I was one of the 700,000 British people denied a vote in the first EU referendum – that's why we need another Brexit vote

As a British citizen living and working in the EU for the last 24 years, I lost the democratic right to vote in parliamentary elections in both the UK and France – I became completely disenfranchised. And now it’s my future which hangs in the balance

William Main
Wednesday 08 August 2018 21:30 BST
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Chuka Umunna and John Rentoul debate the possibility of another Brexit referendum

The British parliament has been passing and amending laws for hundreds of years. Fortunately these laws are not set in stone, otherwise we’d still have child labour, medical castration for gay people, the death penalty, and women wouldn’t be allowed to vote. Theresa May would never have had the opportunity to become prime minister had the Suffragettes not protested and parliament taken notice a 100 years ago. So I think it’s fair to say that laws should be questioned if they are thought to be unfair.

There is one such law which currently denies British citizens the right to vote after leaving the UK for more than 15 years. As one of those citizens, I believe it should be challenged and ideally changed to allow all British citizens the right to vote all their life.

The principal frustration for me is not the decision of whether we should remain in or exit the EU; it’s that I and many others didn’t get a say in the matter which directly affects us. American, Canadian, French, German, Italian and Japanese citizens (yes, that’s the G7 minus the British) have this privilege in one form or another. Why are we different? Do we have a shelf life of only 15 years?

As a British citizen living and working in the EU for the last 24 years, I lost the democratic right to vote in parliamentary elections in both the UK and France – I became completely disenfranchised.

When someone leaves their country to work or live abroad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rejecting it; in fact, the feeling of belonging to their homeland often intensifies. People might ask why you don’t go back at that point, but it’s not always easy to dismantle your life, particularly if your partner comes from the country you are living in.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, there were 700,000 British citizens who were not entitled to vote. That’s the combined populations of Exeter, Oxford, Norwich, Watford and Wigan.

Arron Banks said: “Brexit was a war. We won. There’s no turning back now.” When you go to war, you consider all aspects of the battlefield. Allowing British citizens to vote who had lived for more than 15 years abroad would have been bad news for the Brexit military campaign. Not surprisingly, the majority of the 700,000 would probably have voted Remain, as it is their lives which risk to be affected by the result.

It is sickening to read some British politicians bleating (not moaning) that “the will of the people must be respected”, because not all the people were allowed to express their will. I strongly believe that a new referendum should be held as people are beginning to better understand what the consequences of leaving the EU are.

Had the 2016 result been a more decisive victory for either side, and with a higher turnout, we may have spared ourselves the constant unpleasantness of tearing ourselves apart. British foreign policy has historically used “divide and rule” to dominate others, and we seem to have done a good job on doing it on ourselves this time. An inglorious home goal.

In order to continue living and working in the EU, many British citizens are now applying for the nationality of the country they live in. In France this is a very long and tiresome process that includes a language test, endless paperwork and convocations to the local gendarmerie and prefecture. A British colleague of mine who has been working in France for more than 20 years had to show a local gendarme the contents of her wardrobe to prove she was married.

I still consider myself British, continue to have close friends and family in the UK, and have always promoted British culture to our Gallic neighbours. One of the first administrative acts I did when my son was born was to register his birth at the British embassy in Paris. I wanted him to have access back to his cultural heritage – if that’s not proof that I still care about being British, what is?

Whenever I talk to my European colleagues, they are always amazed to learn that so many of us were not allowed to vote. They nearly all agree that the European Union needs to be reformed, but that change must be done from within.

If there is a second referendum then we, the forgotten 700,000 living abroad, would like to have a say in our future this time. Why can’t parliament do the decent thing and change this outrageously unfair voting law, so that all British citizens can vote all their life and participate in the future of their country?

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