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.  

If you would like to support this campaign and sign the petition, click here.  

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This piece was written for our website.

Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for City AM.