Our Expats are Ex citizens: The lost Conservative abroad

Monday, January 9, 2017
Ben Harris-Quinney


The Labour Party's statements in August on migration, delivered by shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant, were quite right. Bryant was correct to say that the United Kingdom "has no idea where its citizens are". But unsurprisingly it is a problem that permeated under the last Labour Government.

Migration and expat voting rights are inexorably linked. If citizens have the incentive to vote, they are likely to register their status of residence as well. Labour had a significant vested interest in changing the rules on migration and ex-pat voting. It did not want to let out a true reflection of the vast numbers of Brits that left the UK during the Blair years - compared to the amount of immigrants that came in. The party also knew that ex-pats have a tendency to vote Conservative with a 65 per cent bias.

The Representation of the People's Act, amended under the Blair government, states that citizens should not be required or even prompted to register with their local consulate upon taking up full or part time residence abroad. The act also states that no British citizen who has lived abroad for more than 15 years may vote or stand in UK elections.

The first result of this is that it is not possible to obtain accurate net migration figures, or accurate figures on how many Brits live abroad, or how many live in any particular country. The estimates run from five to 15 million expats, who are currently British citizens or could apply for UK citizenship. This is too considerable a percentage of our overall citizenry for a responsible government to lose track of.

The second outcome is that even for those people who fall within the 15-year rule; the system for voting from abroad is so obtuse - unaided by our consulates - that less than 5 per cent do. And, as a result, these people remain off the national migration statistics radar. Citizens that do endeavour to contact their consulate or UK constituency of prior residence will be sent a postal vote, which in most cases they are given seldom enough time to process - less than a week to complete the form in most cases.

While the coalition government is not guilty of creating this indefensible system, it has neglectfully continued with Labour's view that a nation that once commanded a vast global Empire, and continues to trade and do business with great strength and relevance internationally, should pay little to no regard to its expat citizens or the accuracy of its migration figures.

At the last general election, only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan although nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Few citizens within the UK deserve greater support and a greater say.

It is when we compare to our western neighbours that the UK system begins to look most decrepit and outdated.

The largest Polish voting booth in the world is at the Polish Embassy in London. At a Bow Group event last year, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he was "particularly glad to be in London, Australia's largest single constituency". The United States has always enshrined that by virtue of being granted US citizenship: "Forever an American and forever an interest in the country of your birth." These nations have a far better idea of where their citizens are and who is leaving, and entering, their countries on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.

The French and Italians have several dedicated seats in their parliaments for expat representation and on this issue in 2010 Dominic Greive, now Attorney General, gave the following view: "The French attitude is that their foreign citizens have something to contribute, the British have been far-more mean minded and indeed short sighted. We might want to consider an overseas representation system, similar to Italy and France."

The often promoted view of the UK resident abroad as a lager swilling yob or leathery costa criminal has never been a true depiction of our ex-pat citizenry; most are excellent ambassadors for Britain and British interests. Many Brits still retire abroad in the quest for the good life in twilight years and the vast majority do so after having contributed considerably to the UK economy - and society. The increasing trend in the expat community is, however, towards those pursuing business and professional interests abroad.

Not only is it central to the country's ability to police its boarders and record accurate migration statistics - it is fundamental to our democracy and identity as a nation to proudly grant freedom, protection and representation to our citizens everywhere; and fundamental to a citizen's identity to proudly accept it.

We fail to acknowledge at our peril that our greatest allies abroad, are us.

Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2013. Published online 09/01/2017.