It has been dubbed the most important decision regarding their country’s future in 300 years, so it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of Scots want to have their say in the planned independence referendum of 2014.
But under current arrangements, the nearly one million Scots living outside the country will be unable to cast a vote, as is consistent with the regulations for Scottish Parliamentary elections.
The issue is highly emotive, not just because of the depth of feeling about the issue of independence, but also because the eligibility criteria is different to that for UK general elections.
According to the Scottish Government’s Your Scotland, Your Referendum consultation document, people eligible to vote in the referendum will come from five groups: British, Commonwealth and EU citizens resident in Scotland, members of the House of Lords resident in Scotland and members of the UK Armed Forces or Her Majesty’s Government serving in the UK or overseas but registered to vote in Scotland.
For the SNP government, the principal that the franchise in referenda should be determined by residency is the international norm. In a parliamentary debate on 18 January, Bruce Crawford, Cabinet Secretary for Government Strategy, said he recognised that Scottish people around the world would be keen to have their say in the fate of their home nation.
But he argued that the costs and logistical problems encountered by allowing Scottish expats would make the whole operation highly impractical. Furthermore, he added, evidence from decisions of the United Nations Human Rights Committee suggests that the legitimacy of the referendum might be questioned by the international community if the franchise is not territorially based.
In Crawford’s support, SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson told the chamber that Scottish residency is a vital criterion in ensuring the referendum is accountable. “The people who pay Scotland’s taxes, who elect the members of the Scottish Parliament and who have chosen to make a life for themselves here are the most important stakeholders in the wider debate.” But Steve Gilmour, managing director of Talk Radio Europe, an English-language station based in southern Spain, finds it galling that foreign nationals who may plan to stay in Scotland for just a year or two will be allowed to vote.
Scottish Office minister David Mundell recently revealed 58,004 EU nationals would be eligible to vote in an independence referendum were it held today. The 47-year-old Gilmour describes the current situation as “bizarre,” adding that he moved away “without thinking at any moment that I’d be penalised in my own country for doing that”. He continues: “I was educated, brought up, paid my taxes all my life, and then I leave – I’m in my fourth year now – and find out I’m going to be excluded from voting in my country’s future.” Gilmour, who is involved with other campaigns for expat rights in areas such as pensions and healthcare, says the issue has becoming a talking point in Scottish circles in recent weeks.
Some have gone further still, arguing that the question of Scottish independence should be put to the whole of the UK, as any major constitutional change would have major economic, political and social ramifications for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Speaking in the House of Lords last month, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean argued that the outcome of the referendum would “affect all of us,” and the franchise should be extended to all UK citizens in the manner of the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote.
Lord Wallace, the Liberal Democrat peer and former Deputy First Minister of Scotland, batted away the suggestion, saying that in the interests of relationships across the UK, the issue of independence should be left to Scots alone.
According to Jeff Breslin, a London-based blogger with declared SNP sympathies, the idea that those living outside of Scotland should be allowed a say is “dumbfounding”. Writing on the Scottish politics site Better Nation, Breslin argues that to move “outside of any country and take yourself off the electoral register, whatever the circumstances, is to forfeit your right to have a vote”. While it would be personally “annoying if he cannot engineer a move back to Scotland in time for the vote, “there will be no sense of injustice on my part”. The independence referendum should provide a snapshot of modern Scottish opinion, Breslin adds, and anybody who wants to take part has two years to get in the frame.
Labour MSP Elaine Murray disagrees, arguing the rules should be softened to take into account of the views of the many Scots not resident in the country but passionate about the debate. Speaking in January’s parliamentary debate, she explained that the Scottish identity transcends borders, adding that of the millions of Scots who have lived and worked outside their homeland many returned or plan to in the future. Murray further argued that the situation has been made worse by the economic downturn, which has forced many young Scots to look elsewhere for work.
Her proposal is that the franchise be extended in a similar manner to the way it is for UK expats in general and European elections, where individuals who have been on the electoral register in the last 15 years are able to apply to vote. This method would weed out those who were not motivated to take part, she says, because “the onus would have to be on the person, as it is for expats. So if somebody is interested enough they could go online and apply.” The issue of independence is so much more profound than a regular parliamentary election, argues Murray, that anybody with a personal stake in Scotland’s long-term future should be given a voice. “This isn’t like the referendum on the Scottish Parliament which could come back, and did come back 30 years later,” she says. “If we go down the route of independence it’s not going to be reversed. So I think everybody with an interest in Scotland – either those living here or possibly with an intention to return here – has a fairly strong interest in whether we take that direction.” Murray has also raised the case of James Wallace, a Scottish law graduate about to embark on a career in London, who has launched a campaign calling for the franchise to be extended in this way. In an online petition that has so far accumulated over 750 signatures, Wallace expresses his dismay that under current rules, he will be denied the opportunity to cast “the most important vote I will ever have in my life”.
He continues: “I was born in Scotland, I have lived there for my whole existence of 23 years, it will always be home and if Scotland becomes independent I will have to get a Scottish passport. But I have no say on the future of my country. Surely this is unfair?” With over 700,000 Scots living in the rest of the UK – around half of that number in London alone – nobody could argue there is a lack of interest in the outcome of the referendum outside of Scotland’s borders. Alex Magee, a young financial services professional who moved to the capital a year ago, can see both sides of the argument. While he doesn’t feel “personally emotionally invested enough to feel really strongly” about the referendum, the fact that Scots who have spent the majority of their lives north of the border will have no say strikes him as “an inconsistency”. Moreover, the independence question is “something that impacts other countries outwith just Scotland itself, and I feel that that consideration is relevant,” he says. But Magee admits that while he will keep tabs on the referendum, he “moved to London precisely because I’m more interested in being here, and therefore I’ve disconnected myself from Scottish politics”.
As ever with the independence debate, there is a sense that the arguments on both sides are at least in part motivated by cool-headed political calculations. Just as the SNP has been accused of supporting lowering the voting age to 16 because of the large number of young Scots who back independence in polling, there is a suggestion that enthusiasm for the Union may be higher among Scots not living in their homeland.
“Amongst the group of people I know, and speak to about it most regularly, there’s a slant towards ‘no’,” says Magee. But Murray denies that such a calculation has been made by proponents of an expansion of the franchise, adding that many expats are “passionately Scottish”. According to Ipsos MORI, there is scant information to accurately assess support for independence among Scots living in the rest of the UK or abroad.
Whatever the true picture, as long as determined campaigners such as Wallace and Gilmour remain frozen out of the vote, the issue of voter franchise is likely to persist for some time. As the date of the vote inches ever closer, it would take a brave pundit to rule out an eventual legal challenge.