I posted here a couple of days ago about how actor Alan Cumming has been told he can’t vote in the Scottish referendum as his Edinburgh flat isn’t his main residence. Some folk helpfully pointed out that the rules simply require residence in Scotland, but that doesn’t explain why Cumming can’t vote – there’s no reference to ‘main residence’ eligibility criteria laid out in the relevant Act, passed last year; that’s the Scottish Referendum Franchise Act.
I was interested not simply in the technicality; more, really, in the some of the issues raised by Cumming’s attempt to vote on the basis of his ‘residence’. As far as the technicality goes, though, the answer is surprisingly coherent. I was provided it by super-helpful officers from the Electoral Commission in Edinburgh and the Falkirk area Electoral Registration Office (so any errors below are definitely mine!).
The Franchise Act refers to the Representation of the People Act, 1983, which governs local government voter registration eligibility. The latter Act makes it clear that ‘residence’ means ‘main residence’ and provides additional criteria. The statute law stops there but there have been civil cases which have provided further definition and the Commission and ERO both let me know that such things as household bills, not owning another home, etc, are how they determine eligibility where it’s in any doubt. In cases where a person owns another residence outside the Council area, then the key test is whether they reside substantially at the address they’re trying to register at. It’s possible to live ‘substantially’ in two locations (and, indeed, to vote twice if both locations are in separate local authority areas) but the individual would need to show that they use each location pretty much equally. Students and people who have to travel regularly to do their job or represent people (like MPs) are in this latter group, for example. Tax exiles could apply, as far as I can see, but they’d have to prove to beady Electoral and ERO officials that Scotland did indeed constitute a main residence. Actually, I can think of a few who would likely qualify, so if anyone reading this thinks they might be affected, do ring me on 01324823200 and I’ll email you in confidence.
Cumming seems to have been caught by the fact that he’s only at his flat occasionally and so in spite of owning a property in Edinburgh it’s clearly not his ‘main residence’. It seems daft of him to blame anti-independence campaigners, as he does, for his inability to vote. If he’d voted, it would have been illegal since his declaration of main residence would have been untrue. Moreover, as a high-profile campaigner, he would almost certainly have been rumbled. That’s politics, bud. People don’t cheer you; they want to take you down. If Cumming’s hacked-off with anyone it should be whoever told him he could register.
Cumming’s complaint, though, made me think about famous folk who live outside Scotland but are keen Independence campaigners. Sean Connery, for example, has chosen to spend his life a long way from Scotland. His British knighthood looks ridiculous in view of his strident rejection of the idea of the UK state. He wants it all ways, regards Scotland through watery eyes but no personal buy-in at all, and comes out looking stupid. On the other hand, Cumming himself (and also quite a few prominent Scots earning their living elsewhere) seems different. It seems fair enough to me that Scots who at least harbour the hope that they might, one day, live in Scotland again should engage in the independence debate. They haven’t rejected the idea of living in Scotland; their often enormously successful lives have simply taken them elsewhere for now, and they still care profoundly about Scotland. That’s something we should be proud of rather than pissed off about.
Finally, on that note, I see that it’s often noted that the reason the local government register is being used for the franchise is that the SNP is aware that Scots in England (over 800k, apparently) and people who identify as ‘English’ in Scotland (around 400k, it is said) would mainly vote against independence and using the local register knocks out the former group. If you think about it, though, that doesn’t quite explain things, does it? I mean, it wasn’t simply up to the SNP. The Tories and Lib Dems, in UK government, and also Labour are well aware of the same figures, after all. So why didn’t they argue for the UK parliamentary register, which would have included everyone registered to vote in Scotland up to 15 years ago (perhaps including Cumming himself)?
It’s this. There are many, many people living abroad who retain UK parliamentary voting rights but who feel the same way as Cumming. Think about Canada, South Africa, Spain and all the rest. No-one amongst the non-SNP parties really knew how that would pan out – it might actually help the SNP. At least they knew the scale of the ‘local government register’ hit. So they let it go by. It was a neat move by the SNP, but it was in everyone’s interests to keep quiet about it. I harbour the hope that some staffer somewhere got credit, though.
Ok, not the most exciting of posts! And maybe the fact that I found it interesting says more about me than anything else…. Nevertheless, at least we can all be confident that the folk organising the election really are on the ball. And that’s nice.