The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, is a professed “opponent of fox hunting”. Indeed, under her leadership the SNP at Westminster put themselves between the Conservative government and the Hunting Act, foiling their attempts to weaken the ban in England and Wales by bringing it in line with the fundamentally flawed ban in Scotland. A review of the Scottish law was promised at the time. This process has plodded on and we now finally have a consultation from the Scottish Government on the future of fox hunting. The consultation is carefully drafted so as to leave a number of outcomes open, so we still hope this process could lead to a real ban, but I think it’s fair to say that the Scottish Government is not blowing the horn and galloping off in single-minded pursuit of a real ban.
The Scottish Greens meanwhile have decided to take matters into their own hands. Frustrated with the slow pace of progress and the uncertainty as to where the Scottish Government is taking us, Alison Johnstone MSP has announced that she will be taking the lead:
“Polling shows most Scots are in favour of a full ban, and I will bring forward a member’s bill to deliver one. SNP members, like most of the public, have been horrified by recent decisions on puppy tail docking and shock collars. We cannot allow ministers to kick the can down the road on foxhunting. It’s time to take a stand.”
The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 was meant to have banned fox hunting in Scotland. It, too, was a Member’s Bill, brought forward in the very first session of the Scottish Parliament by the Labour MSP Mike Watson, and with support from SNP MSP Tricia Marwick. So could another Member’s Bill fifteen years later succeed where this one failed, and close the loopholes that allow Scottish hunts to continue to operate much as they did before 2002?
The answer is simple. Yes, but only if the SNP get behind it. The position of the other parties is clear: the Scottish Conservatives would be unlikely to back such a ban as their position is to tighten the regulation of fox hunting rather than ban it. Scottish Labour will see this as unfinished business and support a ban, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats will get behind it too. The big question is: what will the SNP do?
For this Bill to get through Holyrood and on to the statute book, SNP MSPs will have to rally behind it. In theory there is no reason why they shouldn’t, given their rhetoric and positioning in Westminster, but the calculation will be more complex than this. The party leadership is not 100% behind a complete ban, and some will no doubt argue that they should focus on the review carried out by Lord Bonomy and the subsequent consultation that is taking place now. There is logic to this, but being seen to be on the wrong side of the debate has its consequences, as shown by the public response to Theresa May’s outspoken support for fox hunting, and indeed the SNP’s own experience with weakening the tail docking ban. What’s more, this might just provide the SNP with a convenient way out.
The Lord Bonomy review has set the terms of the debate around the Scottish Government’s approach to fox hunting, yet the very premise of the review was flawed. Lord Bonomy was asked by the Scottish Government to consider whether the law sufficiently protected foxes “while at the same time allowing effective and humane control of these animals where needed”. This caveat of not questioning the role of fox hunting in pest control severely restricted the utility of the review. To make things worse, Lord Bonomy himself clarified after the review took place that his view was “couched not in the form of abolishing fox hunting but in the form of trying to find a way of maintaining it”.
This suggests that Lord Bonomy interpreted his role as finding a way of keeping the animal welfare lobby happy whilst maintaining fox hunting. His report had many insights about hunting and how the law could be improved, but restricting Government action to his recommendations would lead to regulated hunting rather than a ban. The Scottish Greens might then have done the SNP a favour, giving them a way out of narrow confines established by the Lord Bonomy report and a route to delivering what the vast majority of the Scottish public want: a real ban.