On the hunt
The dominant political story in the UK this week has been the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) sudden dislike of fox hunting. And while it might seem a long way away from the world of infrastructure, it actually may have a bearing on the sector over the coming five years of this government.
With so many roads in need of repair, a rail system that has just seen important upgrade work cut back and a chronic lack of school places in some parts of the country, it is hard to believe that fox hunting is the top issue of the day – especially given that it is a topic that many had thought had been put to bed in the early years of the Blair government, when the practice was banned.
But with the Conservatives in sole power for the first time since early 1997, attempts were being made to water down the original ban and bring it into line with practice in Scotland. The expected Parliamentary vote, though, has been postponed after the SNP signalled it would oppose the amendments, in a tit-for-tat exchange over another of the government’s plans: to prevent Scottish MPs voting on laws affecting England and Wales.
Why does any of this matter to infrastructure?
First, it demonstrates the precarious nature of the government’s slim majority in Westminster – some had suggested that even had the SNP abstained, the Tories would have struggled to get the vote through amid concerns over the amendments in its own ranks. When it comes to decisions on major infrastructure projects, which will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of constituents, mustering party support could prove equally difficult.
Second, the SNP’s meddling in the fox hunting debate could be just the first of its forays into pronouncing on English-only laws. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon indicated soon after election night that she would press Prime Minister David Cameron to deliver more infrastructure investment – such mischief-making on the government’s legislation could be one way of getting such concessions.
In practice, though, the SNP’s approach is unlikely to be good news for the infrastructure market. As the party seeks to get more power for Scotland and tries to frame the overall political agenda around Scottish devolution, the likelihood is that other government priorities – including infrastructure investment – will get pushed down the line.
Less than three months into the new government, the Conservatives are already in danger of being bogged down in a morass of Scottish independence. The government must work to reassert its authority quickly, otherwise the strong government that many had hoped for in the wake of the Tories’ election victory could evaporate rather quickly.