Maria Miller is MP for Basingstoke and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee.
Anniversaries are a useful way of celebrating how far we have travelled, but also of remembering how far we have yet to go. In 2018, we as a nation celebrate the 100th anniversary of British women being given the right to vote. But extending the political franchise to women in 1918 was merely the first step in the process of empowering half of Britain’s mainland population. For example, many of the key news stories of 2017 underscored how far we have yet to go in the process of correcting the inequality and injustices women continue to face. A similar injustice still persists regarding Britain’s expatriate population. However, a Private Member’s Bill being introduced on Friday 23rd February may prove to be the first step in re-enfranchising and empowering the millions of Britons working, studying or living abroad.
Millions of British citizens stripped of the right to vote
Currently, Britons who have been overseas for 15 years automatically lose their right to vote in General Elections and referendums. The right to vote, hard-fought to be secured by and for our citizens from Magna Carta to the Suffragettes, thus automatically expires as a result of the 15-year limit imposed by section 141(a) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000.
Just under nine per cent of UK citizens live abroad, which amounts to around five and a half million of our fellow countrymen and women. We do not know precisely how many have been living abroad for longer than 15 years – and have therefore been stripped of their right to vote – because the UK keeps no records of its citizens living abroad. But we can estimate with some confidence that at least a couple of million UK citizens remain deprived of that basic democratic right.
Flying the flag for Britain overseas, but without a voice
Most UK citizens living abroad are there to work. Some are retired, some are students. Many work for a British company overseas, send children to British schools, pay for nursing care for elderly parents in Britain, and in many cases fully intend to return to Britain. But their ability to have a say on issues affecting their future – by voting – is arbitrarily withdrawn at the stroke of 15 years.
Many of our citizens overseas may be active in promoting British business and ‘soft power’ interests, through energetic and informed participation in business groups, chambers of commerce, educational institutions, or through engaging with their host governments and civil society, and using their in-depth knowledge and experience to support the in-country work of British diplomats and our government representatives. As our nation gears up for its post-Brexit future, engaging and empowering our citizens overseas to help with this endeavour is more important than ever.
A cross-party obligation to right this wrong
There are thus moral and common-sense, practical reasons for engaging all our citizens in our electoral processes. The UK, of all countries, home of the Mother of Parliaments, need hardly have to make a case for democracy itself – we simply need to apply the principles of democracy to all our citizens. In the main, UK citizens living abroad maintain strong links with the UK. Modern technology makes it easier than ever before for UK citizens abroad to keep in touch with what is happening back home. UK citizens abroad should be able to have their say in elections, since they continue to be affected by many decisions of Parliament in much the same way as citizens resident within the UK.
The logic behind these reasons transcends political boundaries. Politically, the Conservative Party has long led the way in extending the franchise, but the Whig, Liberal and Labour Parties have also contributed to the process of parliamentary reform and political enfranchisement.
This support continues today, with one of the key voices for the repeal of the so-called ’15-year rule’ coming in the shape of Harry Shindler. The 96-year-old South Londoner has been an ardent Labour Party member since 1934, and is highly decorated for his efforts in the Allied liberation of Italy. As a long-term resident in Italy, Harry’s current battle is to help liberate the millions of his fellow British expatriates who have been denied their voices in our electoral processes.
The Conservative Party promised in its manifesto for the 2015 General Election to introduce votes for life, scrapping the 15-year rule. That promise was confirmed in the 2017 manifesto, in the name of “a flourishing and secure democracy”. It featured in the Queen’s Speech in 2016 but not in 2017. There has not yet been a Votes For Life Bill debate in Parliament.
British citizens living abroad are now pinning their hopes on the Private Member’s Bill being introduced by my colleague Glyn Davies this coming Friday, which is sponsored by Labour’s Mike Gapes, and has support from MPs across the parties. But to get anywhere, it needs support in the House on that day.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of achieving votes for women, let us remember those overseas citizens who are currently denied that right: let us ensure that our nation’s MPs use this Private Member’s Bill as the first step towards correcting this injustice, and let us empower our citizens who are flying the flag for Britain overseas.