British enough for the vote? From ‘True Brits’ to no representation without taxation in the Overseas’ Electors debate

By Michaela Benson, Chantelle Lewis and Katherine Collins

I offer my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill forward … Does he agree with me that in this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing most apply to voters of over 15 years’ longevity abroad? This could open up the franchise to another 1 million people. It must be the correct thing to do … it is a disgrace for certain Labour Members to try to deny the vote to women who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years. —Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP (Con)

On 23rd February 2018, the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 – which proposes that British citizens should have the right to vote in British elections throughout their lives regardless of the number of years they’ve lived abroad – passed its second reading.

Wrapped up in symbols and stereotypes, with a cast of characters that included Emmeline Pankhurst and Harry Shindler, the meaning of ‘Britishness’ was at the heart of the debate as it played out for an hour and a half on the floor of the House. What seemed to be at stake was not so much the question of whether it was practical to extend the vote to UK Citizens living overseas, but whether the British abroad could be considered British enough (and whether the British abroad contribute enough to life in the UK) to be granted suffrage.

Arguing in favour of the bill, the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said that allowing British citizens to keep their voting rights spoke to the fundamental question of British identity. Other MPs agreed.

On the other side of the chamber, MPs speaking in opposition to the bill conceptualised Britishness not as an identity, a history, a loyalty and connection to Britain, but as a particular form of contributory citizenship. In other words, they argued that in order to earn the right to political representation in Britain, people must contribute to British society by paying tax in Britain. Perhaps the image of the UK citizen living abroad that underpinned this position was the stereotype of the wealthy tax exile?

Whichever way the debate turned, it became clear that it was haunted by imaginaries of British democracy and patriotism, and conflicting imaginings of the British abroad.

‘True Brits’

My hon. Friend mentioned the example of 97-year-old Labour voter and activist Harry Shindler, who fought in the Battle of Anzio in 1944. People like him gave so much for this country; we should pass this Bill and give them back their vote in return—Chris Skidmore MP (Con) [emphasis added]

The bill’s supporters drew on two symbols of British democracy and patriotism: Emmeline Pankhurst and Harry Shindler. 2018 is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised men over 21, and women over 30 who owned property (or whose husbands did), and as part of a broader argument that disenfranchisement is fundamentally unjust, women’s suffrage campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst was mobilised as a (gendered) symbol of Great British democracy. A democracy that, as proponents of the Overseas’ Electors Bill present it, the country is falling through its refusal to fully enfranchise UK citizens living overseas. Caught up in this are imaginaries of the demos framed by a firmly held belief that people are born British and die British.

Harry Shindler, a 97-year-old UK citizen resident in Italy, is a living and breathing symbol of this conception of lifelong Britishness. The elderly campaigner for overseas voting rights has repeatedly petitioned the UK government to extend the vote for life, and took the government to court about the decision to use parliamentary franchise to determine voter eligibility in the UK’s referendum on their membership of the EU in June 2016. He is a veteran of WWII and lifelong supporter of the Labour Party. Those advocating this change in legislation use Harry Shindler’s case to reaffirm what it means to be British abroad. Schindler is represented as an untouchable, admirable and honourable British subject who deserves the right to vote because of his contribution and lifelong investment to the UK.

I want Harry Shindler, and the millions of expats like him who are proudly British, who take a keen interest in this country and regard it as their mother country, who have children and grandchildren living here, and who may well want to return to vote but wish to vote while they are overseas as well, to have that right … It is a good measure that redresses an injustice and its time has come—Sir Roger Gale MP (Con)

The argument for extending franchise of UK citizens living abroad was further wrapped up in the language of ‘soft power’. British citizens should unreservedly keep their British voting rights simply because they are British; British citizens have the right to live overseas and remain politically affiliated with Britain. What’s more, these citizens are also exerting influence on behalf of Britain – they should be valued because their Britishness serves the nation.

