English Laws for English Foxes?

First an admission.  While not being an SNP supporter, or even Scottish, I do enjoy a certain frisson when my adopted homeland’s First Minister gets to stick it to the UK’s current PM.  But now I ask myself: should I approve of her breaking the understanding that SNP MPs would not vote at Westminster on laws not affecting Scotland? Scotlands-First-Minister-Nicola-Sturgeon-greets-Britains-Prime-Minister-David-CameronThe simple answer is no, since people ought to keep to their word.  But on the present occasion, further questions arise. With the decision to let SNP MPs vote against relaxing the ban on foxhunting in England, it is not unequivocally clear to me that the understanding has been broken.  I don’t know offhand the exact wording of the undertaking, but since it has the form of a gentlepersons’ agreement, then its status is premised, I presume, on gentlepersonly conduct being observed on all sides.  Sometimes reasonable people can reasonably disagree about what that conduct entails.  But there is a strong moral view – shared even by some Conservative MPs (which is why Nicola Sturgeon comes to have the opportunity here) – that it is not reasonable or gentlepersonly to engage in the practice of hounding foxes to painful death for the pleasure of the hunt and kill. If there can sometimes be moral questions that transcend state boundaries – and the UK’s preparedness to engage in various kinds of humanitarian intervention indicate that the UK accepts this – then there is little ground for complaint at Westminster if Scottish members follow their conscience on a humanitarian matter.  imagesIf your neighbour is allowing his dogs to rip to pieces a fox that happens into his garden, you might think you could and should take reasonable steps, if morally permitted, to prevent this happening.  You would not be impressed by the assertion that the neighbour can do what he wants to any creature that happens upon his land.  If you could stop him by some fairly simple expedient, even if it meant going against an earlier undertaking not to interfere in his business, you would not do wrong to stop him. Would you? Or consider this: if democracy means allowing the interests of all affected by its decisions to count for something, then we can ask whether foxes’ interests count or not. If they do, then the decision to deny them the most basic of rights is one that a democracy should be constrained not to allow. If they do not, then there is no sense in which the fox is ‘English’. Red-FoxAs a stateless creature, a fox could quite appropriately be given asylum by a willing neighbouring country that recognized it as a bearer of basic rights; if literal asylum is not going to be possible, then a morally appropriate equivalent is to go against the putative letter of an unwritten agreement and adhere to the spirit of humaneness which has to underpin any truly valid human undertaking.  That is what the Westminster Scots can claim to be doing. Cameron may accuse the SNP of opportunism, but it is his poor judgement that has given them the opportunity to do the morally right thing.  Simon Jenkins has complained that ‘This was not about hunting.’  But, actually, it was.  If we are to understand that it was not really about this and are to get away from literal readings into more interesting analyses, then we might reflect, more significantly, that it is only in a literal sense of electoral procedure that Cameron can claim a democratic mandate to govern the UK.  He cannot claim that an actual majority of the people really are behind him. It only serves to remind us of this when he goes out on a limb in the interests of a few toffs on horses.

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