Enfranchise expatriate Scots!

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications and is Author of ‘Lobbying: The Art of Political Persuasion’. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

If Swedes, Spaniards and Singaporeans are to be offered a vote in a future referendum on Scottish independence, why aren’t expatriate Scots?  

The failure of the SNP to achieve a majority in last month’s Holyrood elections has not stopped them from demanding a second independence referendum. Despite the Westminster government’s insistence that it would not accede to this demand any time soon, few doubt that there will be a second referendum at some stage in the not-too-distant future.  

Under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998, constitutional issues are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. The Cameron administration allowed the SNP Scottish government to dictate the terms of the 2014 referendum. They had three tactics. First, the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent nation’ was designed to produce the answer ‘Yes’. Second, 16- and 17-year-olds – who were reckoned to be strongly in favour of independence – were given the vote. Third, European Union nationals resident in Scotland were also enfranchised.  

Next time around the Westminster government must ensure that the odds aren’t  artificially stacked against the preservation of the Union. For a start, the question should be ‘Should Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom?’ More importantly, the Westminster government should ensure that the Scottish government is not able to rig the franchise in favour of independence.  

Now that 16- and 17-years-olds have the vote in Scotland, it wouldn’t be practical (or fair) to take it away from them. However, the SNP government’s plans to give votes to any foreign nationals who happen to be resident in Scotland at the time of the referendum needs to be looked at very carefully. This bloc of voters could include people who are only there for a short time and for a very defined reason – such as overseas students or employees of multi-national companies posted to Scotland for a fixed period.  

If foreign nationals are to be allowed to vote in any future independence referendum, then surely Scots-born expatriates living in the rest of the UK – or overseas – should also be allowed to vote? Many expatriate Scots maintain close ties with friends and relatives in the land of their birth. Some Scottish members of the armed services are based in the rest of the UK or overseas but will ultimately return to Scotland. Some expat Scots have properties and other investments in Scotland, and intend to retire to Scotland. To disenfranchise these people is patently unjust.  

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 – to the tune of £1,630 per head per year.  

Therefore, to deprive those individuals who have paid UK taxes to sustain the redistribution of money north of the border of a vote in any future referendum wouldn’t stand. Whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’?  

I’m working with the 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) opposed 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.  

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This piece was written for our website.

What happens next: The battle for Britain

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We have been living through a constitutional cold war, with a political stalemate between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon over an independence referendum.

But as Bute House and Downing Street wait on tenterhooks for the results of the Scottish Parliament election, attention now turns to the key question of the election: will there be a mandate for a second independence referendum in Scotland?

The stakes could not be higher. For Boris Johnson, the battle for Britain as a Union of nations still hangs in the balance. For Nicola Sturgeon, this is an unmissable – perhaps her last – opportunity to be the First Minister to lead Scotland to a referendum, and independence.

Two Prime Ministers have refused to hold a referendum in the past seven years. First Theresa May and then Boris Johnson batted back any proposals for a second independence referendum.

But this election could change the political dynamic.

While an SNP majority government in Scotland, or a significant vote for pro-independence parties in this election, is not synonymous with support for a second referendum, it would make the case against holding a second referendum increasingly more difficult for the Unionists to make.

Since 2014, polling shows support for independence steady – even increasing in the last year. Something the Nationalists will seek to capitalise on is a majority in this election which will be seen as a mandate for a referendum. They view this moment as an unmissable – almost ‘now or never’ moment – to pursue independence.

For Unionists, they know they need to deny the Nationalists a majority. They also know they need to play for time – staving off a referendum until a rear-guard action can be mounted to counter the pro-independence surge in public opinion.

Boris Johnson must be both bold and cautious.

He must be cautious on a referendum – standing his ground without martyring the Nationalist cause and avoid prompting them to pursue the issue through the courts or a consultative ‘wildcat’ referendum that could cause significant political headaches. A difficult tightrope to walk.

He must be bold on reinvigorating the case for the Union and taking the fight to the SNP. The Nationalists may be setting this up as a question of democracy – who gets to decide Scotland’s future, Boris Johnson or the people of Scotland? – and that may be fruitful territory for boosting public support for a referendum, whatever your views on independence.

But as the election campaign has shown, the SNP still have huge questions to answer on the case for independence itself. This is the territory where Boris Johnson can win – and undermine support for a referendum.

That means a shift from the tactical safe ground that the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives have retreated to in recent times.

But the onus is not just on the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives.

The Scottish Conservatives also need to up their game significantly by finding a strong and charismatic leader in the Scottish Parliament who can inspire voters with a positive Unionist vision. At the moment, they are found wanting on that kind of leadership. With the new Ruth Davidson-approved candidates potentially winging their way to the Scottish Parliament shortly, it remains to be seen if a new talent can emerge and galvanise the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist cause.

It certainly looks likely that in the event of a SNP majority, and even a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, that the Scottish Government would seek to negotiate a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act 1998 to hold another referendum at some point in the next Parliamentary term.

But irrespective of the size of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, it does not change one simple fact: legally, it is crystal clear that it is the UK Government that can enable a referendum to happen.

There are, of course, alternatives to a mutually-agreed referendum. The Scottish Government, for example, may seek to legislate unilaterally for a consultative referendum. But they know that is a risky road to travel down – the messy example of Catalonia looms large in Nationalists’ minds and any legislation is likely to be challenged in the courts by the UK Government. It is far from certain that the Scottish Government would win such a challenge.

Therein lies the predicament for the Nationalists. For all that they may claim a mandate and have options on the table – there is only one route to a credible, internationally-recognised results on self-determination and that is a referendum agreed upon by the UK Government.

The UK Government knows the strength of their position. For all that this election may strengthen the Nationalists’ hand, it is Boris Johnson that still possesses the trump card. How he plays it could come to define his premiership.

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This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021Subscribe here.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.