Breaking its election promises, a Tory government has left expat Britons out in the cold
Disenfranchisement is an ugly word. As a UK citizen without a vote in my own country, I feel cheated. I’m a fully paid-up, urban middle class British liberal, tolerant and open-minded, slightly under-done pink in the middle. I even have friends who wear skinny black jeans and play in their own indie rock band, so my credentials are impeccable. And yet …
In 2000, the Blair government imposed a limit of 15-years away on voting rights for Britons living abroad (under Thatcher it had been 20 years). Despite a ringing call for change in the Tory party’s manifesto of 2014 – “Being a British citizen is for life. We believe it should also give you the lifelong right to vote.” – Britain’s High Court recently fended off a challenge by a 95-year-old WWII veteran living in Italy.
As The Guardian reported the decision April 28: “The government was entitled to adopt a cut-off period at which extended residence abroad might indicate a weakening of ties with the United Kingdom.” Hey ho for election year promises.
Strangers in a strange land
I am one of a community of 1.3 million Brits living in Europe with a vital interest in the outcome of the In-Out referendum due June 23. And just possibly, we may have a better understanding of the ramifications of the U.K.’s continued membership in the EU – or not – than some tweedy UKIP (the right wing isolationist party) supporter slurping his pint in the King’s Arms somewhere in middle England. Estimates vary, but certainly more than half of British Europeans cannot have their say in the momentous In-Out decision.
Skimming the British media, the expat is struck by the frequency of Asian names among elected officials at all levels: The newly elected mayor of London is the respected Sadiq Kahn, and senior councillors in local government across the country have names like Shah Hussain and Lutfur Rahman. Press commentaries also reveal the same spectrum from good governance to graft-laden incompetence as the their British counterparts – no racial bias there.
But they can all vote! More to the point, so can millions of other first or second generation immigrants from far flung corners of the old Empire. Of course this is only right and proper: They have fought to establish their lives in Britain; they have jobs, businesses, families and should have a full say in the future of their new homeland.
Ironically, though, a majority of British Asians seem to favour leaving the EU and closing the borders. Their arguments have a certain post-imperial jingoistic charm. A letter to Prime Minister Cameron signed by 80 prominent British Asians pleaded for Brexit: “As patriotic Britons of Commonwealth backgrounds” and as “descendants of the men who volunteered to fight for Britain in two world wars … we must stand aside… to free up unlimited space for migrants from the EU.” The language is symptomatic: People coming to work in the U.K. from France or Belgium are of course not “migrants,” but neighbors. This chasm of misunderstanding in the minds of intelligent, well-meaning people is deeply saddening for a convinced European.
But what about the expats toiling in the service of German engineers building hydration systems for the starving third world, or those using their financial know-how to help stricken banks in Milan. They still have their British passports; they repatriate a great deal of money annually to pay school fees, support aged parents or simply to invest. At the same time, they are building networks and expertise of huge future potential to a mercantile sea-girt isle.
And yet they are denied the right to vote. This wasn’t always so: Generations served in the British Indian Raj and in the administration of British possessions and commercial interests around the world. Whether, in retrospect, this was a noble and glorious achievement or a global system of rapacious exploitation is another discussion.
The point is, those who went abroad to work, teach and serve were not treated as deserters to Queen and Country and stripped of their precious, democratic right to vote. Disenfranchisement is both unjust and foolish.