Who gets to vote in the forthcoming referendum?

Constitutional and electoral legitimacy is a fundamental part of a democracy.  If those defeated in votes of one kind or another can claim that the votes were unfair, for whatever reason, the argument is no longer about this or that policy, but about whether the real voice of the electorate was actually heard.  It seems that a substantial number of future Scottish citizens, with a legitimate interest and right to vote in the forthcoming referendum, will be denied that right if the current proposals go through.  See my Letter in the Herald today (Monday 27.2.12).

If you don’t agree with this you can respond to the consultation here:

Scottish Referendum Consultation

.. and here’s the original text if you can’t get it through the Herald:

Scottish citizens denied their right to vote?

The SNP has adopted an open inclusive approach to citizenship in the new independent Scotland it hopes to create.  To its credit, the party has long since buried the surviving vestiges of an unhealthy ‘ethnic nationalism’ within its broader philosophy of a ‘civic nationalism’.  This promotes the image of a socially inclusive, fairer Scotland.    Scottish citizens, in this vision, will play their part in a Scotland which acts as a ‘citizen of the world’[1], not as a historic Imperial power bashing about the world stage, but as a small socially inclusive country, working collaboratively with others and committed to ideals of justice and equality.  It is an attractive vision.  In keeping with this vision, the SNP want Scottish citizenship to be open and inclusive:  for all those resident in Scotland, those of Scottish parentage, those born in Scotland and those outwith Scotland to Scottish parents.    Yet, surprisingly, only those Scottish citizens who are actually resident in Scotland at the time of the referendum will have a chance to vote on whether they wish Scotland to come out of the United Kingdom and become an independent country.  This seems to be a very exclusive franchise.   In the spirit of inclusion, and of our European membership, it is quite appropriate that a very pleasant young Greek student, whom I recently met socially, will, under the current SNP proposals, vote in the forthcoming referendum, even though he will return to Greece at the end of his studies.   On other hand, three of my four children, born and educated in Scotland, who have gone to the South of England to get work in their fields and who see their long term future back in Scotland, will not be able to vote.   This does not see either fair or inclusive.

Current UK constitutional referendum arrangements, most recently seen in the AV referendum held last year, allow British citizens living abroad, but who had previously registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years, to register to vote in the UK referendum as an ‘overseas voter’.   This 15 year eligibility rule, which can only be exercised through active registration, provides a reasonable compromise between, on the one hand, recognising the rights of citizens temporarily living abroad and, on the other, the problems that would go along with giving voting rights up to a much larger number of people who no longer have a stake in the country.  In their report on the conduct of the 2011 referendum[2], the Electoral Commission took the rights of this group (para 4.67 – 4.72), not all of whom were able to exercise their right to vote because of timing and other issues, very seriously indeed.  Alec Salmond recently described the forthcoming referendum as the most significant decision Scotland has faced in 300 years.  The ‘right to vote’ is a fundamental characteristic of citizenship.  It is astonishing that the proposals currently being put forward by the SNP government of Scotland, so inclusive in other ways, would deny so many of Scotland’s citizens the right to contribute, as full members of Scotland’s civic community, to this vital decision.  If the proposed restricted franchise is adopted, there may also be a very good legal case, not least at the European Court of Human Rights, that citizens have been denied their basic rights as citizens through this exclusion.  Even if the majority of those responding to the current consultation are content with the proposed franchise, this cannot deny citizens of Scotland their right to vote.


[1] Mitchell, J., Bennie, L., Johns, R. (2012) The Scottish National Party: transition to power, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[2] Electoral Commission (2011) Referendum on the voting system for UK parliamentary elections: Report on the May 2011 referendum, available at: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/141328/Final-PVS-report.pdf

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One thought on “Who gets to vote in the forthcoming referendum?

  1. Great letter Danny, I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, I was discussing this very topic with two of your children when we caught up in London in January!

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