It didn’t take long. Within a fortnight of the general election the Scottish National Party has been tempted into revealing that it may break the party’s long-standing position of not voting on matters that only affect England.
If a free vote on a repeal of the Hunting Act 2004 is introduced to the British Parliament by the new Conservative government, the SNP is considering whether to break the self-imposed rule and vote to keep the law despite the fact it will have no impact on the ban in force in Scotland.
The move may not come as a total surprise as during the general election campaign SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said her party would consider changing their policy on abstaining from votes on devolved issues. It was, however, generally thought that this would only happen if votes taken in Westminster could have a knock-on effect in Scotland, or if failing to support a Labour minority government could precipitate a confidence vote resulting in a Conservative government.
Interfering in the free vote on foxhunting in England and Wales was previously a policy which the SNP specifically stated was one on which its Westminster MPs would not vote. The SNP’s official website makes the point. Under the heading “Will the SNP vote to repeal the fox hunting act?” the party offers the following statement:
“The SNP has a long-standing position of not voting on matters that only affect England. The Hunting Act is one such matter that purely affects England and Wales, and so SNP MPs would not vote on this issue.”
The position was restated in an article which Nicola Sturgeon herself wrote for the Observer newspaper in early February this year. She restated the SNP’s “longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England – such as foxhunting south of the border, for example” adding “and we stand by that.”
On 16 May it appeared that Sturgeon was beginning to retreat from that position when she replied to a tweet asking her to “reconsider the SNP’s abstention on the repeal of the foxhunting ban.” Rather than saying her MPs would not vote on the matter she replied “the SNP has not yet taken decision (sic) on this.”
Following up on the issue the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, told Sky News that there is a “massive lobbying operation” aimed at ensuring the ban is not repealed and that “SNP MPs still have to consider the legislation, which we haven’t seen.” He then tried to justify using SNP votes at Westminster to affect policy that has no impact on Scotland:
“The UK government is imposing its will on Scotland with only one MP, it doesn’t even have enough elected government ministers so they are appointing placemen to the House of Lords to govern Scotland by fiat and we have to look at all of our opportunities we have to exercise our voice and our vote at Westminster and we’ll be doing it on the basis of seeing the proposals that are actually made and then making up our mind.”
If the SNP intervenes in this issue it risks bringing to the fore the “English Votes For English Laws” proposals which the Conservative Party tabled earlier this year. The fact that this will have come about in relation to a matter as trivial as foxhunting will not lessen the constitutional damage the SNP’s threatened action will cause.