Is anyone so dreary as the man who’s never happy except when he’s unhappy? Perhaps only the man who ceaselessly agitates for something only to reject it when it’s given him.
Consider, by way of a random illustration of this phenomenon, the case of Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire. A year ago Mr Wishart told the BBC that so-called English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) was: “An issue that the Scottish people could not care less about”. Scots were “not interested in your inconsequential spat about English Votes for English Laws”. Mr Wishart had “no concern or issue” in the matter. As he put it, “The voters of Perthshire could not care less about policing in Peckham or Plymouth”.
What a difference a year makes. Now EVEL, albeit in a comparatively modest form, has passed the Commons, Mr Wishart is outraged – OUTRAGED! – by an issue he previously thought so contemptibly beside the point. Why, he tweeted, “Well that’s it. With a majority of 42, Scots MPs are now second class in the UK parliament they were so determined to keep us in.” This change to Commons procedures was a “slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget”.
He was not alone in changing his mind. Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s deputy leader, whined that “When they said ‘Better Together’ they meant second class. When they said ‘lead, don’t leave’ they meant Scots votes don’t count.”
There is something irksome about all this gurning; a reminder that grievance is the nationalists’ reserve currency. Ignore them and they will howl; give them what they want and they will find a reason to complain too.
And what of Scotland, poor old Scotland? As always, she is the victim. Whatever happens, she will be molested. The only thing worse than London’s interference in her affairs is London’s indifference to those affairs. And vice versa.
When the SNP first advocated EVEL, at a time when the idea was neither popular nor profitable, it did not do so because it thought an English parliament – of whatever sort – would destabilise and hasten the end of the Union. Now we are supposed to believe that the introduction of an additional committee stage to English-only bills detonates the case for the Union? Pull the other one. A technical adjustment to parliamentary procedure is not the sort of thing liable to foment revolution in Falkirk. Or anywhere else.
But if the choice is between a modicum of consistency and the opportunity to present Scotland as an endlessly-abused victim the SNP will always choose the latter. Grievance and resentment are their stock in trade and consistency, to say nothing of logic, matters not a jot. If that requires Pete Wishart to make a chump of himself then, lo, Pete Wishart is only too happy to make a chump of himself. Greater love hath no man than that he empty his brain for his country.
And, for sure, it also bears repeating that the SNP are now complaining about a measure they think will hasten independence. Truly, there is no satisfying some people.
It is, still, a question of perception. A battle between, on the one hand, Unionist affirmations of constitutional fairness and, on the other, the SNP’s desire to portray Scotland as a victim. In this battle, it should be noted, Labour are largely posted missing.
True, the best answer to the West Lothian Question was always to stop asking it but that position had run out of time. In the circumstances, the government’s milquetoast reforms may be the least bad option available.
They will not, in any case, need to be used very often. Determining what is, and what is not, an English-only affair is in the gift of the Speaker. The present Speaker at least will, I fancy, take an inclusive approach to these matters; an approach that will please SNP members more often than it does English MPs.
For instance, the SNP claim any decision on a new runway for Heathrow (or Gatwick) could be certified an England-only matter and thus, at the additional committee stage, see Scottish MPs (like their Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts) excluded from that part of the bill’s progress through parliament. Well, I dare say it could be so certified but it seems improbable that it would be since common sense dictates that airport capacity is a pan-UK issue. Similarly, the continuing application of the famous Barnett Consequentials also means, as the SNP point out, that there are fewer England-only bills than often appreciated. Assuming the Speaker takes account of this, it seems likely that EVEL will, as predicted in some quarters, prove a constitutional earthquake so tiny most people will scarcely notice it.
Nevertheless the SNP line is now When the facts change, sir, I change my grievance. What do you do? The answer to that, for most people, is despair. But grievance, however trumped-up, has replaced oil as our boom industry. Happy times.