Colin Blackwell is Asia-Pacific Co-Ordinator of Conservatives Abroad and a former Chairman of its Hong Kong and its Singapore Branch.
Last week saw both Party leadership candidates release short video messages to British expatiates and overseas party members.
This makes sense when you realise that well over 1,000 ballots are being sent to expatriate Party members, and consider the success of Conservatives Abroad over recent years.
So what is going on here? Firstly, the lazy 1980’s assumption that expat Britons are all sunning themselves in warm retirement on some Spanish costa with limited ‘home thoughts from abroad’ needs to be completely debunked. The simple reality is that with changing patterns of work, an overseas posting for a few years is increasingly the norm and an integral part of a wide range of career paths.
In fact, a good proportion of ConservativeHome readers will themselves, or will have family members who, have spent part of their lives living overseas. So a substantial part of the expat population are now an ever changing dynamic group of working professionals, and the antithesis of the old, static, semi-retired Fleet Street caricature – just look at the huge number of Britons living in business cities such as New York, San Fransisco, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Back in 2006 the Institute of Public Policy estimated the overseas British population at over 5.5 million, so with modest growth since, it is not unreasonable to assume that the number of Britons outside the UK is now approximately ten per cent of the number of Britons living in the UK. Further we know that approximately one million of these live in the EU27, with the remaining 4.5 million plus in the rest of the non-EU world – a split that has interesting post-Brexit potential.
During their messages, both candidates emphasised the soft power reality of the British expat around the world as ambassadors and champions for the United Kingdom, living embodiment of ‘global Britain’. This is important recognition of the reality ministers and MPs find on their travels as they interact with Britons overseas.
So what do expats need politically? Top of the list – and one of Conservatives Abroad’s key campaigns – is ‘votes for life’ and the reversal of Blair-era restrictions on overseas voting. This would further encourage the ever-growing number of votes cast from overseas, and help remove the uncertainty as to who has or has not got the right to vote.
This measure was taken up as party policy in both the 2015 and 2017 manifestos, and resulted in the Overseas Voters Bill which unfortunately fell with the calling of the 2017 General Election. Currently the cause has been championed in the Overseas Electors Bill, a Private Members Bill sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, and both leadership candidates have been asked to either support the Bill with Government time to ensure its passage or to commit to the policy in the next manifesto and parliament. Both have replied positively.
The above voting arrangements have always been based on expatriates being represented in the last constituency they either voted or lived in the UK, and has worked well despite some suggesting the need for something closer to the French system, where 11 deputies are specially elected to represent overseas French living in various global constituencies.
Another idea on similar lines would be for the new Prime Minister to appoint a Minister for Expatriates – specifically designed to not only represent and communicate with them, but also to harness and capture the immense range of talents and connectivity that this army of Global Britons represents. Many numerically-smaller numeric groups already have dedicated ministers. Perhaps a figure based in the Cabinet Office could best work across Government for the needs of such a large group, be it defending the existing rights of Britons living in the EU27, or seeking rebalancing in areas where EU law has left overseas Britons disadvantaged verses EU residents in terms of rights to, or fees for, various UK Government services.
In any case we are talking about a highly educated, professional and globally experienced group, a group of nearly ten per cent of British citizens. Any Government would be best to embrace them, rather than ignore them, at this historic crossroad.
The video messages by the two leadership candidates can be found here: