First blood, then, to Nicola Sturgeon in this fascinating new phase of Westminster warfare. Outfoxing one’s opponents is enjoyable at any time: all the more so if an offensive that David Cameron and Co somehow failed to anticipate leaves them spluttering with indignation too.
That a faintly ridiculous row over hunting – laden with class baggage and emblematic of the Tory toff – was such a successful battleground for the SNP highlights one of the key features of Scottish politics today. We might call it The Doctrine of Flicking the Cheeky V-sign.There is an interesting, inverse phenomenon at play in these days of the democratic deficit, when Scotland votes one way, and England another. Put simply, the more Unionist parties can be wound up, and the angrier they become, the more gleeful are Scottish voters, and the happier the SNP is. The Vote That Never Was illustrates how little the Westminster machine understands Scotland. How could Team Cameron have failed to foresee the Scottish nationalists’ cunning yet eminently predictable approach, and have walked straight into the trap?
Today was very different to the everyday skirmishes over English votes for English laws (EVEL). The SNP forced Cameron to pull proposals to relax the ban on hunting in England and Wales after signalling a change in its long-held approach at Westminster to non-Scottish issues. Rather than abstaining, it said it would reject the proposals.
Because of parliamentary arithmetic, and because there are a fair number of anti-hunting Tory MPs, The 56 would have been decisive. The proposals would have fallen.
The morning after the Scottish referendum, Cameron sought to wrong-foot his opponents with his surprise move to settle that vexatious issue with his EVEL pledge. He was too clever by half, for Caledonian hackles were raised – and have stayed up. From the SNP there has been a subtle widening of its definition of Scottish interests. Only in February, Sturgeon was singling out hunting south of the border as the type of Westminster vote resolutely beyond SNP MPs’ interests. But five months is a millennium in contemporary UK politics, and there was a delicious pot-kettle-black moment when Cameron raged at the nationalists’ “opportunism”.
The proposed move the SNP successfully scuppered yesterday would only have brought hunting laws in England and Wales into line with Scotland’s less prohibitive legislation. And the irony? That the SNP has had eight years in government in which to do this, but hasn’t. This has zilch to do with our furry foxy friends, whatever side of the border they live on. It is all about more powers being devolved to Holyrood and those EVEL plans. Sturgeon was, she says, simply reminding Cameron how slender his majority. Some lesson. Cameron would do well never to underestimate Sturgeon. He must be dimly aware that a Tory government likely boosts the case for Scottish independence more than a Labour one might.
The SNP makes mistakes, of course. There are problems with Police Scotland, the NHS and education, all responsibilities of the Scottish Government – and that’s been the SNP since 2007. But, in the current climate north of the border, no one seems to want to listen.At Westminster, nationalist tails are up. They have one over-riding, long-term aim. They are coherent, disciplined and clever. In any given circumstances, the SNP seems to play its cards more cannily than its opponents. Luck? Maybe. But this promises to be a helluva parliament.
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