Monday, 13 July 2015

When's an English matter no' an English matter?

The SNP have decided that they are going to vote against the efforts of the Conservative Government to relax the hunting ban in England.

This is a significant departure from a self-denying ordinance traditionally adopted by their Westminster representatives, who have committed not to vote on English-only matters. That position was a principled one and perfectly reasonable for them to adopt in the aftermath of devolution, especially given their broader belief that Scotland should be in complete control of its own domestic affairs and that English and Welsh MPs should not be involved in those decisions.

There is also a perfectly principled argument for adopting no such self-denying ordinance. England has declined to demand for itself a Parliament or regional assemblies with the legislative competence to deal with their own domestic affairs. As such, it is no more illegitimate for Scottish MPs to vote on matters only affecting England than it was for English MPs to vote on policy matters affecting Scotland before devolution.

This is not the justification given, however. Angus Robertson is trying, disingenuously, to present this as a response to the government's refusal to entertain opposition amendments in the early stages of the Scotland Bill.


There is a tenuous effort, first and foremost, to suggest that the Tory proposals for the ban south of Gretna have any bearing on the Scottish debate about the same domestic issue. The notion that the English debate would have any bearing on what the Holyrood Parliament can or will do in this area is self-evidently nonsense. The original Hunting legislation for Scotland was actually passed by Holyrood, completely separately from that pushed down South. It is a devolved matter and the law in England will have no bearing whatsoever on it.

This is quite different from a situation where a predominantly English Bill has ancillary effects on issues within the purview of Holyrood. It is not even a case where the Scottish block grant is directly or indirectly affected by a change to English departmental spending. It certainly is not like welfare votes, which relate to reserved matters that affect directly people living in Scotland.

The motivation here seems to be entirely a desire to give the Tories a bloody nose. Now I'm in favour of giving this government as many bloody noses as possible. But in doing so, any Scot who condones Scottish MPs voting on English hunting must also accept that it is perfectly legitimate and reasonable for this government's English MPs to vote on and have some control over the legislative agenda for the Scotland Bill and any amendments made to it. The future settlement for Holyrood has significant constitutional, governmental, and practical implications for UK citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to deny the legitimacy of the House to involve all of its members is really to ignore the necessary implications of Scotland voting No on 18th September 2014

I understand the frustration of the SNP at their total impotency at Westminster, despite having won 56 of Scotland's seats. The solution to that, though, is not to snipe from the sidelines, but to get involved where the business of Parliament is really going to get done in this 5-year term. The House of Lords. Already the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are showing that the Upper Chamber is where real influence will come on government legislation, where the Tories lack a majority. They haven't just been given a bloody nose in "the other place"; actual changes to legislation have happened and look like happening. It was the House of Lords that provided some of the most effective resistance and improvements to government legislation in the last Parliament and already looks likely to trump the Commons Tory majority on votes at 16.

If they are prepared to bend their democratic principles, in their self-denying ordinance on English Votes for English Laws, there is no good reason for them not to do so on putting forward nominees for the Lords. It is perfectly consistent, and principled, to say that you oppose the appointed nature of the Lords, but also to acknowledge in the absence of support for its reform or abolition, that it is necessary or advantageous to work within that system to reform it and other laws.

The SNP have got used to having power without a great deal of effective responsibility. The question they need to answer is whether they actually want responsibility. With effective responsibility comes the power to make some significant changes to the way Britain is governed, and to improve the lives of Scots and the rest of the UK alike in really important ways in the next five years. But responsibility also means accepting the limits of what can be achieved, and it also involves a bit more humility about their own record at Holyrood. If they want to make big and real changes to the way Scotland is governed and to transform the lives of those living in Scotland, the politics of distance, deflection and demonisation has to end.

Their approach at Westminster is only part of the story, but is symptomatic of an approach which prioritises the popularity of the SNP over effective if unpopular policy-making. One day, the SNP is going to have to decide: is it more important to be electorally popular or to do the right thing by Scotland?

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