Opinion: Speaking up for Scots – a referendum on independence needs democratic legitimacy

All sorts of scare-stories surround a future Scottish referendum – from practical questions about the debt rating of an independent nation to more emotive fears of a new wave of Highland clearances.

Yet amidst all the manoeuvering by both the pro and anti-unionists seeking to define the framework under which the question will be answered (in particular whether it should be a straight in-out decision) the respective leaders at Westminster and Holyrood retain one glaring blindspot.

Scotsman columnist Bill Jamieson is entirely correct when identifying an “effective disenfranchisement which could undermine the referendum vote as envisaged,” but perhaps not in exactly the way he intended.

According to the consultation paper on the draft referendum bill (pdf) regarding the mechanics of a vote, “eligibility to vote is based on that for Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections” – in other words normally-qualified and registered residents of Scotland will cast their ballots.

On this vital choice facing their nation, any Scots who take advantage of the British union to live in other parts of these isles will not have their voices heard – despite the unquestionable fact that they do so at least partly because a guarantee exists that their full political rights shall be maintained. And that’s before you even start to consider those who’ve taken advantage of the right to freedom of movement in our union with continental partners!

This not-insignificant number of people not only has the potential to alter the outcome of a referendum, but could be more seriously affected by the most dramatic form of mooted constitutional change because of the potential effect on their ability to vote in parliamentary elections where they live, and therefore have a pointed interest in proceedings.

Admittedly Irish citizens living on Merseyside, Anglesey or in Kent have a comparable exemption to vote in all UK elections, but this right is not reciprocated for Irish national elections and is by no means assured in the event of secession for citizens exiled across the northern border given persistent questions over the anomaly.

Just as not all people living in Scotland are Scots, not all Scots live in Scotland. In fact only 84% of Scottish-born people are resident in Scotland, and the remaining 16% will be excluded from expressing an opinion on the future of their birth-nation in any future referendum as things currently stand.

Of the c.800,000 Scots who live in other parts of the UK the largest group (over 1/4m) live in or around London and the smallest (24,387) live in Wales. We might well ask ‘how do these groups feel about the advantages or disadvantages of Union?’ So far nobody has, and until now it looks like nobody wants to.

So while we hear Scottish Nationalist leaders stubbornly fulminating that they ‘will not be dictated to’ by any English Tories and we hear those same English Tories privately gossiping with glee at the prospect of boosting their Westminster majority, the rest of us might be forgiven for thinking the interests of both sides are aligned and there’s been a secret stitch-up by the in-laws to arrange a divorce, even if or precisely because it excludes the very groups of people at the sharpest end of the deal.

Can Scottish independence give Scotland a real voice, if it is to be achieved by silencing Scots?

Current estimates put the total population of Scotland at 5.2m in 2011 (up 5.4% on the previous year), with maximum voter registration hovering about 4m (a rise of 1.5%). Meanwhile 1,991,051 people voted at the 2011 Scottish general election, representing a turnout of 50%, down from 2,016,978 in 2007 (historical stats can be found here), and spurring plans to add 3% to the electorate by lowering the age limit from 18 to 16.

Clearly there is a large and increasing body of scottish opinion going unrepresented. This creates a false balance which misrepresents Scots and reduces the legitimacy, credibility and sustainability of any decisions made in their name. Whichever way a referendum goes it should be because the full democratic rights of those concerned are respected, not in spite of them.

Because whatever happens a rejigged mash-up of the Hokey-Cokey cannot be on the cards.

* Oranjepan is a regular commenter and party member who can be found swinging between different branches of the organisation, albeit just above ground level.

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19 Comments

  • Non-issue.

    I’m a Scot living in England, so I won’t get a vote. And that’s exactly how it should be.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 16th Jan '12 - 9:28am

    As an extra twist to all this, there is a rising tide of English nationalism based on the fact that Scottish independence would effectivelyend our membership of the EU because the UK would no longer exist.

    It’s a moot point but I always though the principle of self-determination applies to the people living in a defined area, not people born within a defined area. It seems totally bonkers to include people living outside Scotland – would they then exclude English born people living in Scotland? And it would be an utter nightmare trying to organise such a thing on the electoral roll. The fact that John Redwood seems to think it might be a good idea tells you all you need to know about this!

    If you leave an area you don’t have a vote on matters pertaining that area. That seems simple common sense to me.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 16th Jan '12 - 10:04am

    In any divorce settlement, both people involved have their interests considered.
    Here we have a proposed divorce where one side, England, is bound and gagged. I think English electorate should have a separate vote.
    As an English voter, I do really wish we had a federal system of equality among the four nations. Then England could become a country again instead of being an part of that appalling national title, UK.
    Don’t you hate it when you have to tick UK in a nationality box? “The United Kingdom” is not really a nationality.

    However, the joke of the week for me has been Cameron making the case for union in the “UK” while desperately trying to keep out of the European Union. Stronger together here, but not there!!!.

  • Richard Swales 16th Jan '12 - 10:07am

    Presumably “English” people living in Scotland are going to be able to vote based on their residency and are mostly going to vote “no”, so it may balance out a bit.

