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As Scotland decides, not all Scots get a say

Foreign residents can cast ballots, but Scots who live abroad cannot

by Alistair Smout

Reuters

Ruth McPherson was born and educated in Scotland but left to work in London two years ago and so has no say on whether her native country should end three centuries of union with England.

Over a million Scots like McPherson living outside the land of their birth can take no part in a Sept. 18 referendum on breaking from the rest of Britain, while 1 in six of those who can vote were not born in Scotland. That has fueled a debate on just what it means to be Scottish in the 21st century.

“It’s ridiculous,” said McPherson, 26. Born in Inverness and brought up in nearby Elgin in the north, she studied in the capital, Edinburgh, before following generations of compatriots south of the English border for a job in publishing.

“I will be a Scottish citizen if the ‘yes’ vote goes through,” she said. “It seems ridiculous that you can be a Scottish citizen without being able to take part in this decision.”

Many like her who expect to return home to live one day find it galling to be excluded from the decision, now just two months away, that will have huge and lasting implications for Scotland’s $250 billion economy and 5.2 million people.

Others, firmly settled in England or EU countries on the Continent, worry their rights in their adopted homes could be undermined by Scotland’s official intention of claiming them automatically as citizens of a new state that is not guaranteed EU membership.

That was the basis of a legal complaint to the European Commission, demanding a vote in the referendum, by expatriates who noted that Britain lets citizens living abroad vote in its national elections. The challenge, however, made little headway.

In agreeing to be bound by the result, both the separatists who run the devolved Scottish executive and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government adopted a definition of who can vote based on Britain’s local election laws. These limit voting to residents, comprising not just Britons but any citizen of the European Union or the Commonwealth of former British colonies.

That openness underpins a claim by the left-leaning Scottish National Party (SNP) to be offering an inclusive, welcoming brand of nationalism, far removed from the racial, “blood and soil” varieties that disfigured 19th- and 20th-century Europe.

‘New kind of nationalism’

The numbers of those included and excluded are significant. They reflect high mobility within modern Britain and the EU — hundreds of thousands of English and tens of thousands of Poles may vote — and centuries of emigration, even before union with England gave Scots a prominent role in Britain’s global empire.

Of the 1 million people born in Scotland who live elsewhere, equal to a hefty 20 percent of the resident population, over 700,000 are in England. Many think the nationalist leadership wanted to exclude them for fear they will more likely vote no. As it is, polls suggest a yes to independence is a long shot.

For the SNP, however, the reason for defining the electorate as anyone over 15 who registers permanent residence in Scotland by Sept. 2 is to focus on those who have committed to a future in the country, which the party argues will be more prosperous and more socially egalitarian than under rule from London.

“It’s a new kind of nationalism,” said Christian Allard, a Frenchman who sits for the SNP in the Scottish parliament. “A nationalism that has nothing to do with where you are born, or what accent you have or what religion or culture you belong to.”

More than 650,000 people born outside Scotland will be entitled to vote in September — over 15 percent of the electorate.

“It’s totally normal that the people who live here in Scotland have got the right to vote. We want to have that,” said Allard, 50, who came to Scotland from Dijon 30 years ago and was elected to the 15-year-old Edinburgh parliament in 2011.

Unlike McPherson, he can vote in the referendum and looks forward to being officially Scottish, as he has never taken British citizenship, he cannot vote for the British parliament. Nor has he exercised his right to vote in France since. He says that should be for people who make their lives there.

“It is about where you live and where you decide and choose to live and have children and grandchildren,” Allard said, his French accent leaving no doubt of his roots far from Edinburgh.

He represents northeast Scotland, where he spent years in the fishing industry, and has become a symbol in himself of SNP efforts to distance itself from racial nationalism and hostility to the English, stirred in popular culture by films such as “Braveheart” that recall medieval wars between the neighbors.

“The Scottish National Party over the last 50 years has proceeded to transform itself into less of a blood and soil nationalist party — a ‘Braveheartism,’ if you will — to civic nationalism,” said Tom Devine, a professor of Scottish history at Edinburgh University.

