Why Indian and Pakistani citizens' votes count in UK elections

In many ways, the United Kingdom is the only country that allows full voting rights to so many non-citizens.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Britain's Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks with supporters at an event celebrating the results of the 2022 local elections in Carlisle. — Reuters
Britain's Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks with supporters at an event celebrating the results of the 2022 local elections in Carlisle. — Reuters

Published: Sun 8 May 2022, 10:46 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 May 2023, 8:02 AM

Last week, a unique, less-known ritual took place during elections to local councils in England: those who trudged to polling booths to cast votes on May 5 included tens of thousands of citizens of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; in fact, citizens of 54 Commonwealth countries. They included students, professionals, their family members and others who are in Britain legally under various categories of immigration. They have the right to vote, a right stemming from the historic ties between Britain and countries of its former empire. The right is extended to every ‘qualifying Commonwealth citizen’ who, according to the Electoral Commission, is someone who has leave to enter or remain in the UK, or who does not require that leave. In many ways, the United Kingdom is the only country that allows full voting rights to so many non-citizens.

A senior Indian diplomat posted in London was surprised when I told him some time ago that Indians are eligible to vote in all UK elections. It reflects a high degree of confidence among the British in their electoral system, he admitted, even though Britons are not extended reciprocal voting rights in India or most Commonwealth countries. A rise in immigration in recent decades means that there are many non-British citizens legally in the UK, many of them enjoying voting rights. The foreign-born population in the United Kingdom from Commonwealth and other countries numbers nearly 10 million (India is the country of birth of the largest group): they include those who arrived with British citizenship or British papers (such as the Asians from East Africa); those who acquired British citizenship after a mandatory period of stay in the UK: but also the large number of new migrants holding citizenship of Commonwealth countries.

The issue of Commonwealth citizens given voting rights is reflected in the evolution of British law in the twentieth century; specifically, in the conception of a ‘British subject’. It originated in common law based on allegiance to the British Crown rather than an accident of birth in a particular place. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 put into general statutory form that “any person born within His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance…shall be deemed to be natural-born British subjects”. The status was confirmed in the Representation of People Act 1918, providing that voter registration could be afforded only to ‘British subjects’ (any person who owed allegiance to the Crown). In 1918, mass immigration had not occurred, and records show that although most of the Old Commonwealth countries (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) were already independent, they did not seek to establish their own citizenship until after the Second World War.

Thus, the status of ‘British subject’ remained crucial, even though its conception altered along with the collapse of the empire. The 1914 law was refined by the British Nationality Act 1948, which also provided a system whereby countries such as India and the African republics were still to be regarded, for nationality purposes and the right to vote, as ‘British subjects’, even though they no longer owed allegiance to the Crown, but retained their position within the Commonwealth with the British monarch being recognised as the Head of the Commonwealth.

Later, the British Nationality Act 1981 restricted the term ‘British subject’ to two limited categories. Accordingly, the Representation of the People Act 1983 refers to the franchise as encompassing Commonwealth citizenship, using the term in the broad sense envisaged by the British Nationality Act 1948. The Margaret Thatcher government gave assurances during the passage of the 1981 act that the new definition of ‘British subject’ would not alter the possession of civic rights and privileges such as the right to vote. There have since been no plans to restrict the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the UK.

There have been some recent demands that their voting rights be scrapped, particularly given the close nature of election results in several constituencies with a population that includes many Commonwealth citizens, but it has not gained much traction so far. Campaign group Migration Watch UK wants that the right should be confined to UK citizens and to citizens of those countries that offer reciprocal voting rights, such as the Republic of Ireland and some West Indian countries. It says: “The potential influence of Commonwealth citizens on British elections is… rapidly growing in significance. This situation is not only inequitable, but also illogical. It extends the franchise to a large number of individuals whose allegiance lies in states other than the United Kingdom. It is quite clearly an anachronism that, given the recent sustained increase in immigration, is now potentially significant. It should be removed”.

The empire’s legacy continues in many forms in former colonies (in areas such as education, policing, and governance systems), but the issue of voting rights for Commonwealth citizens and its link with the empire is also a reality in contemporary Britain. The empire is history, Britain today is mostly at ease with the reality of multiculturalism, and colonial-era laws have been revised in countries that emerged out of the collapse of the empire. But many laws enacted by the British parliament for colonial India, for example, remained on the statute books in Britain long after India became independent; it was only from 2012 onwards that they were scrapped following a thorough review of obsolete laws by the Law Commission. But, as assured by the government during the passage of the 1981 act, Commonwealth citizens legally in the UK are unlikely to be excluded from British elections anytime soon.

The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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