It goes without saying that the loudest voices on the pro-European side are desperate for the coming EU referendum to be open to EU nationals currently living in Britain, as well as British citizens. From their selfish perspective, subverting our democracy in this way is a price well worth paying in order to inflict their desired outcome on the rest of us.
But now the europhiles are reaching for another rhetorical weapon in the fight: the fact that Britain, through a number of bizarre constitutional quirks and the pernicious rules of the EU, already allows select groups of favoured non-citizens the right to participate in our democracy.
Mihir Bose, writing in the Guardian, is already taking a gleeful victory lap on the subject, suggesting that eurosceptics are somehow being craven or ideologically inconsistent for objecting to the idea of EU citizens voting to keep Britain chained to Europe while not speaking out against these other cases of non-citizens receiving the franchise:
What [eurosceptics] neglect to mention is that even now you do not necessarily need to be a UK passport holder to vote in a general election. Indeed, for decades the UK has allowed citizens from other countries the right to select members of parliament, a right that even extends to citizens of three EU countries. They are part of a much larger group of 72 countries that includes all Commonwealth territories, British overseas territories and British crown dependencies. Fiji and Zimbabwe may be suspended from the Commonwealth but their citizens resident here have not lost their right to vote in UK elections. The three special EU countries are Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. They enjoy this privilege because while they may now be part of the EU, they once had an older allegiance to a much greater union: the British empire. The sun set on the empire long ago, but its legacy lives on.
What makes all this fascinating is that while Eurosceptics are happy to raise all sorts of scare stories about the EU, these other voters are an issue they are reluctant to discuss. Indeed, as far as the UK electoral franchise is concerned, this is now the great elephant in the room, as I was made well aware during the recent election. At one husting, I had the chance to raise this issue with three panellists from the main parties: Michael Gove for the Tories, Ivan Lewis for Labour and Baroness Kramer for the Lib Dems. Lewis disapproved of my even raising the issue. Baroness Kramer, who did not seem to know that non-citizens could vote, justified it on the grounds that this was a wonderful example of British eccentricity. Gove just said that he did not want to see any change in the franchise.
More fascinating was how Ukip reacted. Some weeks before the election, at a British Future event, Douglas Carswell, now the only Ukip member of parliament, made a very reasoned speech to show that Ukip was not an anti-immigrant party. But when I raised this issue, he made it clear that this was not a question Ukip would touch, remarking that the British system was so complex that to lift the carpet would mean all sorts of things would crawl out. How strange to hear this from a party whose leader, Nigel Farage, makes so much of the fact that he is prepared to go where no other politician dares.
Well, let this blog take a clear stand, in direct response to the challenge set by Mihir Bose: No person who is not a natural born or naturalised citizen of the United Kingdom should have the right to participate in our democracy, either by standing for election or by casting a vote in the polling booth. And yes, that means rescinding the right to vote from non-naturalised Commonwealth citizens and the various other ludicrous exceptions.
Is this extreme? Hardly. The whole point of a nation state is that a country should have defined borders and a defined set of people who are citizens of that country. These people enjoy the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and should never be deprived of their citizenship by government. Non-citizens or resident aliens visiting or living in a nation state other than their own also have rights, of course. But these should properly be limited to the fundamental human rights inalienable to us all – the right to freedom of speech, religion, privacy, property ownership and so forth, as well as those set out in civil and criminal law.
Some countries, such as the United States, make these universal rights explicitly clear in their constitutions – the first amendment protects the free speech of a visiting Frenchman just as it does the speech of a New Yorker or Texan. Would that Britain had its own written constitution and did the same.
But regardless, the key point is that while it is proper that human rights are universal, civil rights – such as the right to vote, to stand for election, to sit on a jury, to join the military, the security services or other uniformed services – should be rightly reserved for those who were born in the country concerned, or who demonstrate sufficient commitment to that country that they complete a process of naturalisation and take an oath of citizenship.
Any other arrangement only serves to further undermine the concept of the nation state – the essential building block which many people are viscerally eager to sweep into the dustbin of history without giving any thought as to how our fundamental rights and liberties will be protected when it is gone. Little do they seem to realise (or care) the alternatives to government by nation state are so remote and so undemocratic that they are far more likely to serve the interests of big business, entrenched special interests and those with the power to lobby internationally than the ordinary man or woman.
If the UK government in Westminster seems remote, unaccountable and unresponsive, do we really want to do anything which pushes power even higher up the chain, away from the people and into the clutches of pan-national organisations like the European Union, World Trade Organisation or United Nations? Because rest assured, opening up the franchise to non-citizens on a key question of national sovereignty is a strike at the very heart of the nation state, the last and best bulwark protecting our individual rights and freedoms.
But wait, the europhiles say. Why the eagerness to disenfranchise EU citizens in advance of the Brexit referendum when there has been no big public campaign to prevent these other favoured groups from voting in our elections? Well yes, there should have been just such a campaign. But unfortunately Britain is riddled with these type of constitutional anachronisms and quirks, too many to debate and repeal without a full constitutional convention for the United Kingdom, for which this blog has repeatedly argued.
For example, it isn’t right or a tremendous point of national pride that Britain is the only country besides Iran where religious clerics (the Lords Spiritual) are guaranteed seats in the legislature. In fact, it’s a festering outrage – and yet we pick our battles and move on, because we have to. But just because we have tolerated Commonwealth and Irish citizens participating in our democracy when we should have put a stop to it does not excuse our inaction when it comes to EU citizens. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Besides, the parallel between EU citizens voting in the coming Brexit referendum and other groups being allowed to vote in various elections is a false one. Though in some ways it is worse that we allow non-citizens to participate in our general elections, the most important expression of our democracy, the distorting effect on our politics is perhaps lessened because these various groups inevitably hold a wide range of political opinions and do not vote en masse for one party or another, thus unduly influencing the democratic outcome in any one direction.
By contrast, EU citizens living in Britain would have an overriding incentive to vote “no” in any secession referendum, because so many matters directly affecting their lives – their potential future immigration status, their access to the welfare state, their ability to exercise democratic power in Britain without swearing any kind of fidelity to our country – would hang on the outcome. Thus the distorting effect of enfranchising this particular group of people would be far greater.
This is not an academic question. The votes of 1.5 million EU citizens currently living in Britain could easily swing the result of the coming EU referendum, if they are ultimately allowed to participate. But more than the specific question of the Brexit referendum, desperately important though it is, an even more fundamental principle is at stake here.
Voting is about the most fundamental right and responsibility of any citizen. We like to say that ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But government should be of and by only those people who are truly vested in our country, those who call Britain home and whose commitment goes much deeper than a short sojourn in pursuit of career opportunity or wanderlust. And the only way we can make this distinction in defence of the nation state is to restrict the franchise to those with full citizenship.
The pro-Europeans currently have the upper hand in this debate, and as things stand a majority of Britons are likely to vote to remain in the European Union if the referendum were to be held tomorrow. The various splintered forces in favour of Brexit are disorganised and have their work cut out to make the case for an independent, prosperous Britain in the face of determined opposition from the consensual political establishment.
But even if the British people do make the lamentable choice to stay trapped within the EU’s deadly embrace, the fact remains that the deadly mistake should be ours – and ours alone – to make.
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