While London and Edinburgh flex their symbolic muscles over who has the right to call a referendum for Scotland to leave Great Britain, I’ve been wondering about the practicalities of who gets the right to vote. Overlooking for a moment the SNP’s assumption that only Scots should be concerned with the matter of independence for Scotland, what no-one seems to yet be wondering is how ‘Scottishness’ should be defined. Nationality and identity are convoluted at the best of times but the potential end of the Union of Great Britain with this referendum makes the usual definer of nationality – passports – null and void, so forcing governments (whether in Edinburgh or London) to apply definitions of nationality that could prove controversial.
Will ‘Scottishness’ count as residence in Scotland for a certain number of years? This is how the SNP currently decide who gets free university education (currently set at three years residency regardless of nationality). Would then all the other nationalities that live and work in Scotland but don’t consider themselves Scottish be allowed to vote? Significantly, many who consider themselves Scottish but who live in other parts of Great Britain or the world would be excluded. If this is the definition chosen, residence will have to be set at longer than two years, or those wishing to affect the vote could begin residence now in time for the SNP’s suggested date of 2014. Also, how would residence be defined? Would PO Boxes, second homes or rented accommodation count?
Alternatively, should ‘Scottishness’ be limited to those born in Scotland or those with one or more parents or grandparents of Scottish birth? This would allow those Scots currently living abroad to vote and would follow the current pattern for parliamentary elections and referendums in which British subjects can register for proxy-votes or postal-votes. This is important as living and working abroad doesn’t mean a person doesn’t have an opinion or a right to voice that opinion in changes that affect their country.
Keeping this in mind, as the end of the Union would affect the remaining countries in Great Britain, should the people of those countries have an opportunity to voice their opinion? If not a right to vote in the referendum for or against Scottish independence, perhaps a parallel referendum could be held to establish whether the rest of Great Britain wants the Union to continue. Could there be any compromise if these referendums returned different results?
If we were to take a purist view (which I will because I think it’s an interesting, if somewhat academic, point), technically the people of Great Britain are British and ‘Scottishness’ as a nationality ended in 1707 with the Union Treaty. Therefore, if the SNP think only Scots can vote, perhaps potential voters should be found from those who 305 years ago had ancestors who were Scottish. Leaving aside the complications of defining nationality by residence (therefore including the Irish or English soldiers stationed in Scotland at the time of the Union) or birth (especially at a time when nationality was a vague and adaptable notion) this method of definition would provide a wider range of voters, including a significant number of people who, today, might not be considered or consider themselves Scottish – Prime Minister David Cameron and a large proportion of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand amongst them. Besides the extra income that would be generated for unemployed historians in the quest to find Scottish family, this isn’t a practical idea, but technically accurate.
Ultimately, I think the definition of ‘Scottishness’ that will be adopted will depend on who wins the current power-struggle to decide when a referendum will take place, but I think it’s interesting that who will take part has largely escaped general interest.
I’d be interested to know who you think should have the right to vote.