View halloo! Last night, the SNP broke cover to indicate that they would vote against this proposal from the Tory government on relaxing the rules on hunting with hounds under the Hunting Act of 2004. Predictably enough, the contents of the proposal have been widely misreported. In Scotland, it is legal to gallop after foxes with a baying mob of hounds, but the creature itself must be shot dead rather than being torn to bits by its pursuers. In England, the rules are actually tighter. It is illegal to hunt wild animals with dogs, unless you fall within one or more exemptions.
Under the current English rules, you can only use two dogs to flush animals from their cover -- no noisy legion of hounds allowed. Today's order would have relaxed this rule, allowing an "appropriate" number of dogs to be used to do so, given the terrain and the circumstances, to chase the creatures from cover. It would not have lifted the ban on using hounds to kill foxes in England - or to kill any of the other fluffy woodland folk covered by the laws.
After the Nationalist volte-face, anticipating defeat, this afternoon's vote has been dropped by government whips. This outcome will surely colour the debate on Chris Grayling's "English votes for English laws" proposals. Indeed, it may well have the effect of tossing kerosene onto the camp fire, as Alex Massie argued last night. But one fact has not been widely noticed or understood here: even if Grayling's EVEL standing orders had been in force today, the Nats would still have been able to vote down these fox-hunting proposals.
Burrow down into the detail. There are a number of aspects to the EVEL proposals, but the most important is the idea of an English veto. On Bills and statutory orders which affect only England, the government wants to introduce an additional stage to parliamentary procedure. It all risks sounding a bit arcane and impenetrable. But consider this concrete example.
Say a hypothetical Labour government enjoyed a majority in the Commons, but only by dint of winning 56 of Scotland's 59 MPs. The majority of MPs returned for English constituencies were Tories. Say this Labour government proposed to abolish free schools in England, over the Conservative Party's profound objections. Under Grayling's new rules, if the Speaker certified this as an England only issue, MPs representing English constituencies would take an additional vote on the government's plan to abolish free schools.
If the English majority supported the idea, MPs from all parts of Britain would then participate in the final vote on whether to accept or reject the plans. But if the majority of English MPs did not support the proposals, they fail. Notice: the attitude of English MPs is decisive only in a negative sense. They can veto England-only laws they don't like, but they cannot insist that England-only laws they approve of are passed. This is how the plans are intended to operate. All MPs, from every corner of the United Kingdom, will retain the last word on whether England-only laws reach the statute book.
But today's non-vote on changes to the Hunting Act reveals an uncomfortable paradox in the Tory plans: while an English veto can kill a disliked proposal, it can't save one that has English-majority support but pan-UK dissent. If Grayling's EVEL rules had been in force today, even if there was an English majority for these fox-hunting changes, it wouldn't have got its way. Under the government's standing orders, the issue would still have been put to the whole House, and if the whole House didn't care for hunting with hounds, the proposals would still fall.
There is an important lesson here. The formulation of the government's EVEL plans have been resolutely (and unhelpfully) backward-looking. They have been obsessed by the old rebellions of the Blair and Brown years on foundation hospitals and tuition fees, where Labour Bills passed with Scottish support over English dissent.
But the political landscape has changed so radically - the old Blair and Brown model of constitutional injustice looks seriously outmoded. We have a Tory majority government in charge of the legislative agenda. The idea of a Labour government propped up by Scottish Labour MPs now looks more comical than optimistic. It is almost impossible to see any circumstances in the near future where England-only legislation would or could passed over English objections using the votes of Scottish MPs. The veto is worthless.
But with a wafer-thin Tory majority, an awkward squad of Conservative MPs, and an opposition willing to exploit your weaknesses, it is eminently foreseeable, time and again in this parliament, that there may be a narrow English majority for government proposals, but no UK majority. And under the current iteration of EVEL, the English majority would have to lump it. Given the pitch of feeling around this in the palace of Westminster, I doubt they'll be minded to endure this perceived injustice for long. Today's setback for the Tories on mangling woodland folk has shone an unyielding light on the feebleness of the government's EVEL plans for all the world to see. It is just surprising to discover that it is SNP parliamentarians who are lighting the lamps.
Despite all of the outrage from Alistair Carmichael, and Labour and Nationalist MPs about the pernicious impact of EVEL, in the grand scheme of things, these are milquetoast proposals from the Tories. If I was a English Conservative MP, keen to answer my constituents' victim fantasies and misplaced sense of grievance against Scottish interference -- Grayling's EVEL plans won't go nearly far enough. They wouldn't let me "speak for England", in John Redwood's phrase.
Which invites a series of uncomfortable questions for those sympathetic to what the Scottish Nationalist MPs have done today. Will their actions actually embolden the Tories to go further to achieve what they regard as "fairness for England"? Will this non-vote have paved the way for even further, much more substantial restrictions, to the voting rights of Scottish MPs? Was the epic trolling, the cynical and unprincipled tit for Scotland Bill tat, really worth it?