Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Vote, vote, vote for the anomalies? 

Great excitement on LibDem blogs (here and here for example)on UK voting rights. Should non-UK citizens be able to vote in all UK elections, and indeed stand for Parliament?

Logic says no, and yet there is a lesson from history that may be relevant in the near future if things go pear-shaped across England’s various borders.

Until very recently of course there was no such thing as UK Citizenship, the important thing was to be a ‘British Subject’. And until the 1920's the vote depended on property qualifications, not being an universal right. The complications really started when the Irish Free State was established as independent of the United Kingdom. Until 1949 Ireland was actually a Monarchy (the King being the same person as the King of England) though after de Valera came to office in 1936 the Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch was abolished and all mention of the King in official documents and the constitution were removed – without actually removing George VIth from his position as Head of State. As was remarked later in another context, an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

One consequence of this was that Irish Citizens were in fact British Subjects, and when resident in the UK were able to register to vote. Universal non-property based suffrage was quite a new idea at the time so perhaps the anomaly didn’t seem so outstanding. This was not unusual – for example until 1945 Canada did not even have its own passports, Canadian citizens carrying British ones.

When Ireland became a Republic in 1949 nobody seems to have bothered to correct the UK voting anomaly.

This strange state of affairs meant that the tense relations over the status of Northern Ireland were played out in a state of citizenship pass the parcel. There was no need to apply tests of citizenship to Irish residents of the United Kingdom before they could exercise the vote, so fewer excuses for bureaucratic friction. In Northern Ireland the Republican population could have it both ways, expressing loyalty to a foreign state while having some civic rights in another. If they had been totally excluded from the vote (instead of being gerrymandered into impotence) the position with 40% of the population being foreigners might have been even more explosive. In the rest of britain there was no need to carry out checks on Irish people to find if they tended to a Republic or non-Republic outlook.

So now then – what happens if Scotland (and perhaps Wales) become independent of England? Will Welsh people resident in Scotland who do not want to be Scottish citizens lose the right to vote in Scotland? Will I have to take English citizenship in order to keep on voting in Milton Keynes even though I may be Welsh? And Scots in England?

It may be that we need to extend the creative constitutional accountancy developed in the Irish-UK separation to such a situation, should it stumble into being, rather than falling into the hard logic of Migration Watch. The situation of Swedes and Mozamiquans being what it may.

Lest hope we dont get into such a mess!

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