THIS week, and not for the first time, a Tory Cabinet minister has promoted the idea of extending the franchise in a second independence referendum to “all Scots in the UK, not just those living in Scotland”.

Such a move would, in theory, strengthen the Unionist vote. As Professor John Curtice wrote, the estimated 900,000 Scots living outside of Scotland but within the UK are more likely to vote No than for independence.

However, another eminent expert, Professor Ciaran Martin, has already laid out comprehensive arguments against such a scenario.

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Martin, an architect of the Edinburgh Agreement, a former Cabinet Office constitution director, and a current professor at Oxford University, outlined his arguments in detail in a report published in April 2021.

With a foreword from historian Sir Tom Devine, Martin’s report is entitled “Resist, Reform, or Re-run? Short- and long-term reflections on Scotland and independence referendums”.

In that report, Martin has the following to say on the question of extending the franchise in indyref2 to “all Scots in the UK”.


From page 10 of the report:

“There are numerous ways in which Westminster could try to tilt the balance, to prevent Scottish independence from happening by democratic means. But none of them would be invisible.

“For example, extending the franchise to Scots living in other parts of the UK might gain marginal support for a ‘No’ vote. I understand this argument, as someone who found it painful not to have a vote on the 1998 Agreement in Northern Ireland, having left there permanently just two years earlier. But such a decision would be prohibitively complex; there would be bound to be hard cases and questionable implementation; and it would introduce a potentially troublesome form of ethnonationalism into the contest. It would therefore be wildly contentious.”

From pages 25 and 26:

“In a debate about the rules for a second referendum, we can expect the noise about votes for Scottish-born adults living elsewhere in the United Kingdom to be much louder than last time. Indeed, one of the most senior members of the UK government, Mr [Michael] Gove, took part in an unlikely social media flirtation on this very point, with the Scottish socialist George Galloway, now himself standing for election to Holyrood.

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“One would assume the Unionist side to be incentivised to push for such a development, and the nationalist side to resist it. And morally there is at least a case for considering it. But there are two serious and linked problems.

“One is administrative: what should be the basis of the franchise? (Being born in Scotland? Having been resident for a certain number of years before leaving?) “Let’s take two realistic but hypothetical examples.

“Person A is 75. He was born in Scotland, but his parents moved to England when he was three, and he has never lived in Scotland since. He describes himself as English. He takes the same approach to Scottishness as the Duke of Wellington famously took to being born in Ireland: ‘Just because one was born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse.’

“Person B is 25. She was born in Wales, but moved to Scotland when she was three and went to school and university there. She describes herself as Scottish. After she graduated she got a job in London and moved there two years ago, including switching to the English electoral register.

“Clearly the moral outcome here would be for person B to have a vote, but not person A. There are countless more tricky examples one could conjure up. So on what fair, implementable set of rules could a system for deciding such matters be based?

The onus is on those who would wish to extend the franchise beyond Scotland’s borders to come up with a feasible and fair plan for doing so

“These administrative tensions would inflame social tensions. The 2014 campaign was remarkably free from any sense of ethnonationalism, and indeed a remarkable achievement of modern Scottish nationalism is that its electoral growth has not been based on any ethnic or sectarian grandstanding. Indeed, one of the reasons for its electoral potency has been its success in detoxifying the prospect of Scottish independence in the eyes of many of those in the west of Scotland who are descended from Irish Catholic backgrounds. It is difficult to think of anything more conducive to poisoning a heated but, by international and historical standards, courteously conducted dispute than constructing, in effect, a legal definition of Scottishness for the express purpose of choosing whether or not Scotland stays in the United Kingdom. And what would it mean for social cohesion in Scotland if exit poll analysis proved that a narrow ‘No’ vote was carried by those who had Scottish roots but had chosen not to live in Scotland?

“Administratively and morally, some established franchise is the worst option – apart from all the others. That probably means using the Scottish parliamentary franchise, which now includes 16- and 17-year-olds. When the loud calls come for votes for Scottish expatriates, it will be harder for the Scottish government to credibly resist them, because of its own decision to meddle with an established franchise in its own perceived interest in 2014 and to extend those changes in perpetuity. It is, justifiably, open to charges of hypocrisy. It cannot credibly say that it is wrong in principle to vary the franchise for an independence referendum under the guise of ‘fairness’ when the real motive is to suit one’s own political interests. It has form.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, and what’s more, the Scottish government’s extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds living in Scotland was at least administratively feasible – if complicated, not least because, given the time lag, it involved gathering the personal details of 14- and 15-year-olds. But no one could reasonably dispute the qualifying characteristic of the group to whom it applied. As we have seen, that is not the case with extending the franchise to expatriate Scots.

“The onus is on those who would wish to extend the franchise beyond Scotland’s borders to come up with a feasible and fair plan for doing so; currently there seems no more chance of that than of a viable blueprint for a federal Britain.”

For context, elsewhere in the report Martin says that “the UK is nowhere near a federal state”. He says a federal Union would “realistically” never happen, and the title of his section on reform refers to federalism as a “myth”.