One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
– Martin Luther King
It’s clear to me that the Tories are treating the SNP like the foxes they so desperately want to see torn to shreds, and have formulated a dangerous trap: abandon the principle of voting only on legislation that impacts Scotland in the interests of cross-border left solidarity, or abstain from a vote in the knowledge that 56 votes could prevent a grave injustice?
It’s an insidious snare the Tories have placed in front of the SNP. The First Minister is on record as citing fox-hunting as one of the issues the SNP would not normally vote on, and the arguments in favour of SNP voting on the issue are sadly tenuous at best: from zoological (fox populations in Scotland will be affected by migratory patterns) to political (what if a Northumberland hunt happens to stray over the border?) And even if all 56 SNP MPs vote to keep the ban, it is no guarantee that it will be enough – if, say, the DUP, UKIP and a few others choose to back the Tories, and a few rebel New Labour, then even Team 56 might not be enough.
But the way I see it, not only would the SNP voting in a successful motion fail to save English & Welsh foxes in the long term, there is a possibility which seems frighteningly likely to me – that it could serve as an excuse and precedent to erode Holyrood’s powers on a wider scale.
Let’s imagine the following scenario: a large number of Tories rebel against the party, and a fair number abstain, while the other parties and every New Labour MP turns out to keep the ban, meaning the SNP really do mean the difference between the ban staying or going. The SNP vote, the ban stays. What could happen next?
- MPs for English and Welsh constituencies are outraged at the democratic will of their electorate being undermined by Scottish MPs on an issue that does not affect them. Public opinion may be solidly against fox-hunting itself, but this would surely stoke the EVEL fires among the electorate. The Tories will thus have a much stronger basis to push through on EVEL.
- While many SNP members and voters would support Team 56 in voting on such an emotive animal rights issue, a substantial number believe that retaining the principle is more important. The party would experience turmoil whether it voted or abstained.
- Having successfully pushed through EVEL, there’s nothing stopping the Tories from a motion to repeal the ban again years or even months down the line – and this time, the SNP cannot vote at all. The loss of one vote in Mr Mundell is a price I think the Tories are willing to pay for the SNP abandoning their principle for naught.
- Alternatively, the Tories could decide that since the SNP chose to vote on fox-hunting, that must mean the SNP consider foxhunting a UK-wide issue. So if the SNP think it’s right to vote on English and Welsh fox-hunting legislation, why shouldn’t English & Welsh (and Northern Irish) MPs vote on Scottish fox-hunting legislation? That being so, why shouldn’t the currently devolved powers regarding fox-hunting be transferred to the UK parliament, and so extending the ban or repeal to all nations? Cameron did say he wanted to govern as “one nation,” didn’t he?
Thus in a worst-case scenario, not only could the SNP voting on fox-hunting in England & Wales only temporarily prevent the repeal, I think it could even result in Scottish foxes being endangered – and in the process, the SNP’s integrity would be undermined. Even if the first vote kept the ban, a second vote would surely not.
Don’t think the UK parties wouldn’t take powers away from Scotland: it’s happened in the last six years. On 7th March 2011, the commons voted to return insolvency powers from the Scottish Parliament to the UK Parliament:
This clause returns to the UK Parliament the responsibility for making law in respect of certain elements of the process for the winding up of companies in Scotland. This responsibility had previously been a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the 1998 Act, which divided responsibility for winding up between the two Parliaments. Accordingly, subsection (4) omits the first and second paragraphs of the existing Exceptions to the reservation (which concern the process of winding up, effect on diligence, prior transactions and the insolvency of social landlords). The change made by this clause will leave the UK Parliament with sole responsibility for all aspects of the law covering windings up that take place in Scotland.
Every SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Green MP voted against this. Eilidh Whiteford argued against it in the Commons. The Coalition – and 71 New Labour MPs for good measure – voted for it.
It wasn’t the only time, either: on the same way, the Commons voted to return responsibility for regulating health officials from the Scottish Parliament to the UK Parliament:
I rise to oppose the clause. This is part 2 of the great Calman clawback. Presumably we are going to see an attempt by the Tory-led Government to take powers away from the Scottish Parliament, once again with Labour complicity and support.
