When I started writing this piece on Tuesday morning, there was still the prospect that the SNP group in Westminster were going to vote against the government on the proposed review of the legislation on fox-hunting in England and Wales. I was all set for some nerdish anticipation of some parliamentary gameplay which could well have resulted in the humiliation for Cameron’s new administration on being voted down on a measure resonant with cultural significance. Since then, the Tories have shot their own fox by withdrawing the bill, postponing till September a possible arithmetical test of their majority.
Now one set of foxes have been saved by Tory reluctance to go into their first summer hols with the memory of a parliamentary defeat to spoil the taste of cocktails in the beach hut. And no doubt the predatory instincts of Her Majesties Opposition are quietly self-satisfied with the taste of Tory Chicken this lunchtime. But the endangered species who should really be nervous this afternoon are those without any kind of paw in the game any more : yes, I’m talking about the Scottish Labour Party. Let me get back to them after picking a few more obvious bones from this particular mess of road-kill.
The near pulling of the teeth of the ban on fox-hunting introduced by the Blair government in England and Wales, and by parallel legislation by the LibLab coalition in Holyrood was totemic in two ways this week. Firstly, of course, the ban on fox-hunting represents to the Tory backwoods the very epitome of all that they hated most viscerally in Islington Man, with his macrobiotic, multiculturalist intolerance for all that made England England. Secondly, despite the best constitutionalist convolutions of Angus Robertson, if ever there was an “English Only” piece of legislation, this surely had to have been it. We are aware that the exclusive definition of “Englishness” is problematic thanks to Barnett Consequentials, But it took some proceduralist contortions indeed from the SNP to argue that the rules governing the social pursuits of Hampshire are any of the damn business of the MP for Moray.
I have to say that reading the headline this morning that announced that the SNP were going to take part in the vote on this matter, when even the Tories were making it a matter of individual conscience made me feel a little queasy. Both in principle and practice, I felt uneasy about both Angus Robertson’s pretzel shaped justifications, even while I could understand the enthusiasm for causing the red-coated buffoons on the government benches a little discomfort. The charge of hypocrisy against the SNP…for seeking independence and yet still wanting to keep their lang nebs in English Only affairs would surely stick. And that may well still be the charge, although the Tories have rather blinked and ducked the confrontation…and so may not amount to very much.
But it didn’t take a lot of thought to understand what had really swung the SNP’s decision. Because their primary fight, as Westminster Parliamentarians may well be with the Tories. But the happy side effect of saving English Foxes from a literal version of what happened to Alexis Tsipras in Brussels on Sunday night aside, the really happy result of this piece of legislative hokey cokey for the SNP lies not in besting the Auld Enemy, but in discomfiting the Near Enemy. Not England…but the Labour Party in Scotland.
Because what happened, you see, is that the UK Labour Party asked the SNP in the UK parliament to support them in voting down the fox-hunting legislation. And that, for the SNP in Westminster, is Christmas and their birthdays rolled into one. Because what it means is that the UK Labour Party, before even they have elected new leaders, are treating the SNP as potential allies…not all the time, of course…but where there is a real prospect of beating the Tories at Parliamentary Games. And if people were asking Harriet Harman this weekend : “If the Labour Party are going to support the Welfare Cuts that destroy every principle of universal welfare they used to represent, then what is Labour FOR exactly?” the same question is now being asked of prospective Labour MPs in Scotland. And the question is not one of abstract numinous stuff like “morals” – it is a cold, hard question of parliamentary arithmetic.
“If the UK Labour Party and the SNP in Westminster can successfully carry out a parliamentary manoeuvre that can force the Tory government to withdraw primary legislation, then what exactly might any future Scottish Labour MPs be FOR?”
That’s why, foxes or no foxes, the SNP were so delighted to risk their old style parliamentary principle of absenting themselves from legislation that they decide is genuinely “English Only”. Not because it gave a chance to defeat the Tories, although that was a nice bonus. But because UK Labour asked them to cooperate and they were delighted to say yes. The precedent now set, I’m sure we will see this tactical cooperation extended and deepened to the point where Labour will be hard pressed to persuade anyone to stand as a prospective parliamentary candidate in 2020 so Quixotic and pointless will that have become.
Whether I am entirely happy with this aspect of the New Normal that is taking shape in British politics is another question for later . What is of significance right now, as we head into the summer break at Westminster, is that Labour and the SNP have now successfully already combined on the procedural question of EVEL and on a piece of pure parliamentary gamesmanship.
Parliamentary games only take us so far in the same week where democracy in Greece is stamped into the killing floor of the EU, and where the same economic orthodoxy that animates the righteous boots of the Eurocrats is set now to tear apart the social democratic experiment that once upon a time constituted “Great” Britain. But parliamentary games in red coats on horseback are part of the way things are done here. And this week, the fox whose tail is nailed to the door is called Kezia.