14 July 2015

Will the SNP's foxhunting gambit actually strengthen EVEL?

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?


  1. "On Bills and statutory orders which effect only England"


  2. Was the epic trolling, the cynical and unprincipled tit for Scotland Bill tat, really worth it?


    1) It associates EVEL with an unpopular cause

    2) It suggests to the Tories that they may have to create a de facto English parliament.

    3) It suggests that the SNP are genuinely progressive, to the point of being prepared to suffer Tory slings and arrows.


  3. PM Cameron,learning it's better to talk

  4. Insightful and learned as ever. Two small things:

    1. I don't think people were so much meaning that hunting would become legal per se under the proposed changes, but de facto legal. If you're allowed to chase foxes with a full pack of hounds, any infractions are effectively almost impossible to police.

    2. EVEL had already been booted into the long grass before the SNP's foxy U-turn, because the Tories weren't at all sure they could get it through on a fragile majority of 12. A more red-blooded version would surely be susceptible to the same fate for the same reasons - it would drive an even more heinous wedge between the constituent parts of the Union, and do the SNP's work for it.

    1. If EVEL has been indeed sent out to pasture, how will the Tories explain their failure to deliver on such a headline policy?

    2. RevStu,

      My antennae should have tingled at the Scotland on Sunday splash on this at the weekend. Clearly laying the groundwork for this today. That piece made precisely your point about the difficulties of enforcing the Acts on both sides of the border. I do think, however, that several folk seem to think the Scottish legislation is demonstrably tighter. It isn't. On EVEL, we shall see. The Tory party has queer dynamics I don't understand.

  5. The outcome thus far has been in line with opinion polls regards retaining the hunting ban.

    The debate is surely whether it was c.50 Tory rebels or the SNP that enabled the popular democratic will to prevail against a Tory majority government elected with 36.9% of the vote on a 66.1% turnout.

    David Cameron needs to listen to and understand his own MPs. That is the main outcome from what I can see. He seems to have learned nothing from the Human Rights climb down.

    While I understand your argument, I think this episode will shine more light on the UK constitution changes the Tories are seeking on the back of no legislation. I personally think it a grave error if Unionists pursue this.

  6. "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?"

    The answer to that is a resounding yes. EVEL speeds up the end of the Union. The minute the Scottish electorate twig to the fact that their MPs are second-class at Westminster, is the same minute they ask themselves why bother sending them there in the first place.

    English nationalism, rearing its head through EVEL, will finish the Union. The SNP are banking on this. A smart move by them.

  7. I'd just like to say I adore your picture choice LPW, very well found. Most especially since the wall the fox is sitting on resembles those remaining sections of old Hadrian's erection. Which I hope was intentional.

    Otherwise I agree with Unknown, the Tories have hung their EVEL exemplar on the wish to torture innocent woodland folk. With YouGov over on twitter pointing out that all parts of the UK are against hunting. This has Evil Toxic Tories written all over it. There are also English people all over the net cheering on Nicola and the SNP. The SNP ride over the horizon to the rescue is the major narrative online.

    1. Agreed. Our Nicola is quite savvy. Of the three reasons she gave for the u-turn, I am sure the clincher was the sheer volume of English pleading. "Please, we'll holiday in Scotland, buy more whisky, etc" (!) SNP may not be in a good light with the Tories (but when were they ever?) but building warm support from the progressive English vote is a great store of value for the future.

    2. Today's explanation of the change is much better than last night's, I grant you, which was more or less nakedly cynical. But you'd expect Nicola to show a defter touch.

  8. The SNP wants to build support for independence in Scotland. A cynical but effective strategy for doing so is to make sure relations between Scotland and the UK government are as bad as possible. If the foxhunting episode motivates some sort of anti-Scottish backlash, such as a more far-reaching version of EVEL, it will do the long-term interests of the SNP no harm at all.

  9. Surely the objections to EVEL are concerned with principle rather than procedure. Regardless of how the measure works in practice, it creates two classes of MP. However "milquetoast" the proposals may be, they are sill objectionable for what they seek to effect.

    1. Never interrupt your enemy when they're making a mistake, as someone once said.

    2. I don't see how any self-proclaimed democrat can object to the principle of EVEL. It's just a restatement of 'government of the (English) people by the (English) people'.

      What is objectionable about Cameron's current proposals is their specific content and the underhand way he wants to introduce them through an amendment to the Commons standing orders. EVEL in any reputable sense means creating an English parliament and this needs to be done openly, not by surreptitious rule-bending.

      It's a fundamental principle of democracy that every citizen should have equal rights under the law, including an equal right to vote and make one's views known. This, ultimately, is why asymmetric devolution is democratically unacceptable: under asymmetry there is no possible way of giving all votes equal value.

      Symmetric devolution (e.g. federalism) avoids this problem - hence the principled argument for an English parliament. Having an English parliament subordinate to Westminster may well be unworkable in practice, but that's a wholly different barrel of fish (and an argument in favour of Scottish independence).

  10. I think Peatworier is also guilty of underestimating the power of words and symbols as well, in regard to EVEL.

    For example, a few years ago, the SNP government re-named the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Government. I paid it no heed at the time, but it's only recently do I realise what a good move it was.

    Calling something a government gives something an aura of authority which executive never could.

    A similar principle is at work here, because if Unionists start breaking down the Union into its individual parts, then the aura, the authority of Union, slowly starts to erode.

    A century ago, Unionists would have heeded this danger, and would have been horrified that the Union was being slowly undermined in such a ham-fisted fashion.

    Luckily for us independence supporters, the Tories are carrying on regardless.

    1. I agree - symbolism is important. But the actual facts of the thing, what is proposed and not proposed - must also matter for something. I'm not interested in politics as a cynical shadow play of appearances. I'm not sure most of the public are either, whatever their views on the constitution.

    2. If you are not interested in the politics of presentation and perception then you are not really interested in politics at all; merely the mechanics of legislation.

      All of politics is compromise. Remove from politics all that is not entirely factual in nature and you deprive it of the flexibility and malleability that is required if politics is to serve real people and communities.

      Remove from politics all that is intangible and ephemeral and merely symbolic and what remains is the cold, airless, arid desert of technocracy.

    3. By the same token, if you remove any consideration of empirical evidence from politics, you end up with a cynical shadow play. Material consequences for peoples' lives be damned; all that matters is ideology and how to sell it to the electorate.

      Trying to remove either facts or emotion from politics is a recipe for disaster.

    4. I must say, Peter, I find that a curious response to what is, I hope, a fairly modest point that the emotions conjured from our politics should graft onto real things and real issues and real problems rather than conjuring with phantoms.

    5. Andrew -

      'I agree - symbolism is important. But the actual facts of the thing, what is proposed and not proposed - must also matter for something. I'm not interested in politics as a cynical shadow play of appearances. I'm not sure most of the public are either, whatever their views on the constitution.'

      Yeats -

      'And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
      Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
      Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
      It was the dream itself enchanted me:
      Character isolated by a deed
      To engross the present and dominate memory.
      Players and painted stage took all my love,
      And not those things that they were emblems of.


      Those masterful images because complete
      Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
      A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
      Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
      Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
      Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
      I must lie down where all the ladders start
      In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. '

  11. Just a habitat quibble for two species: not every human against blood sports is a 'progressive' - you can even find them in UKip turning over Nigel's bins I believe, and non-urban foxes favour not just woodland but all sorts of habitat - one scared the life out of me leaping over a tussock on the Glen Brittle path.

    Glad the SNP waved the fox flag - now down to them to make sure the law is being adhered to in Scotland, and look at revison. Twa cheers for Ms Sturgeon!