Lionel Zetter: The SNP’s second referendum plans seem to include every voter – apart from expatriate Scots

3 Jun

Lionel Zetter is a retired lobbyist, writer and entrepreneur. He was born in Glasgow.

The Scottish National Party did well in this last month’s Holyrood elections. However, they did not win a majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. Nor did they win a majority of the votes cast.

This narrow failure by the SNP to achieve their electoral aims has taken the immediate pressure to grant a second independence referendum (IndyRef2) off the Westminster government. There is now a widely held view that the priority for all parts of the UK is to bring an end to the Coronavirus pandemic, and then to address its economic repercussions.

Under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998, constitutional issues are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. Boris Johnson has made it clear that he is in no hurry to grant a Section 30 Order which would, as in 2014, devolve the issue of a second referendum to Holyrood. However, he has not ruled this out for ever, and most pundits speculate that there will be another referendum within the next five to 10 years.

If, as and when a second referendum is held, the terms under which it is conducted would be crucial. In the 2014 referendum, at the insistence of the Scottish government, votes were given to 16- and 17-year-olds, and also to EU nationals resident in Scotland. For the next referendum proposed by the SNP 16- and 17-year-olds would again be enfranchised.

However, instead of only EU nationals resident in Scotland being allowed to vote, under the provisions of the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 and the Draft Independence Referendum Bill, the SNP propose that all foreign nationals with “leave to remain” in Scotland would be allowed to do so. This is not just a blatant exercise in gerrymandering, it is grossly unfair to one particular group: Scottish expatriates.

The question has to be asked whether it can be right that while a Swedish, Sudanese or Singaporean adult who has lived in Scotland for a few months prior to any referendum should get a say in the country’s future, Scottish expatriates, with a lifetime’s emotional and fiscal engagement, would not. The interest of the non-British national resident in Scotland may be transient – they might move back to their home country (or elsewhere) in a matter of days, weeks or months. Yet the interest of the Scots-born expatriate is visceral: it is there for life.

Currently UK nationals living abroad get a vote in Westminster general elections and referendums for up to 15 years after they have left the UK. Local authorities are obliged to maintain a register of such expatriates, so that they can cast a vote in the constituency in which they last resided.

Under the provisions of the Electoral Integrity Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech this 15-year time limit would be abolished. This would mean that UK nationals would have a say in the future of the land of their birth for the rest of their lives – no matter where they currently reside, or how long they have lived abroad. The question therefore has to be asked – how can it be fair, logical or indeed legal for adult men and women born in Scotland to be deprived of any kind of a say in the future of the land of their birth in any future referendum?

On top of a lifelong emotional attachment, many expatriate Scots maintain close ties with families and friends back home. This keeps the umbilical link fresh and means that their interest in the future of Scotland remains undimmed.

Some, of course, will still maintain property in Scotland, and others will have investments in the country – either directly in company shares or indirectly through pension funds. Scots-born armed forces personnel serve in the rest of the UK, and abroad, some in Scottish regiments, but many in other branches of the armed forces. Many expatriate Scots, including forces personnel, will be planning to return, even to retire, to Scotland. In the meantime, they should be offered a vote in any future referendum.

There is also the matter of fiscal engagement. Many expatriate Britons working abroad still pay taxes in the UK. All expatriate Scots working in England, Wales or Northern Ireland will be liable to pay UK taxes. And UK taxes have, since 1978, subsidised the Scottish economy, and the comparatively generous Scottish welfare system, through the Barnett Formula – currently to the tune of £1,630 per head per year.

Therefore, to deprive those individuals, who have paid UK taxes in order to sustain the redistribution of money north of the border, of a vote in any future referendum would be gravely unjust. Whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’?

In order to address these questions, I am launching a campaign to enfranchise expatriate Scots – both those living in the rest of the UK and overseas – to ensure that the first-generation diaspora would be given a vote in any future independence referendum. The sole criteria for being permitted to register for a vote in any future referendum would be documentary proof, in the form of a passport or birth certificate, of Scottish birth.

This campaign will be aimed at both the Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments. Both the Scottish and the UK governments are in the process of introducing legislation concerned with elections and referendums. We will campaign to ensure that that in the event of a future independence referendum the birth right of Scottish expatriates is safeguarded by enshrining their entitlement to participate both in the campaign and in the actual vote.

This campaign will not be party political. It will be open to supporters and members of all political parties, and to those who choose not to be involved with any political party. It will also be neither for nor against the idea of Scottish independence. It will instead be a campaign for natural justice, to ensure that those born in Scotland will have a say in its future.

We are working with the new campaign platform Democracy 3.0, which has kindly commissioned polling to help understand the opinion landscape around this important issue. Significantly, and despite the near total absence of any debate around the Scottish expatriate issue, nearly half those polled (45 per cent) supported our inclusive approach, while one in three (33 per cent) oppose it. SNP voters particularly appreciate the importance of giving Scots outside Scotland a say, with almost six in ten, 59 per cent, saying they would support it.

Finally, I have been asked why I am initiating this debate and launching this campaign. The answer is because I was born in Scotland to a proudly Scottish mother. I have Scottish relatives who still live in Scotland, and others who live in the rest of the UK, and abroad. I have lived, studied and worked in Scotland, and I care passionately about its future.

If you agree with these sentiments and would like to sign the petition please click on the following link.