Britain’s soft power – that important exercise of British influence throughout the world – is greatly benefited by British citizens in British businesses overseas being active in British politics through voting for Members of this House, who then develop their views, opinions and influence – Glyn Davies MP (Con)

While Harry Shindler served the nation through his military service during the second world war, it was argued, UK citizens living overseas today can do their part as lay ambassadors for Britain; we should harness the untapped potential within this diasporic population, the vote for life is the first step in this direction. Undoubtedly, this rhetoric is caught up in considerable colonial nostalgia about British influence abroad.

No representation without taxation

The 13 North American colonies south of the Great Lakes fought a bloody war of independence from the jurisdiction of this place largely on the basis of the slogan, “No taxation without representation”. That was a very good point—a fundamental constitutional point. It was wrong that they should have been forced to pay taxes but have absolutely no say in what those taxes should be. Perhaps, if the voices of reason in Britain at the time had been listened to, the Americans might not have felt the need to leave British jurisdiction … I would like to suggest that the slogan, “No taxation without representation”, works perfectly well the other way round: “No representation without taxation”—Sandy Martin MP (Lab)

In opposition, a different image of the British abroad was mobilised. This image—that places a question mark over whether UK citizens overseas pay tax—is one that we are all too familiar with. It draws on an understanding of what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be British, focussed on a model of (financial) contribution. In this debate as in previous iterations of the bill, this is set within a broader concern about who the UK parliament represents, and particularly questions about whether 16-17 year olds, and non-citizen populations should be given the right to vote. And yet, this points to the proliferation of stereotypes about UK citizens who live overseas.

We wouldn’t be surprised if UK citizens living abroad took umbrage to this characterisation of their lives. Many of them continue to be taxed in the UK; bilateral tax arrangements permit this, and there are some forms of income, which have to be taxed in the UK before they can be exported. The majority of UK citizens living overseas are not in the habit of offshoring their funds and income—this is likely restricted to a very privileged few. Indeed, the contribution from Labour Sandy Martin MP similarly scaffolds a case for all those UK citizens living abroad who continue to pay tax in the UK to argue more emphatically for their right to vote to be extended. We should also state that this is just one of the many misrepresentations of UK citizens living abroad that peppered the debate.

But what is really interesting to us here is the way in which British democracy is linked to questions of contributions to Britain. Past contributions are, it seems, erased in this presentation; all that matters is what people contribute in the present. Patriotism has a rather shorter horizon in this rendering of citizenship than in that presented by supporters of the bill. While we can see how this argument might logically be extended to support a broader enfranchisement of those living in the UK – whether they are citizens or otherwise – in respect to the UK citizen population living overseas the question of contribution is rather a moot point.

The debate beyond Britishness?

Other factors pertinent to the debate were sidelined by the predominant focus on questions of whether the British abroad are British enough to be enfranchised. In particular, and as Cat Smith MP made clear, there are outstanding issues about the integrity of the voter registration system; concerns over how to scale up low voter registration in the UK and the resource required to do this; and budget cuts within local authorities who currently manage voter registration.

We should also be clear that while there has been a considerable increase in the numbers of overseas voters registered (this currently stands at 285,000, while prior to 2015 this had never risen about 35,000), there are still relatively low levels of voter registration among UK citizens living overseas. That there are currently no dedicated representatives who work for the rights of overseas citizens within the UK parliament might be one explanation for these low levels of registration.

Conclusion

The debate about overseas voting that took place on 23rd February 2018, focussed on questions of identity and belonging, and the question of whether UK citizens living abroad are sufficiently British enough to maintain the right to vote. This is evident as much in an opposition framed around questions of who British democracy represents as it is in the romanticised and nostalgic language in the proponents of the bill. Proponents for the bill argued that Britishness was not ceded at the border, and that it was the democratic right of these overseas populations to maintain the right to vote on issues of national significance. Opponents conceptualised Britishness as a particular form of contributory citizenship, depicting UK citizens overseas as not paying taxes in the UK and therefore not entitled to having a say in UK parliamentary politics.

Such positions echo those taken in support and opposition to previous iterations of this bill. They reveal how this bill and others like it are sites at which Britishness is contested, and the relationship of these notions of Britishness to law and democratic representation. And although the bill passed this second reading, it seems likely that as it progresses through parliament it will continue to be haunted by imaginaries of British democracy and patriotism with consequences for its ultimate success.

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