The Bill is characterised as one that gives powers away to the Scottish Parliament, but the previous clause and this clause demonstrate that one hand most definitely giveth, but the other most definitely taketh away. We oppose the clause, first, because it is anti-devolutionary, and secondly, and most importantly, because it is not necessary. The Scottish Parliament is totally in control of Scotland’s health services. Scottish Ministers are responsible to the Scottish Parliament and, in turn, to the Scottish people for the structure and delivery of health services. We have our own national health service in Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament has a direct interest in ensuring that Scotland’s particular needs and circumstances are taken into account in decisions made about the health service in Scotland, including the regulation of its work forces. Since 1999, we have developed a different NHS in Scotland—one based on the needs of the Scottish people.
– Pete Wishart in Parliament
Once again, every SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green MP voted against it. The Coalition, and this time 51 New Labour MPs, voted for it.
We’ve already seen the Westminster parties backtrack on devolution. What they were calling “Near-Federalism,” “Modern Home Rule” and “maximum Devolution” before the referendum became the pittance of the Smith recommendations. The Smith recommendations were diluted to the Smith Commission. And with EVEL on the horizon, there’s the possibility that even if the Smith Commission was enacted in full, the possibility of powers being taken as they are being given may happen again.
So in this instance, the SNP have only one real option with any chance of success – abstention. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done. You just have to think outside the box.
- The SNP may choose to abstain, but there is nothing stopping them from debating the matter in parliament, pointing out that some 80% of the UK population oppose foxhunting, appealing to the sensibilities of more progressive Tories, and encouraging the other parties to band together against the government. Scotland could thus be the UK’s Jiminy Cricket without intervening to bail England & Wales out.
- Even though 56 MPs was beyond most SNP members’ wildest dreams, they’re still outnumbered more than ten-to-one by English MPs alone. Only 6 Conservative MPs out of 330 have to abstain or vote against the party for their overall majority to be neutralised, and another 56 to compensate for absent SNP MPs. Conservatives Against Fox Hunting (the Blue Fox Group) already have 28 signatories. The Conservative Manifesto explicitly pledged a free vote – there will be no whips, so MPs are free to vote as they feel. There are 74 new Conservative MPs with no prior record in government, and thus, no precedent for voting in favour of foxhunting: it’s up to their constituents to petition them to vote against the repeal.
- It’s pretty clear beyond doubt that New Labour have been little short of a shambles during the 2015 General Election campaign, but the 232 MPs still have a job to do. With the party in such doldrums, it’s once again up to the constituents to make sure their elected representative does their job, and ensures every single New Labour MPs gets out and votes.
- Even if the ban goes through, why should that end the matter? Continue to lobby for the ban; campaign against hunts; disrupt them in any legal way you can; name and shame anyone involved in this sadistic bloodsport. We need to expose this monstrous practise for what it is, drag it into the cold light of day, contextualise it as something that is happening in 2015.
And, at the back of your mind, consider: what are the Tories really playing at? Are they really so passionate about foxhunting that they prioritise it over other things – or is it possibly to distract people from, say, a whistleblower, or a trial, or something we’re not even aware of yet? Perhaps it’s a combination of all three: a trap to undermine the SNP, a distraction, and an appeal to the rural foxhunting advocates who helped return a Tory majority.
Whatever’s going on, I speak as a person who is utterly opposed to bloodsports. And I fear the SNP will gain nothing from voting on a repeal, yet stand to lose a lot more than their “Scotland only” principles – to say nothing of the foxes themselves. It is up to the representatives and the people of England and Wales to keep the ban. You have the power. Don’t rely on 56 SNP MPs to stop the Tories – you have the power to do it yourselves. We only have 5 million people, and look what we did – we voted for a party that rejected austerity and nuclear weapons and inequality, and now have 56 champions. You have 50 million. What could you be capable of?
You have no idea the power you have, if you could just take it.