    I would say that most Scots living near London will have moved as adults for work related reasons, already with established opinions, and will not have suddenly become more pro-UK after living in London (certainly, my own next move after living in London was to get out of the UK, although in a different sense). Although they may be affected negatively if they work in politcs, military or media, both countries would continue to be in the EEA, and Scotland would presumably inherit the UK’s 20-year overseas voter rules, allowing them to vote back home (or in both places if they qualified for both citizenships or the UK made an exception as with Ireland).

    Also, if it is only based on birthplace then you can have people with Scottish parents who were born elsewhere but returned as young children unable to vote.

  • Presumably “English” people living in Scotland are going to be able to vote based on their residency and are mostly going to vote “no”, so it may balance out a bit.

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. In my experience English residents of Scotland are no more or less likely to support independence than native Scots are.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jan '12 - 11:37am

    “In any divorce settlement, both people involved have their interests considered.” — yes, but we’re not talking about settlements at this stage. In matters of divorce you don’t any longer have an absolute right to refuse a divorce: if one party wants out they can (eventually) get out. Of course, if there were a move for England to withdraw from the UK, we could have a referendum on that (not sure how I’d vote…); but the idea that English voters have any right to prevent Scotland from leaving the union if that is their settled will is dangerous nonsense. (Just consider the scenario wherein the UK announces it will, after all, hold an in-out referendum on the EU, whereupon Herman Van Rompuy declares that it shouldn’t be allowed to “break up the union” without the consent of the French, Germans, Poles …)

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jan '12 - 11:37am

    Ah — beat me to it, Andrew!

  • It’s interesting that the nationalists’ policy is based on residence, regardless of background, while some of their opponents seem to want to base it on tribal affinity or ethnicity.

    I’m quite sure if the SNP had proposed extending the franchise to expat Scots they’d have been accused of promoting an ugly ethnic nationalism.

  • @Oranjepan


    what you say doesn’t make sense – it’s a false accusation to claim extending the franchise to expats must necessarily require the removal of the franchise from inward migrants from other parts of the UK.”

    I didn’t make that accusation, or any other accusation for that matter. I just made the observation that some of the opponents of nationalism, in this case you and John Redwood (such illustrious company!) are approaching the question of independence from a point of view that itself would usually be considered indicative of narrow nationalism, while the nationalists themselves are taking a culturally and ethnically neutral approach.

    “The point stands that basing eligibility for the specific question of independence on residency alone would result in the removal of the principle of eligibility to vote based on residency (provided a majority choose independence) – as is the case in Ireland.
    That’s illegitimate, it’s not credible and it’s unsustainable.

    Sorry, I can’t even parse this. What rights that Scottish expats enjoy at the moment do you think they’ll lose by being unable to vote in the referendum?

    I’ll tell you what I think though. I don’t think you’re genuinely concerned for expat Scots at all. I think you’re just desperate to find some angle that the SNP might conceivably be a bit vulnerable on, and you’ve latched onto this because you think it has legs. It’s just irrelevant, disingenuous mischief, the same sort of silly game that the venerable lords Foulkes and Forsyth (such company again!) have been playing with their stupid attempted amendments to the Scotland Bill for the last year, in fact the sort of silly games that Tavish spent the last parliament playing (Calman being one big silly game) and which led directly to the Lib Dems getting stuffed in the election.

    That’s what I think.

  • @Oranjepan

    OK, so let me get this straight. Your argument is that, because a complex political situation in Ireland in the first half of the last century resulted in asymmetric voting rights, by restricting the referendum to only those people already entitled to vote in Scottish elections the same thing will automatically happen in Scotland, unless we choose to do things differently?

    I refer you to the first response I gave in this thread: Non-issue.

    You choose: nationalism OR democracy.

    Nice catch-phrase by the way. I hope it catches on and the Scottish people vote “yes” for democracy, rather than “no” for British nationalism.

  • @Orangepan

    when dealing with constitutional matters it’s important to account for all potential eventualities, not just the definite or more probable. Not doing so opens the way for ambitious political figures to exploit the gap by instigating a crisis and forcing a potentially damaging choice between equally imperfect outcomes.

    I absolutely agree, but the constitutional matters you’re talking about – the complicated and expensive process we’ll have to use to decide who is Scottish and who is a UK citizen and who subsequently gets to vote in which elections – will follow the result of the referendum, not from the decision on who can vote in it.

    “Attempting to tarnish the debate by making false claims and introducing politically-charged terms is divisive sensationalism and the tactics of a short-sighted reactionary.”

    I totally agree, so I look forward to receiving your apology for accusing me of wishing to “silence Scots”.

    Independence is no panacea for the problems of Scotland or the other parts of the UK, and it would provide no new guarantees for better governance which don’t already exist.

    There are no guarantees for anything in life or in politics. All we can do is use our own judgement to make the best of the options open to us.

    This is getting tiresome. If you think you’ve found a suitable spanner to throw in the referendum works then by all means throw it and continue to throw it. My advice to you is that you appear to be desperately clutching at unionist straws and you’re only adding to the general impression that the Lib Dems have nothing to offer except the same anti-democratic shenanigans as the other two Westminster parties, and as such your efforts are likely to be counter-productive if they have any affect at all, but it’s up to you whether you take it. For my part I’m going to cease indulging your fantasy that you even have a point worth discussing.

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