Jean Urquhart writes to PM over EU referendum franchise rules.

Today Jean Urquhart MSP has written to Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the franchise rules for the upcoming referendum. These rules see the right to vote being given to British citizens living outwith the United Kingdom, even if they have not lived in, or paid taxes in the UK for up to 15 years.  At the same time, EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom and contributing to their communities are being denied the chance to take part in this democratic process.

Jean previously wrote to the Prime Minister in an appeal to reconsider the franchise and to extend the vote to 16 & 17 year olds and EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom, this appeal was rejected with no explanation.  Today’s letter was prompted by contact from numerous constituents asking why they were being denied the right to vote.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Friday 26th February 2016

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the announcement of the EU referendum, and the confirmation of the franchise for this referendum, I am increasingly contacted by constituents asking if it is true that they will be unable to vote, and why.  These are fellow EU citizens, now resident in the United Kingdom, and I am unable to offer them a reasonable explanation as to why they have been denied the right to take part in this democratic process.

That this government seeks to extend voting privileges to expats, tabling a Votes for Life Bill to abolish the 15 year rule, yet refuses citizens living and working here in the United Kingdom the right to vote, suggests that your values are based purely on ethnicity.  It sends a message that it does not matter if you are no longer contributing to the British economy, even if you haven’t stepped foot in Britain for years, you were born here and that gives you a privilege. And to those who pay millions each year into our economy, those who fill thousands of jobs, our nurses, our teachers, our doctors – even our politicians in the case of my colleague, Christian Allard MSP – are they to be treated as lesser citizens?  Many see this rhetoric as inherently racist and archaic.

Because of our relationship with the European Union there has never been a need for EU citizens to apply for British citizenship, yet they now face discrimination because of their ethnicity.

I have written previously, on behalf of my constituents and as Convenor of the Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group on Poland, appealing for you to reconsider and amend the European Union Referendum Act.

I understand that it is now too late now to change the franchise for the upcoming referendum, but perhaps, for the sake of all those EU citizens who call the United Kingdom home, you could offer an explanation as to why you seek to alienate them from this process.

Yours faithfully,

Jean Urquhart MSP

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Motion: 2014 Edinburgh International Festival

I lodged the following motion in Parliament today expressing my regret at the decision taken by the EIF to not commission any productions examining the independence referendum next year. It seems such a shame that the opportunity is being passed up by the EIF to use the event to show the role that the arts can play in the big decisions of our time, regardless of their angle or viewpoint.

That the Parliament notes with regret the reported decision taken by the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Sir Jonathan Mills, to exclude any independence-themed productions from the 2014 event; believes that, regardless of voting intentions, the cultural sector has a massive role to play in the referendum; considers that political neutrality can be better obtained through an open, fair, and balanced programme that includes the views of all sides rather than through what it sees as enforced silence in what is universally recognised as one of the most important debates in Scotland’s history; believes this to be an act of censorship that will inadvertently politicise the festival and a wasted opportunity for Scotland’s arts community, and, in order to promote an open, healthy and vigorous debate, encourages the organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival to reconsider the decision.

BLOG: You Can’t Spell Constitutional Change Without A Constitution

Amid the bluster and fireworks of the current debate on independence, many seem to have forgotten the body of work that lies ahead in the event of a Yes vote in 2014. As my fellow MSP Patrick Harvie noted in the Sunday Herald, the time between the referendum and the first prospective elections to an independent Scottish Parliament in 2016 does not leave much room for manoeuvre.

For myself and many others, one of the most vital elements of an independent Scottish state that must be addressed is how it sets in place its social, political and cultural ethos. For them, and for me, the answer is through the conception of a written constitution.

Last weekend, I hosted a small gathering in the Scottish Parliament on behalf of the Scottish Democratic Alliance (SDA). Although my own views don’t necessarily tally with the SDA on every issue, I was keen to hear their thoughts on the need for a written constitution and how this could be taken forward.

The arguments in favour of a written constitution are myriad, particularly in the case of a newly independent state seeking to define how it will be governed, by whom and through what means. I can’t recall any democratic country that has gained its independence in the 20th century and has not established and enacted a written constitution. Iceland even seized the opportunity following the 2008 crisis that struck its banks to ‘crowd-source’ a new constitution, engaging the people in an open, innovative and participative approach to re-imagine the governance of their country that in turn captured the imagination of people the world over.

The arguments for a written constitution are only enhanced by Scotland’s experiences as part of the UK, whose placing of sovereignty with Parliament lies in direct conflict to the sovereignty of the Scottish people as asserted in the Claim of Right.

Indeed, only this week, the idiosyncrasies of Westminster were on show as the unelected Lord Forsyth questioned Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance as part of a House of Lords Committee investigation into the economic implications of Scottish independence.

The next step, therefore, is not for Scotland to determine whether it will have a written constitution, but what will be included in that constitution and, just as importantly, how and when that constitution will be drawn up. For a document of such massive legal, political, moral and social importance, we cannot dither and we must not delay.

