this a form of payback for all the times when English MP’s “overruled” the will of the Scottish people before devolution in 1999. But that was a different time when one parliament represented all of the British people in full and laws were made on the behalf of and for the British people from Shetland to Land’s End.
Devolution has created an imbalance whereby several matters facing the British Parliament now only apply to England. Some of them have knock-on effects in Scotland, and so it is therefore sensible for all British MP’s to vote on them, but fox hunting is hardly one of them.
This was simply a way for the Nationalists to give David Cameron and the Tories a bloody nose for attempting to introduce EVEL and for not considering their amendments to the Scotland Bill (which would have rendered Scottish MP’s even more irrelevant by transferring more powers to Edinburgh). Angus Robertson admitted to the political posturing when he said that in light of the aforementioned issues, it was “right and proper” to “assert the Scottish interest on fox hunting” so as to “remind the arrogant UK government of just how slender their majority is.”
This spectacle over fox hunting has shown that the SNP – despite its lofty and sanctimonious claims of being above the “Westminster game” – is no different than any other political party, and that it will play the Westminster game when it suits it. They have shown themselves to be nothing more than slick opportunists who have no principles on which they stand, because for the cause of independence, ideological consistency takes a back seat to whatever the party feels can bring it closer to its principle aim.
When will the SNP’s flock realize that they and their votes are being used as pawns in a potentially dangerous game of political chess, and that their party may have walked into a trap potentially set by the Conservatives in order to ensure that EVEL becomes a reality?
Of course, for the SNP leadership, this really isn’t an issue. After all, the implementation of EVEL at Westminster will give them another grievance to whine about – claiming that that Scottish MP’s are being relegated to second-class membership, and this will give Sturgeon the “material change” she needs for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Now, as many of you may know, I am not a fan of EVEL. I believe that it is a crude idea that at best is a short-term political answer, rather than a long-term constitutional solution for the United Kingdom. However, it is understandable that after devolution thus far (and more on the way and in the works), the people of England may wonder why MP’s from other parts of the UK are voting and having influence on legislation that only applies to England, with no known knock-on effects for the rest of the UK.
The reality of course is that this is a matter for the British Parliament, and as a matter of principle, all British MP’s have a right to vote on whatever matter comes before them.
On that note, there are many Scots who are opposed to more powers at Holyrood and what they see as the hollowing out of the United Kingdom, and are appreciative of those dastardly MP’s from England who have been voting down the SNP amendments, just as there may be English people who have expressed their appreciation for the SNP forcing the Tory government to back down – at least for now – on the hunting legislation. (But like the SNP supporters, they are merely being used as pawns in a larger and nakedly political game.)
Perhaps there will be a letter-writing campaign by some Scots to appeal to Westminster to stop the implementation of SNP initiatives at Holyrood, such as the controversial “Named Person” scheme. After all, if there has been, as Sturgeon said, “overwhelming demand from people in England for the SNP to vote” on fox hunting, and that “overwhelming demand” was enough to cause a U-turn on their previous statements, should there be reciprocating action on the part of Scots who oppose the SNP’s agenda?
Quite clearly and seriously though, something needs to be done to restore balance and fairness to the constitution, and I have been consistent in my advocacy for a constitutional convention to discuss these matters on a UK-wide basis to forge a UK-wide solution, for I believe in the integrity and stability of the United Kingdom, and believe that excessive and short-sighted devolution combined with similarly short-sighted EVEL only serve to weaken and destabilize it. Indeed, it would be optimal to go back to the way things were before 1999, and start over with such a convention, and alas, we have to work with the current circumstances.
In the long view of things, the fox hunting issue itself is insignificant, but it is a symbol of how a political party obsessed with breaking up Britain will use any issue – however small – to manufacture grievance and animosity on both sides of the border to drive the country apart.