Peter Ramsay – Debasing Citizenship

The Labour Party’s idea of giving the vote to resident EU nationals and to 16- and 17-year olds not only reveals the party’s hostility to democracy, but also exposes the inadequacy of Britain’s current approach to citizenship

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

This article originally appeared at The Northern Star

Starmer is quite capable of throwing Labour's lead away – weekly briefing |  Counterfire

Photo: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The leader of Britain’s Labour Party Keir Starmer’s speculative proposals to give the vote to settled EU citizens and to 16- and 17-year olds might appear merely cynical. Evidence suggests both groups will favour Labour. However when they are considered in their wider political context, both these ideas seem to reflect the party’s deep discomfort with democracy. Moreover simply opposing these proposals will not go far enough. The underlying question of who gets the vote and why demands a more confident and democratic approach to citizenship than the British state has taken to date, particularly with respect to migrants.

Votes for citizens of EU states

Giving the vote to EU citizens in the specific political context of the 2020s should be read as a further manifestation of the Westminster elite’s repudiation of the idea that it is accountable to the nation. The proposal is a marker of just how hostile to democracy a Labour government will likely prove to be.

The plan would suddenly enfranchise a very large number of non-citizens who have settled here but decided not to become citizens – 3.4 million as of December 2022. Any loyalty they feel, then, is less likely to be to Britain than to another nation – or in many cases, to no nation at all. Giving the vote to non-citizens would be a deliberate attempt to reinforce within Britain the failed anti-democratic principle that lies at the core of the EU. That principle, as I explore in a recent co-authored book, Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit, is that national governments should not be primarily accountable to the citizens of the nations they purport to represent, but rather to supranational interests that emerge outside the nation. In the EU’s case these supranational interests emerge from secretive collaboration between member-state governments. Giving the citizens of those other states a say in who should be elected to rule Britain is an application of the same broad idea.

Labour’s proposal manifests the party’s continuing commitment to diluting the duty of government to the particular people who comprise the British nation by making government accountable to those who are already citizens of other states, and who have professed no particular will to be part of the nation that the government purports to represent. It would further weaken the already frayed political bonds that bind British citizens together by implying that individuals with no commitment to the people being represented can have an equal say in who should represent us;  it would be a subtle subversion of the sovereignty of the British people by reference to the vaguer demands of a cosmopolitan order.

In this political sense, the extension of the franchise to EU citizens is different from the existing rights of resident Irish and Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK elections. In both cases these can be understood as historic legacies of an earlier imperial understanding of the British nation, although they raise different issues now. Granting the right to vote to Irish citizens continues to make sense as a political recognition of the exceptionally deep degree of economic, social and cultural integration between the two states, and it is reciprocated in the Republic of Ireland where resident British citizens also have a vote. There is no comparable degree of integration with Commonwealth states or with other EU states, and granting the vote to either group dilutes the political meaning and potency of citizenship. While we should certainly not remove the vote from resident Commonwealth citizens who already have it, these historic rights lend no support to the proposal to extend the vote to EU citizens.

This does not mean, however, that we should ignore the problem of there being many millions of people permanently resident who cannot vote. The British people should want others who live here, wherever they come from originally, to participate in the life of the state, to join with us  in our own self-government. More citizens participating in our political life means greater power and authority for our national sovereignty. There is a simple, democratic alternative to Labour’s attempt to water down our government’s accountability to its own citizens.

We should a) make attaining British citizenship very much less expensive than it currently is (the Home Office charges three times more than the administrative cost of processing an  application); b) systematically encourage settled residents to become British; and c) be clear that what we mean by becoming British is a willingness to participate in our secular and democratic political life. [1] However, with the exception of Irish citizens, we should not simply hand out the vote to non-citizens. We should want citizens of other countries themselves to make the choice to join us in citizenship, to engage with the process of joining us and, when they do that, we should make that process straightforward and very affordable.

Clarity as to the political meaning of British citizenship requires that the process of attaining citizenship should nevertheless be a serious one. To become a citizen, we should require that a resident has some basic knowledge of the political system and an adequate understanding of English, the language in which British politics is conducted. That process should not be seen merely as a test, but as a welcoming embrace of a new citizen and an encouragement to participate fully in the life of the nation.

The position of EU citizens following Brexit remains particularly unsatisfactory and not only  because under the terms of the withdrawal agreement from the EU their status permits the continued interference of the European Court of Justice in British affairs. More importantly, they are a very large group of long-term or permanent residents who do not have the vote in national elections, are not the political equals of the rest of the population and have no responsibility for the government of the territory in which they live. As I argued at the time, EU residents should, exceptionally, have been offered full British citizenship gratis in the immediate wake of the Brexit referendum. They had come to Britain under one arrangement that the British electorate had then unilaterally changed. The current settled status arrangements, although reasonably efficiently executed, were a miserly and defensive approach to the problem that was unfair on EU residents and weakened Britain in its negotiations with the EU. That an offer of full citizenship was not made is a consequence of the paucity of the Eurosceptics’ political imagination. [2]

We may now pay the price of not reaching out to resident EU citizens earlier on. That price may  take the form of a liberal scheme to dilute further the potency of citizenship by granting the vote to millions of non-citizens who were treated shabbily in the Brexit process and who have significantly less reason than existing British citizens to feel part of the already decayed political unity that is the British people.

Votes for children

The idea of extending votes to 16 and 17-year olds is a still more thorough-going dilution of the substance of political citizenship than giving the vote to non-citizens. It represents a fundamental attack on the democratic aspect of citizenship.

People under the age of 18 are treated as children. They cannot legally buy alcohol, they cannot get married or join the armed forces without parental consent, they cannot get a credit card or a mortgage. In England, they are required to stay in some form of education or training. In other words, they are not treated by the state as persons who are fully capable of governing their own lives. To grant them the vote is to break the link between political representation and the capacity for self-government.

That Labour should make the proposal reveals its profound, paternalistic hostility to the idea of democratic self-government. It wants to get elected by mobilising the votes of those whom it simultaneously deems to be incapable of self-government and in need of various legal protections and restraints. Moreover, since the vote is a fundamental element of political equality, the idea that under-18s should have it reveals what the Labour Party really believes citizens to be: children in need of education and protection, and not to be trusted with important life decisions. [3]

The vote is a right of citizenship, not a privilege. But we should hold that right in higher esteem than we do precisely because we attain it in virtue of official recognition of our capacity for individual self-government and therefore our right to participate in collective self-government. Not only should we not grant it to children but, just as we have ceremonies for naturalised citizens, so we should have ceremonies for our young people as they attain the age of adulthood to recognise formally that they have joined us in the collective self-government of the state. If this idea should seem quaint and eccentric then that is a marker of how degraded our own sense of ourselves as a self-governing people has become.

By flying these kites, Starmer is testing how much authority the idea of democratic self-government still commands.

[1] And, yes, the Church of England should be disestablished.

[2] Implementing such an offer would of course have had to wait until after Britain had left the EU. The powerful coalition of Remainers in parliament and the London elite, who lost the referendum, refused to consent to the result. Any enfranchisement of EU citizens prior to Brexit itself could have been used to reverse the result of the democratic vote to leave.

[3] Though remarkably there seems to be significant support within Labour for the proposition that parents and professionals should not contradict or question children who feel that their gender does not coincide with their biological sex, potentially allowing these children to embark on life-changing medical treatment.

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