Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group and International Security Research Fellow.
I expect few, even in political circles, are thinking about the proposals to reform Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act on the eve of its debate in Parliament tomorrow.
It has barely featured at all in the media or in Westminster discourse; this only serves to underline how far behind we are in the consideration of truly conducting foreign policy and democracy in a networked, and increasingly globalised, world.
Section 3 of the Representation of the Peoples Act, amended under the Blair government, states that no British citizen who has lived abroad for more than 15 years may vote or stand in UK elections.
Equally, British citizens are not required, or even prompted, to register with their local consulate upon taking up full or part time residence abroad.
The first result of this is that it is not possible to obtain an accurate figure on how many British citizens live abroad, or how many live in any particular country. The estimates run from 5.5 to 13 million ex pats who are British citizens or could apply for British citizenship, a considerable percentage of our overall citizenry, too considerable for responsible government to lose track of.
The second is that even for those citizens who fall within the “15 year rule” the system for voting from abroad is so obtuse, unaided by our consulates, that less than 5% do. Citizens that do endeavour to contact their consulate or UK constituency of prior residence will be sent a postal vote which they are given less than a week to complete in most cases.
It would be quite wrong to for the Coalition Government to continue with the view that a nation which once commanded a vast global Empire and continues to trade and do business with great strength and relevance internationally, should pay little to no regard to its ex-pat citizens.
In 2010 Dominic Grieve QCMP, now Attorney General, told the Bow Group that “Lord Ashcroft made his fortune abroad – Labour see that as abhorrent, we see that as British – the Victorians would be turning in their grave at the current situation. I cannot think of any other country that treats its foreign citizens this way – we grant them almost pariah status”
At the last general election only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan, though nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Few citizens within the UK deserve greater support and a greater say.
A recent Parliamentary exchange between Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Sir Peter Bottomley underlined the gravity and lack of knowledge that abounds the issue of British citizenry abroad:
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): “At present, according to the ONS electoral statistics some 5.6 million British subjects live abroad, of which it is estimated that some 4.3 million are of voting age. But in December 2011 a mere 23,388 overseas voters were registered to vote, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): “Will my hon. Friend give those figures again? Did he say 23,000 out of 4 million?”
It is when we compare to our European and western neighbours that the British system begins to look particularly decrepit.
The largest Polish voting booth is at the Polish Embassy in London, at a Bow Group event last month former Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he was particularly glad to be in London, Australia’s largest single constituency. The United States has always enshrined that by virtue of being granted US citizenship: “forever an American and forever an interest in the country of your birth”.
It did make headlines in the UK recently that France has created a parliamentary constituency covering London and northern Europe, because of the now hundreds of thousands of French voters in London deemed to require representation in their mother parliament.
The French and Italians have several dedicated seats in their parliaments for ex-pat representation, and on this issue in 2010 the current Attorney General gave the following view: “The French attitude is that their foreign citizens have something to contribute, the British have been far more mean minded, and indeed short sighted. We might want to consider an overseas representation system, similar to Italy and France.”
The often promoted view of the Brit abroad as a lager swilling yob or leathery costa criminal has never been a true depiction of our ex-pat citizenry; most are excellent ambassadors for Britain and British interests.
Many Brits still retire abroad in the quest for the good life in twilight years, and the vast majority do so after having contributed considerably to the UK economy and society. The increasing trend in the ex-pat community is however towards those pursuing business and professional interests abroad. As a relatively young man I have lived, studied and done business abroad for 4 years of my life, for those of my generation and younger, it seems inevitable that this will become an increasingly common experience.
2000 years ago a Roman citizen could stride bravely into the world with the proud quote “Civus Romanus Sum”, Lord Palmerston acknowledged this in 1850, arguing “Every British Subject in the world should be protected by the British Empire like a Roman citizen in the Roman Empire.”
We fail to acknowledge at our peril that our greatest allies abroad, as a party and as a nation, are us.