UK elections come and go, but some things remain the same. Namely, my not being able to vote in a UK election. It is strange how feelings associated with citizenship can be so diametrically opposed. In 2017, I was so proud to have been able to participate in the French presidential elections. I felt a sense of belonging, of togetherness as I passed the entrance of the “Lycée Français de la Haye,” the French school in The Hague. The politics did not matter because the feeling of not being forgotten primed over political preferences. In comparison, the UK has let me down and forgotten me, and it is exceedingly annoying.
In 2016, Harry Schindler, a 94-year-old WWII veteran who fought in the Italy campaign against fascism, lost an appeal in the high court that would have allowed British citizens who had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years, to vote in the EU referendum.
The Conservative party’s 2017 election manifesto contained a promise to extend votes to all British citizens living abroad, regardless of their time spent away from the UK. In 2018, the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was presented to parliament as a Private Member’s Bill by Conservative MP, Glyn Davies. Labour was opposed to the bill on the grounds that,
Abolishing the 15-year rule would completely overstretch electoral administrators who have described the sector as ‘pushed to the limit.’
But the way that the bill was defeated defies reason and, more importantly, democracy. Here follows the official account of what happened to the Overseas Electors Bill, as reported by the House Of Commons Library,
The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was a Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, which sought to end the 15-year time limit and therefore fulfilling the Government’s manifesto commitment. It was drafted with the assistance of the Government. The Bill was presented and given a first reading on 19 July 2017 and it was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018. It completed its committee stage without amendment. Report stage was held on Friday 22 March but the Bill made no further progress.
The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was a Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, which sought to end the 15-year time limit and therefore fulfilling the Government’s manifesto commitment. It was drafted with the assistance of the Government.
The Bill was presented and given a first reading on 19 July 2017 and it was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018. It completed its committee stage without amendment. Report stage was held on Friday 22 March but the Bill made no further progress.
What the report does not mention relates to how the bill was defeated.
On 22 March, the bill was at the Report Stage, giving the opportunity for MP’s to amend the bill that has been examined in committee. As with all Private Member’s bills, the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 had a limited time to be discussed during a parliamentary session and can be “talked out” by those who oppose it.
“Talking out,” or “filibustering,” is a rather quaint English custom whereby MP’s who do not want a bill to pass during its alloted time can effectively waste time by talking nonsense until there is no more time to proceed further. This is exactly what happened to the bill that would have allowed me to vote. Interestingly, it was not Labour who talked the bill out, but the Conservative MP and member of the pro-Brexit European Research group, Philip Davies. He managed to finish the list of amendments that he had copied from Labour, with 10 minutes to go on the clock, allowing supporters of the bill – who were conspicuous by their absence from the chamber – little time to make concluding statements.
Thank you Harry, for having risked your life in order to preserve democracy and freedom of movement. That we may not be allowed to vote in referendums and elections that may affect us, is not only an affront to democracy, but an insult to all those who gave up their lives whilst fighting alongside Harry. Giving British expats a vote for life was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto. Instead of honouring their promises, the Conservatives have managed to usurp democracy by skillfully denying a Private Member’s Bills the opportunity to pass into law. But I ask myself why the pledge to give British expats the vote was proposed as a Private Member’s Bill in the first place, with the knowledge that very few such bills get incorporated into law.
The failure to give British expats the right to vote goes hand in hand with the reticence to lower the voting age to sixteen for an EU referendum. Our rights have been suppressed by internal party politics, particularly the fear that our votes would support political parties in favour of Remain at the forthcoming general election, and the option to remain if a second referendum were organised.
All of this is water under the bridge now, and I’ll be interested to find out whether the subject of British expats dipping their sunburned fingers into the English political soup, will come up this time around. The Conservatives have said that they are committed to ending the 15-year limit. I somehow do not believe them and, if they are committed, they will probably only incorporate their committment as a foot-note to their election manifesto. It is just too dangerous for the Conservatives and Brexit, to give back to foreigners their right to vote in a UK election.