Scottish Independence – Who gets to vote?

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.

11 responses to “Scottish Independence – Who gets to vote?

  1. Vicky,

    Some interesting thoughts. Scottishness is such a hard thing to define. It is a bit like being British. Do I get a vote? My Mother is Scottish. Does she get a vote? She doesn’t live there though. All interesting question to which I do not think Salmond has an answer much like his view of an defence of a an independent Scotland.

  2. Ross,

    Defence is a whole other topic. Technically, the army serves the head of state – the Queen – not the government. Therefore, if Scotland should become a separate country, the current royal family will continue to rule Scotland because the Queen is the successor of James VI of Scotland and I of England (ignoring those that see another dynasty from the Stuarts). The Scottish regiments could then continue to serve as part of a ‘British’ army as they did between the Restoration in 1660 and the Union of 1707 (as established in my PhD thesis!). The issue of a separate army will only become relevant should the Scots decide to become a republic as well. If Scotland does become independent and a republic, and then form a separate army, it will be interesting to see how many Scots currently serving in English regiments will transfer to a new Scottish army. Will there be enough jobs for them or will there be a repeat of seventeenth Scottish mercenaries seeking employment elsewhere (England included)? Will the English/Welsh/Irish serving in Scottish regiments be forced to leave? Will that contravene EU employment laws? Questions, questions…

  3. It’s oddly disturbing to witness the possible dissolution of a Union and an army that I’ve just spent seven years studying the creation of. I feel as if this could be volume two!

  4. I’m not sure that it depends upon the republican question, though. The Queen is the Australian monarch too, yet our military forces are completely separate from the UK’s. Perhaps the fact that in this case the path is union -> independence rather than colony -> independence make a difference. But I don’t see that there’s anything necessarily precluding Scotland from remaining a monarchy yet having its own military. Of course, I am not a lawyer!

    RUSI published an interesting article on ‘The security implications of Scottish independence’ last year, though it’s mostly from the perspective of the UK, not Scotland.

    • Brett – good point. The interesting part will be the navy. At the Union, Scotland had the grand total of three ships, will they want to take those along with the nominally Scottish regiments? And if not those exact ships, will Scotland want the equivalent in today’s ships? How do you go about working out what the equivalent is?!

      • There has been a recent comment that despite any position the SNP may have on nuclear weapons they may actually have to stay there in the medium term. This is because while berths can be found easily in either Plymouth or Portsmouth it will be more difficult to store the warheads. A new purpose built storage facility will have to be built. We may actually end up in a situation akin to the Treaty Ports that we had with the Irish Free State. Not what I think the SNP would want.

      • Vicky: ‘equivalent’ is a word that made my ears prick up! I’m sure you’re familiar with the original use of the term in the Treaty of Union. The argument over that equivalent went on for a long time after 1707, which doesn’t bode well for a modern one. Perhaps just as tricky will be the new carriers, much of which are being built north of the border.
        And while I know that regional recruiting isn’t what it used to be, am I wrong in thinking that the Scottish regiments are still more than just ‘nominally’ Scottish?

        Oddly enough, the current Tory policy on Scotland and the Union seems cunningly designed to a) please Tory supporters by being thoroughly pro-Union and to b) cause a ‘yes’ for Scottish independence by a large margin, by reminding many Scots just why they dislike the Tories and Westminster so much!

  5. Who owns the Union? On the basis that member nations of the Union are stakeholders perhaps the voters of the United Kingdom should all get a say?

    Mind you, on that basis, the voters of Scotland would have to vote against by a considerable margin because England’s proletariat will go 7-3 for Scotland’s ‘independance’ if I remember correctly (newspaper poll).

    • Simon – this is what I find slightly puzzeling. The end of the Union effects all members of Great Britain, but neither Scotland, Whitehall nor the media seem to feel that the people of England, Wales or Northern Ireland should have a voice. Couldn’t seperate referendums be held and the results examined as percentages?

      • PS – oddly the only place also asking these questions is the London edition of the Metro (not my sole source of information, of course!) One Robert Hubbard of London N10 wrote in for Friday 27th January’s edition: “Alex Salmond says people living in Scotland should decide on Scottish independence, but it affects people living outside Scotland. Bizarrely, people from England – and any other nationality – on the electoral roll in Scotland will be able to vote on something that might have less permanent consequences for them.” More succinctly, a texted comment read: “Alex Salmond, jog on. There will be one yes vote and it’ll be yours. Half the country has no idea what you’re on about.”

  6. My nationality is British. My paternal grandfather was also British but a Scotsman; my maternal grandmother was also British but an Irishwoman my other grandparents were both British, but also English i.e. my maternal gr’andfather and my paternal grandmother. In view of these facts I claim the right to vote in any referendum which could lead to the breakup of the UK. This argument must apply to thousands of people around the UK and elsewhere in the world. This is what is called democracy!

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