WESTMINSTER, United Kingdom – Scottish National Party (SNP) Members of Parliament have forced the government into a u-turn over its plans to water down the ban on fox hunting in England. The Conservatives had hoped to make changes to the ban in a vote on Wednesday, but were stopped when the SNP decided to break their age-old commitment not to vote on English-only matters in the House of Commons.
The changes being proposed would bring English Law into line with that of Scotland. Neither country allows hunting in the traditional sense but both do allow dogs to be used to force foxes onto open ground, as long as the fox is then shot by a marksman before the dogs get to it.
In England there is a limit of two dogs per hunt, but in Scotland an entire pack can be used. The English system is deemed to be ineffective, as two dogs often struggle to pursue the fox over huge tracts of land they hunt on. The government claims this makes it harder to control vermin, and is therefore damaging rural England.
As recently as May the SNP website said the party would not oppose fox hunting in England. In February the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The SNP have a longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England – such as foxhunting south of the border, for example – and we stand by that. Where any issue is genuinely “English-only”, with no impact on Scotland, the case for Evel (English Votes for English Laws) can be made.”
The changes were to be put to a 'Free Vote' of the House of Commons, meaning the government whips would not be officially involved. However, in reality there have been widespread reports of the Conservative leadership warning newly elected MPs they risked being overlooked for promotion if they did not back the plans. Despite these threats around 20 Conservative MPs were expected to vote against the government.
Although the government only has a majority of 12 it had expected the SNP not to vote, leaving it still able to win the vote. Once the SNP decided to vote the proposal was all but sunk, leading to today's humiliating withdrawal.
The issue of hunting fiercely divides the left and right in the United Kingdom, with Conservative MPs representing almost all the wealthy rural seats that favour hunting. Lobby group the Countryside Alliance is also far closer to the Conservatives and hunts groups regularly campaign for Conservative candidates.
Last night the leader of the SNP at the House of Commons, Angus Robertson, said: “The Scottish National Party Westminster Group met this evening and decided to vote against the Tory Government’s attempt to relax the ban on fox hunting south of the border in Wednesday’s vote."
He continued: “It is right and proper that we assert the Scottish interest on fox hunting by voting with Labour against the Tories’ proposals to relax the ban – in the process, reminding an arrogant UK government of just how slender their majority is.”
The government had hoped to offer another free vote on legalizing fox hunting in England later this year. That vote now appears to be a pointless exercise and will probably be either postponed or cancelled altogether.
A pre-arranged protest against the vote, led by Queen guitarist Brain May and Angus Robertson, went ahead today outside Parliament despite the vote having been withdrawn. Protesters shouted “save the fox” and wore paper fox hats. They called for even more stringent measures to be taken to protect foxes