The referendum voting rules fit that pattern, he said: “There’s an attempt to demonstrate their civic nationalist credentials, rather than the kind of nationalism which has scarred Europe in the 20th century.”

Courting immigrants

First Minister Alex Salmond has put immigration at the heart of the SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland, forecasting growth and prosperity for a country with less than a tenth of Britain’s total population but a third of its territory. One poll this month, however, suggested most Scots, in common with other Britons, would prefer to see immigration reduced.

Nationalists court the votes of foreign-born residents like Allard as well as Scots-born voters from ethnic minorities, notably from the fast-growing, 140,000-strong Asian community.

There is little reliable polling data on how they, or the hundreds of thousands of English living in Scotland, will vote. Polls do suggest that, across the board, voters identifying themselves less as Scottish and more as British favor a no.

Researchers at Stirling University concluded that those born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland — the biggest group born outside Scotland — are about 20 percent less likely to vote for independence. There has, though, been a small but vocal yes campaign by “English Scots,” English-born residents who see economic and political benefits from separation for everyone in Scotland.

‘Lice, rats and Scotchmen’

There has been well publicized support for independence from some Scots abroad, notably from perhaps the world’s most famous living Scotsman, James Bond actor Sean Connery. However, as a resident of the sunny tax haven of the Bahamas, he cannot vote.

How many other people around the world see themselves as Scots is hard to say. Tom Devine, who runs the Scottish Center for Diaspora Studies, estimates that from the end of World War II to the turn of the century around 800,000 Scots left the British Isles, with up to 800,000 more moving to England.

“The Scots have been nomadic people since the 13th century,” he said, recalling an old French saying of that time: “Lice, rats and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere.”

In the Americas, where an ill-fated attempt to grab a slice of malarial Caribbean coast brought the national bankruptcy that precipitated the 1707 union with England, early Scots colonists were numerous from Nova Scotia to the Deep South of the United States. In 2012, 5.3 million Americans identified themselves as Scottish, with millions more claiming some Scottish ancestry.

Canada, New Zealand and Australia are home to large numbers who look to Scotland as an ancestral homeland.

For all the furor over voting rights, Salmond is a frequent world traveler, notably to the annual New York “Tartan Week,” and misses no opportunity to promote independence while abroad, emphasizing his hope that the large, global diaspora can play a part in making an independent Scotland a success.

Foreign-born voters

That history of emigration belies a marked trend of inward migration to Scotland in recent years, on a scale hardly seen since arrivals from Ireland during the 1800s. This has added to small Italian, Jewish and Polish communities established in the past century.

The 2011 census showed that about one-sixth of Scotland’s population were not born there, with the biggest increase among Poles, a factor common across Britain since Poland and other ex-communist eastern European states joined the EU a decade ago. Devine estimated there may be 100,000 Poles resident in Scotland.

An urban society, the English language, traditions of world trade, industry and research contribute to Scotland’s draw.

Management consultant Robbie Gibbons, 31, originally from Glasgow but who has lived and worked in London and Singapore for 13 years, said East Europeans who have settled in his hometown over the past decade are more entitled to a vote than he is. “Those people have actively chosen to be there in a way that I haven’t,” he said from London.

He acknowledged some mixed feelings about not taking part in the referendum, but accepted that it makes sense: “There’s an emotional pull on one side, which says, ‘This is my country and I want to be part of this.’ And then there’s a rational side which says, ‘Well, actually, I have chosen not to make my life there.’ “

Some British politicians have argued that voters across the United Kingdom, including in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, should vote. But both the British and Scottish governments have rejected this, saying independence is an issue for Scotland.

“What if Scotland voted to leave and the rest of the U.K. voted not to let them,” asked Gibbons. “What do we have then? War?”

Despite Salmond’s assurances that independence can end centuries of what the SNP calls economic mismanagement from London and bring riches based on a large share of Britain’s North Sea oil, Ruth McPherson in London is not convinced. If fellow Scots say yes in a vote in which she cannot take part, she may change her plans of an eventual return home.

“Quality of life is better, the health system is better, free education,” she said of the things she values in Scotland. “We’ve got it quite good at the moment. . . . I don’t know if we should throw that all away and risk everything for independence.”