As threats to the Union go, fox hunting is an unlikely one. But when the SNP announced it would vote against legislation to reduce the current hunting ban, it brought the divisions between North and South of Hadrian’s Wall back into sharp focus. If the SNP had voted against legislation applying to the UK as whole, it might have made the papers, but few people would have batted an eyelid. The proverbial bugle to arms in Westminster was that the Scottish Nationalists elected to vote down a bill that would apply only to hunting in England.
The Government moved quickly, announcing the vote on fox hunting would be postponed. And by pushing the vote back, Downing Street ensured discussions about hunting would take place after debates over banning Scottish MPs from voting on laws applying to England.
The saga demonstrates the strength of feeling over the so-called West Lothian question. And it also demonstrates two fundamental points.
The first is that the West Lothian question must be urgently resolved – whether it results in ‘English votes for English laws’ or not. The status quo risks paralysing Westminster and distracting from discussions on legislative and policy issues that are important in their own right. The second is that in postponing the fox hunting vote, the Prime Minister revealed – again – the fragility of his grip on power and need for him to pick his battles. As the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope noted on Twitter, it was a third U-turn within 67 days of the General Election.
The answer to the West Lothian question is fraught with difficulties for all sides. The introduction of ‘English votes for English laws’ could well spell the end of the Union. It would also fundamentally alter the political landscape in England and Wales, further reducing Labour’s electoral prospects for the short and medium term. But the status quo will likely perpetuate a scenario in which policy takes a back seat to discussion and recrimination as to who the decision makers are.