Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

The Franchise

The blog Julian’s  Musings has recently been discussing “Universal suffrage” and this has had me trying to clamber through my thoughts about “entitlement to the vote”.

Julian noted:

Foreign nationals (apart from citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth countries resident in Britain) cannot vote, and I think this broadly correct. However, if we were to rigorously adopt the principle of no taxation without representation then there is a valid argument for giving the vote to those foreigners who work here. After all, what is the real difference between an Australian and an Austrian? The Austrian can vote in our local and European elections, can work and pay his taxes, yet has no say in how those taxes are spent.

The principle of “no taxation without representation” surely applies to citizens. If I (a UK national) lived in Germany and did not like their taxes, I can go home – out of the jurisdiction of the German tax system. If however, I am resident in the UK and do not like the UK tax system, (i) I do not necessarily have anywhere to go, and (ii) as a citizen I should have a say and it should not potentially be over-ridden by non-citizens (who in theory can go home).

Non citizens have limited protection against an oppressive tax regime by having the option of leaving and this should moderate the policy makers.

Julian then responded:

… my Australian/Austrian example applies to General elections only, which does beg another question: why the difference? Why should someone be able to vote in local elections (where their vote has greater power) and not in national elections?

This is an interesting point and partly unsettles my first comment.

I have argued that foreign nationals should not be allowed to vote in UK elections (and vice versa). I am on slightly tricky ground in that part of my argument is saying “this is my country, and I – together with my fellow citizens – should be allowed to determine how it is run”. This might be thought of as border-line xenophobic – but if the concept of “country” is to have a meaning, there also has to be a concept of “citizenship” (whose country is it?) and ultimately the citizens have to be allowed to determine who runs the country. (And who can make binding treaties that restrict how the country can operate – let’s not bring the EU sovereignty issue into this debate!)

Restricting the franchise to citizens rather than mere residents seems to me to be sensible. The alternative is that a non-citizen group could take control of a country. This is not fanciful – I think it has been a concern in the Baltic states where there is/was a substantial non-native Russian population.

Julian Ware-Lane’s “General elections only” challenge then comes into play. The logic of my position should say that foreign nationals should not be allowed to vote in local elections either. So the natives of Earls Court can sleep easy! But I am not a “native” of the county in which I am (to use my words) a “mere resident” – so should I (an English UK citizen) be allowed to vote in the (English) council elections where I live? In “my county” development and housing is a key issue; natives tend to be against, but non-natives like me tend to be more tolerant of proposals for new housing. Us immigrants may swamp the local opinion – and I am not sure that is right.

(And whilst we are on the matter, if this Englishman (native of a southern English county) happened to live in say, Edinburgh, should he be allowed to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum?)

Part of my quandary would be solved if I could become a “citizen” of the county where I currently reside by some form of local naturalisation (reflecting a period of qualifying residency, a commitment to the county – and a renunciation of my previous county affiliation). However that option is not open to me and I will forever be a “comer-in”. In the absence of “local naturalisation” my argument should say that I should not be voting in local elections. General Elections are OK – I’m English/UK, European Elections are OK – I’m European (according to my last passport!).

I’m not sure that the “franchise” boils down to “no taxation without representation”. I think it is more a case of entitlement to “a say about the place where I belong”.

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