Already, there have been a number of meetings held by the Constitutional Commission on this topic; the constitutional scholar W. Elliot Bulmer has written his own draft constitution, as have the SDA, and the Scottish Government has stated in its 2009 paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice”that an independent Scotland could formulate and agree a fully codified and written constitution.

From my own experiences of hosting ‘Changin’ Scotland’ along with Gerry Hassan over the last 10 years, I know that there are so many other organisations and individuals who have dedicated time and effort to thinking and writing about what could and should be included in a constitution for Scotland. We don’t need to wait for permission from above to begin this process- civic Scotland absolutely has the capacity and, I am convinced, the will for this task, just as it did before with the Scottish Covenant and the Claim of Right.

It is absolutely vital that this bubbling groundswell continues to rise, and that the people of Scotland are encouraged to think about what independence could and should mean. In my opinion, a gathering to share ideas between interested groups in the New Year could then lead to an event which would concentrate on the process of developing a written constitution. This could help to encourage engagement with the referendum and, more importantly, empower Scotland’s people to take charge of their own democracy. I would be interested in speaking to others who share these ideas on how best we might take this forward.

Regardless of our position on independence itself, we cannot be complacent about how it will work, or arrogant enough to not plan for the possibility. Time is of the essence, and we must step up to the plate now.

Let’s make sure that when Independence Day comes, we’re ready. 

Blog: The Real Threat to EU Membership

Scotland’s future within (or outside) the European Union (EU) has once again hit the headlines, with the Scotsman reporting that “the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee stating that if Scots voters back independence, existing treaties which cover the UK’s EU membership willcease to apply’”. The Scotland Office is quoted in the article as saying that Scots have the right to know the full implications for Scotland if it were to “leave the UK family”.

Before we reach the meat of this topic, it’s rather disingenuous to claim that standing on your own two feet is akin to leaving a family. When our sons and daughters grow up and make decisions for themselves, it’s the mark of a developing, mature relationship, not of abandonment. An internationalist, co-operative Scotland would seek the same relationship, as is already shared with the other nations on the British Isles through the British-Irish Council.

Anyway, pedantry aside, we must remember that the Scotland Office’s argument should cut both ways. It looks likely that, regardless of who wins the next Westminster election, there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  David Cameron, under fire from the right wing of his party and the growing prominence of UKIP, has all but promised one should the Conservatives emerge victorious; senior Labour MPs have suggested holding one and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats promised one in their 2010 manifesto.

Opinion polls consistently show that, although the small number of Scots in each survey are more evenly divided on EU membership, a strong plurality of UK voters would vote to leave the EU in a referendum.  For example, in the latest YouGov poll, this antipathy towards the EU translates into outright majorities in favour of withdrawal in the North of England and the South of England and 48% in the Midlands and Wales. This ‘cold house’ is hardly surprising, given that the UK press, whose attitudes towards Europe range from critically supportive to spluttering outrage, can hardly be described as being well-disposed towards Europe.

So, given that both major parties at Westminster would hold a referendum on EU membership after the next election and that there’s a consistent public and media majority in the UK in favour of leaving the EU, why do the No campaign continue to show their concern over Scottish EU membership? Surely it’s more at threat as part of the UK than as an independent country?

Of course, an independent Scotland would need to negotiate new terms of membership, as the Scottish Government itself says. However, it would do so from within the UK (and the EU) in the 2 years between the referendum result and the planned first elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in May 2016.

To suggest that the EU would be willing to perform an expensive and elaborate hokey-cokey, where Scotland was in, out and then in again, is ludicrous. Given the human, financial and natural resources that Scotland contributes to the EU at a time of uncertainty and financial instability across Europe, does anybody honestly expect the EU to wilfully eject a long-standing partner of almost 40 years?

Over the next 2 years, there will be attempts to obfuscate the debate by attempting to boil down 50 years of complex European treaties into doom-laden, doubt-ridden claims about Scottish membership of the EU while ignoring the very real threat posed by Westminster sabre-rattling. I hope, and believe, that the people of Scotland can see through the scaremongering and apply the common sense logic that has served us well in the past.

PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART WELCOMES ANNOUNCEMENT OF PROGRAMME FOR GOVERNMENT

Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has welcomed the announcement of the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for the next year, describing it as a “statement of our ambition for Scotland”.

A package of 15 Bills was unveiled – led by the flagship Referendum Bill – including legislation to establish a national framework for sustainable public procurement.

Jean said:

“I am very happy to see the Government continuing to take steps to create fairer, more equal and more prosperous communities.

“In the autumn of 2014, the people of Scotland will take the most important constitutional choice in 300 years and the Referendum Bill will lay the important groundwork for this.

“We need full control and the normal responsibilities of any independent nation to fully realise Scotland’s potential.

“But with the powers we do have, we are continuing to improve Scotland, with the announced Procurement Reform Bill of particular interest to myself.

“As ever, I am honoured to have the privilege of representing the Highlands and Islands as the Scottish Parliament continues to legislate effectively and in the interests of Scotland.”