Alex Massie

Tally No: the SNP abandons its principles to tweak the Tories

Tally No: the SNP abandons its principles to tweak the Tories
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In 2008 Alex Salmond told Total Politics that:

'As you know, by choice, SNP MPs have abstained from every vote on English legislation that does not have an immediate Scottish consequence. If you're asking me should people in England be able to run their own health service or education system, my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had this in reverse through the 1980s.'

A year earlier, Angus Robertson, MP for Moray, had asked the Prime Minister if he agreed it was 'completely iniquitous' that English MPs 'are not able to decide on matters in Scotland but Scottish MPs from the UK parties can vote on matters which only impact on England. Why does he not join the SNP in abstaining on these issues?'

And as recently as February this year Nicola Sturgeon wrote that:

 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.

Tonight the SNP group agreed — no vote was taken, of course — to vote against a relaxation of the hunting laws in England. That, of course, is their prerogative and, if I am being honest, the question of whether foxes in England are shot or killed by dogs instead is of little interest to me.

But the SNP's reasoning does interest me because you'd be hard-pressed to think of a proposal that had less impact on Scotland (where an ineffective hunting ban also exists). Perhaps the thought of English foxes fleeing English persecution and seeking the relative safety of Scotland has persuaded the SNP to abandon their self-denying ordinance to avoid voting on matters which do not concern, in any way, their constituents.

Or perhaps something else is afoot.

Now, you could certainly argue, entirely reasonably, that as long as there is a United Kingdom all MPs, from all parts of the realm, should be able to vote on any matter. That's an entirely respectable position, albeit one the SNP objects to when it means a government bill — a government bill no less! — such as the current Scotland Act is voted through despite the opposition of a majority of Scottish MPs. Then again, that is a matter that has an impact on every part of the UK and it is quite proper that all members be allowed to vote on it. If that means the SNP, as an opposition party, are not permitted to write government legislation then, well, too bad.

Equally, you could argue that the SNP's position — or, rather, their former position - was an act of some principle. True, the question of what is and what is not an 'English' bill is trickier than often supposed (what with the ballyhooed Barnett Consequentials and all that) but, still, the general point was as clear as it was, viewed from one perspective, sound.

Ah, but that was then, you see. And this is now. Which means everything has changed, albeit in rather mystifying fashion.

The SNP press release explaining their decision to vote — unanimously, by the way, on a free vote — against relaxing the ban doesn't even try very hard to be serious. Apparently, you see, 'We totally oppose 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.' Because, obviously.

Now, again, as MPs I think the SNP members have every right to vote any way they want on this matter. But doing so rather concedes that English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs would also have the right to vote on any bill, or any clause of any bill, that only applied to Scotland.

And of course the nationalists don't really mind that happening either. Because it allows them to present Scotland — poor wee defenceless Scotland — as the eternal victim. And victimhood and grievance plays well. Very well.

But it does leave one wondering if the SNP's full-throated opposition to the government's shambolic-but-hardly-revolutionary proposals for EVEL was wholly sincere. Because this kind of fox-hunting ploy is the kind of thing designed to infuriate English Tory MPs. And so resentment is stoked, grievances nursed, and outrage manufactured on both sides of the border. Job done. If nothing else, you might at least admire the party's opportunism.

English Tories, of course, will not be able to resist the bait and that's precisely what the nationalists want. It plays well, as Isabel noted, with both parties' core vote.

I dare say the SNP will try and dress this up as responding to a clamour from 'progressive' England knowing full well that posing as the rescuers of liberal England is a means of tweaking Labour and infuriating the Conservatives in equal measure.

Most of all, however, it is a ploy designed to annoy everyone. Division and discord are sugar and spice and all things nice.

All's fair in politics, of course, and if that means making a chump of the principles you previously paraded so very proudly then so be it. If that means arguing for a frankly fatuous 'Scottish interest' when there's transparently no such thing then so be it. But then again, with the exception of the national question, the SNP has never put much of a price on logic and consistency.

If EVEL, in whatever form, ever happens, the SNP will cry betrayal. Their actions tonight, of course, are designed to make EVEL — the thing they say they oppose — more, not less, likely. Never waste a crisis, of course, and never ignore the possibility of creating one either.

As for the foxes, well, it's got nothing to do with them. They're just the useful vermin.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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