‘WE the people.” The three famous opening words of the United States constitution. But who are “we the people” anyway? Who’s in and who’s out? Take a look at any of the oil paintings which memorialise the secular saints of American civil religion, and you’ll see a series of wiggy white men in frock coats. Heroic solicitors assembled around the founding documents of the American nation. One gender, one ethnicity, one class – the founding fathers are a very partial picture of “we the people” who called America home in 1788.

This week, John Swinney has unveiled the Scottish Government’s answer to this question. And it is a good answer. In the independence white paper, the Scottish Government used a phrase I’ve grown fond of. In echo of the late Neil MacCormick, it talked not about “we the people”, but “we, the people who live here”. Official figures suggest some 5,438,100 people live in this country, around 337,000 of whom are non-UK nationals. Around two-thirds of that total – 209,000 – hail from the 27 other states of the European Union.

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When in force, Swinney’s plans will extend the franchise to all foreign-born residents with indefinite leave to remain and allow them to run for political office in Scotland’s local authorities and parliament on an equal footing with everyone else. The Bill will also – finally – bring Scotland into greater compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, by allowing those serving prison terms of less than 12 months to cast their ballots.

The South African Constitutional Court expressed the fundamental point of principle well in 1999, whether we’re talking about prisoners, or recognising the democratic rights of people born elsewhere, but who now call Scotland home. “The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood,” the judges said. “Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.”

Swinney’s proposals are in the same spirit. To put them in context, look at the UK election rules. Consider what they tell us about who the British political system understands as “we the people”. How it looks at the millions of people born elsewhere, but who live and work in this country.

If you are 18 years old or over, and are a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen, you’re entitled to vote in Westminster elections. Because of Britain’s storied colonial history, this creates some curious inclusions and exclusions from the franchise. Folk from St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Turks and Caicos Islands are in – but the Belgian or Swedish citizen who has lived in Auchtermuchty all their days are out. Britannia’s old Mediterranean possessions – Malta and Cyprus – are in different straits. Thanks to the Commonwealth tie, Maltese and Cypriot citizens do get to have a say about who their local MP should be.

Parallel rules apply to who can stand for office. If you were born in Cork, you can put yourself forward for election to the House of Commons. If you hail from Toulouse or Vienna, by contrast, you join the bankrupts and barons in being legally barred. Remarkably, this exclusion goes back to the Act of Settlement. Still unrepealed, the 1701 Act enshrines the dubious principle that “no Person born out of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland or Ireland or the Dominions thereunto belonging” is capable of being a Member of either House of Parliament.

When the UK Government set out who could vote in the Brexit referendum, they based it on this franchise but tweaked the roster for self-serving purposes. With characteristic mendacity, David Cameron’s administration made special provision so members of the House of Lords could vote, but flatly refused to extend the vote to the estimated 2.2 million European citizens living in the UK at the time. In retrospect, this looks like another miscalculation by Cameron’s gambling Cabinet. He may have kept his party’s Eurosceptics sweet, but Brexit won the day on the June 23, 2016, by just 1,269,501 votes.

In the Commons, the then foreign secretary, Phil Hammond, swatted down suggestions that EU citizens living and working in Britain should get a say about their futures. “The referendum is about delivering a pledge to the British people to consult them about the future of their country,” he said. “It would be a travesty to seek to include EU nationals whose interests might be very different from those of the British people.”

It was an illuminating response. A Remainer Hammond may have been, but his understanding of EU citizens’ place in our communities seems coldly transactional. There’s no sense that EU citizens are husbands, wives, colleagues, lovers and friends. Hammond talks about them like economic waifs and strays, carers, waiters and fruitpickers which he’s prepared to put up with, so long as their economic exploitation can continue.

Tommy Sheppard put the contrary argument particularly well. When one Tory MP invoked his “Scottish blood”, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East shot back: “I have none whatsoever in mine. I am a member of the Scottish National Party and I represent my constituents because I have chosen to make my life in Scotland.

The National: Tommy Shepard gave a praiseworthy response to a Tory MPTommy Shepard gave a praiseworthy response to a Tory MP

“It is not a question of identity or genetics, it is a question of residence … if people choose to come and live in this country, make their future here, contribute to the country and be part of it, they have an equal say with anyone else in the future of their country.”

From the beginning, Holyrood has always canvassed more widely both for its voters and its candidates. This seems to have shaped attitudes across the parties. From the first parliament of 1999, the ballot boxes have been thrown not only to folk from British and Irish and Commonwealth backgrounds, but also to resident EU citizens.

While MPs can breezily ignore the voices of European nationals in their towns and communities, MSPs know that if they chap on the door of one of the 209,000 EU nationals who call Scotland home, they’re talking to someone who can boot them out of office. In contrast with the Commons, EU nationals can also stand for Holyrood, like Dijon-born Christian Allard, now representing Scotland in the European Parliament.

The Scottish Government’s proposals embrace the logic Sheppard articulated so clearly back in 2015. Westminster’s “travesty” is Holyrood’s common sense. Who participates in our democratic processes matters. Whether they are prisoners, foreign nationals or EU citizens living and working in this country, the franchise fixes the boundaries of the political community. It expresses the limits of our political imaginations. It is a statement of purpose about who we are, and who we want to be.

More than that, it underscores that independence is not separatism, that the desire for self-government is not narrow nationalism or tribal suspicion of the other. “We, the people who live here” is an expression of confidence – not the truculence and bombast of the Brexiteer, but the quiet self-assurance of a country comfortable in its own skin.

Here, as so much else, the gulf separating how politics is transacted in London and Edinburgh grows wider and wider. At a time in which British politics is collapsing into itself, the Tories assemble to decide which ghoul should rule us, and “Global Britain” reveals itself as insular, nostalgic and defensive – it is a small, bright light, a little victory for civic nationalism and a cosmopolitan story of politics.