EXPATS are famed for their love of the old country, and perhaps Scottish expats more than most. It is not for nothing that Scotland has a host of traditional songs about people “far across the foam” yearning for their “granny’s Hielan’ hame”.
From Hong Kong to London to Ontario, Scots who have never set foot in their homeland for decades continue to express their national identity with pride and passion. But should they get a vote in the historic referendum on Scotland’s future?
There are persistent calls for people born in Scotland but living outwith its borders to be given a say in the 2014 vote on independence. The campaign started by 23-year-old law graduate James Wallace, from Dumfries, who works in London and will not be eligible to participate, has found political support in some quarters, and his “Let Wallace Vote” plea is undeniably a heartfelt one. The news we reveal today, that almost 60,000 foreign nationals will be entitled to vote in the referendum, strikes an emotive note. Why should Wallace be denied, the argument goes, while an Australian who happens to be living in Scotland for a few years gets a say?
The debate is complicated by outdated regulations that already exist about eligibility to vote in routine elections. EU citizens resident in the UK cannot vote in UK general elections – but they can vote at elections to local authorities, devolved legislatures and the European Parliament. Citizens of the Irish Republic, on the other hand, can vote in UK general elections if they are resident in the UK. At present, under certain circumstances, British citizens who have not lived in this country for up to 15 years are still entitled to vote in a UK general election. The system is a mess and requires an overhaul.
There are practical considerations against allowing expats the vote – if you added up everyone who had been born in Scotland but emigrated at some point over the past 15 years, the potential expat voting bloc could be many hundreds of thousands. Does the view of a Scot who emigrated to Australia in the 1990s really count as much as someone who has stayed and committed themselves to Scotland?
No-one doubts the sincerity of expats’ interest in Scotland’s future, but the priority must surely be people – regardless of race or national origin – who today choose to make Scotland their home. The people who need to make this decision are those who contribute to Scotland in the here and now, who raise families here, who pay taxes here. Geography cannot be an issue – it would be impossible to distinguish between an expat in Berwick-upon-Tweed and expat in Johannesburg. Nor could the authorities factor in any declared intent by an expat that they plan to come “home” to Scotland at some point in the future, whether that be next year, or when they start a family, or when they eventually retire. Such a theoretical possibility cannot be the basis for any hard-headed legislation.
There may well be a case, in any review of who is entitled to register to vote, that residency criteria should be examined. Should a foreign national living in Scotland on a one-year work contract, or doing a year of study, be regarded as entitled to a vote? But the fundamental point is this: the choice of whether or not Scotland becomes independent must be made by the people living in Scotland at the time of the vote. It must surely be the case that a German who has lived in Scotland for 20 years has more right to vote on this country’s future than a Scot who has lived in Germany for 20 years.