What the UK's foxhunting vote is really about – and it isn't foxes

Scottish MPs have blocked the relaxation of a ban on foxhunting Tuesday, despite the fact that the law would have no effect on Scotland.

Neil Hall/Reuters
Queen guitarist Brian May and Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson stand with demonstrators during an anti-fox hunting protest in London on Tuesday. The British government said it had postponed a controversial vote on relaxing a ban on fox hunting, after facing defeat at the hands of Scottish nationalists who planned to use it as a warning that they should not be ignored.

What started out as debate over a traditional British sport has turned into another point of dispute between Downing Street and the Scottish Parliament.

Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to delay a vote Tuesday that would relax the United Kingdom’s ban on foxhunting, after the Scottish National Party (SNP) came out against it.

Dozens of animal welfare advocates had protested the vote in a rally outside Parliament Tuesday, led by Queen guitarist Brian May and scores of activists donning orange fox masks. Celebrities including Ricky Gervais, Morrissey, Stella McCartney, and Sadie Frost had also previously joined the campaign, dubbed “Team Fox,” according to The Daily Mail.

But the debate over animal welfare is not the driving force behind Scottish resistance to this bill – a bill that will now be delayed until this fall, after Westminster has introduced “EVEL,” a proposal that would allow only English votes for English laws. This is a move vehemently opposed by Scottish leaders, reported The Guardian.

The Scots’ decision to intervene in the foxhunting debate signals a dramatic shift from SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement earlier this year that her MPs would be staying away from the vote, said UK Prime Minister David Cameron to the BBC.

“The position of the SNP has up to now always been clear, which is that they do not vote on matters that are purely of interest to England or England and Wales. Particularly if they’ve already settled that issue in Scotland,” said Mr. Cameron. “So I find their position today entirely opportunistic, and very hard to explain any other way.”

Ms. Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, didn’t deny the party's shift in stance. “David Cameron and his government are out of step with English opinion on this issue, and this is an opportunity for us to forge a progressive alliance,” she said to the BBC.

Indeed, the foxhunting issue is flaring up just at a moment when Scotland is hoping to wrest more power from London. Just two months ago, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Peter Geoghegan reported that Sturgeon’s party was riding high after a general election indicated the possibility of another independence referendum, and days later, she and Cameron met to discuss giving Scotland greater economic control.

On this particular issue, Sturgeon told the BBC the British government needed a reminder “that the majority is quite a slender one.”

She added that there had been “overwhelming demand from people in England for the SNP to vote on this issue.”

SNP group leader Angus Robertson told the BBC that the party’s resistance was also in part payback for Downing Street’s blocking of its own legislation.

“We are in a situation where the Tory government are refusing to agree to any amendments to improve the Scotland Bill – which are supported by 58 of Scotland's 59 MPs,” said Mr. Robertson. “In these circumstances, 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.”

Scottish MPs have also tied their decision to EVEL, which they say would “make Scotland's representation at Westminster second class.”

The English ban on foxhunting was introduced 10 years ago and fast became an emotional debate, reported the Monitor in 2011. “The hunting issue is often seen as a symbol of the polarization between rural and urban England, with many city dwellers opposing hunting,” wrote correspondent Mian Ridge.

But it's not all about antagonizing England. Scotland has said that the UK’s discussion on hunting has also renewed questions about whether to tighten its own restrictions, which are comparatively less stringent, reports The Guardian.

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