The champagne corks are not exactly popping in Gordon Lamb House, even if the SNP has reason to celebrate. The party has dealt another bloody nose to prime minister David Cameron – the fourth since the election – by forcing the government to postpone a planned vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting.
Angered by the alleged second-class treatment Scottish MPs are getting from the Conservative government, the SNP warned that it would vote against the hunting bill. Fearful of losing, Cameron withdrew the vote from the parliamentary schedule.
But if the threat to vote against the fox-hunting bill showed the SNP as an effective opposition party capable of derailing the legislative agenda of the government, it also showed the dangers of such strategy. In order to fully grasp these dangers it is important to understand the source of the popularity and political credibility of the SNP.
The SNP did not become the only party that counts in Scotland by sheer luck. Both current leader Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond have spent the best part of the last decade transforming the SNP into a professional, well-oiled electoral machine and a responsible and competent party of government.
That strategy has delivered handsome returns. The SNP has led the Scottish government since 2007, polls suggest it may win a landslide at next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections, and the party, with its 56 MPs in the House of Commons, is now a force to be reckoned with at Westminster.
The SNP’s popularity is also predicated on the claim that it is different. It presents itself as the antidote to the toxic Westminster culture of tricks and parlour games. That strategy is clearly visible in the behaviour of the SNP in the House of Commons. The party’s much larger contingent of MPs may be new to the green benches but they are not in awe of the place. They like to point to some of the old-fashioned and barmy Westminster rituals and seem to wear with the pride the reprimands they get from the Speaker of the House every time they breach parliamentary etiquette.
But voting against a bill that does not remotely affect Scottish voters (or foxes) runs the risk of undermining the political credibility and popularity the SNP worked so hard to acquire. Instead of coming across as principled, the SNP now looks like a typical Westminster party that is ready to renege on its values in order to engage in a spot of legislative tit-for-tat just for the sake of it.
The party’s decision had nothing to do with a new-found concern for the well-being of English foxes (if anything, they enjoy more protection than Scottish foxes) and everything to do with revenge at the government’s proposals on English Votes for English Laws and further Scottish devolution.
That much was apparent when Sturgeon that the SNP’s stance serve to remind the prime minister that he had “a slender and fragile” majority.
Until now, the SNP has refrained from voting on legislation that only affects England and developed a consistent position on EVEL. Considering the SNP’s raison d’être is to fight Westminster meddling into Scottish affairs, this position was consistent with its constitutional nationalism.
In threatening to vote on fox hunting, the party has thrown its own rulebook out the window. By breaching its own conventions regarding legislation that only affects England, it is not only indulging on the kind of politics it seeks to stand against, it is potentially weakening its hand on devolution matters. And here, Scotland has far more to loose than Westminster.
For now, supporters may celebrate the boldness of the SNP contingent in Westminster, but Sturgeon and her MPs should be aware that engaging in too many games may come back to haunt the party. That is particularly dangerous for a group that built its popularity on the back of the promise to deliver a different style of politics.