Saturday 3 May 2014

Independence and the choice about citizenship

My Russian husband (Petr) was granted leave to remain this week. For complicated reasons I had to keep my maiden name and anyway his surname is scarcely pronounceable. We travelled all the way down to Glasgow, sat around for a few hours in an office in Govan and then came all the way back again. But it was a great relief for him to get his permanent residency. It was only later on the way back that we reflected on the conversation that took place when they said that his application had been successful. We were told that his residency was permanent so long as he didn't live outside of the UK for more than two years and that he could apply for UK citizenship in a year, but that this would mean him having to give up his Russian passport. He asked me what would happen if Scotland became independent. I told him I simply did not know. He hadn't taken much interest in the referendum on the whole, though he had read a few of my articles, checking over grammar and punctuation. At first he kept telling me that there was no chance that Scotland would vote yes and that I was wasting my time worrying about something that wasn't going to happen. But lately as polls have been narrowing, he’s begun asking me more frequently about the referendum. 

I know that our situation is relatively unusual and I don't expect any particular sympathy for a problem that is not shared by many other Scots, but we both have begun to realise that independence might mean that we would have to leave Scotland. My husband has leave to remain in the UK, but if Scotland were not in the UK he would not have leave to remain in Scotland. It might be possible for him to obtain leave to remain in Scotland, but would that mean having to go through this exhaustive and expensive process all over again? Moreover would I have to be a Scottish citizen in order for my husband to be granted leave to remain? The problem is that I already have a passport and I neither want nor need another. It strikes me as morally a little dubious to campaign for the continuance of the UK and then to obtain a Scottish passport. I'm not saying that I would definitely not accept one. We'll have to await events. But I feel it is more consistent and anyway I prefer to keep only the one that I have. This might make me a foreigner in the land of my birth, but I feel that I would rather live this way if Scotland becomes independent. 

The problem anyway is that if Petr lives for two years in an independent Scotland he would lose his right to remain in the UK. If that were going to happen, we would probably have to move. There may be ways for us to remain in Scotland. We both work here in higher education and it is probable that a future Scottish Government would look favourably on cases such as ours, but there is a worrying uncertainty, just as we thought everything was settled.

The problem of citizenship though is quite tricky, not merely for people with Russian husbands. The expectation is that everyone who is now a British citizen in Scotland would have the right to retain that citizenship in the event of Scottish independence. This means that Scots who chose to have Scottish passports could also keep their British passports. This right would also be passed onto their children, though not to their grandchildren. Grandchildren seem a long way away, but it's worth remembering that a child born in Scotland after March 2016 would not have the right to pass on British citizenship. So within 20 years or so children would be being born in Scotland who would no longer be British (apart from the geographical sense if that's how you think the word "British" is normally used!). Its worth remembering that twenty years from now is the same sort of distance back as 1994, when Forest Gump came out, which doesn't seem so very long ago to me. 

It should be noted however that although dual nationality would most likely be offered after independence it cannot be guaranteed. Just as my husband was told that in order to become a UK citizen he would have to renounce his Russian citizenship, so either the Scottish or UK governments could decide that dual nationality was inconsistent with their interests. This is unlikely to occur, but there are no guarantees about what governments that have yet to be elected might decide. It should be hoped, of course, that common sense would prevail, but what if negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments reached an impasse or became fraught, angry and if either government felt less than inclined to cooperate with the other. For instance if Scotland refused to share part of the UK's national debt owing to the UK's refusal to enter into a currency union, it would be very hard to predict what would happen next and what course any further negotiations, if any, might take. So it is certainly possible that Scots might be faced with a choice of taking a Scottish passport or keeping their British one. After all my Irish grandfather faced just such a choice in the 1940s. He had been born in Ireland when it was still part of Britain, but now had to choose which passport he wanted to keep. 

I imagine that many independence supporters anyway would not wish to retain their British passports. It strikes me as hypocritical to campaign for Scotland to leave the UK on the basis that everyone would retain their British citizenship. 

The next few years are rather intriguing with regard not only to Scotland's relationship with Britain, but also our relationship with the EU. The reason this is crucial is that while few of us will ever live or work on the continent, owing to the need to speak a foreign language, many of us have and will live and work in the other parts of the UK. What matters most of all is not so much Scotland's EU status, but that we have the same status as our English speaking neighbours. There are two intriguing uncertainties here. We don't know for sure if an independent Scotland will gain easy access to EU membership. Vast amounts have been written about this, but it will remain uncertain until negotiations begin and end. The fact that the UK would have a veto would make the independence negotiations rather delicate if Scotland carried out certain threats. But not only do we not know if Scotland will get into the EU, we also don't know if the UK will remain. It all depends on the next UK general election and on a EU referendum that is probably too close to call. But one thing is certain, if Scotland leaves the UK, it is more likely that the UK will leave the EU. Not only would it make a Tory government in Westminster more likely, but the fact that Scotland is generally more in favour of the EU than many people south of the border would clearly help the eurosceptics there. The Scottish europhile votes that would no longer be taking part in the referendum on EU membership might just have made the difference. 

But what happens if the UK votes to leave the EU? The problem then would be the basis on which Scottish citizens, who lacked British citizenship, would have the right to live and work and receive all sorts of benefits in the UK. It couldn't be on the basis of both places being members of the EU, for even if Scotland were a member, by this point the UK would have left. Well then could it be on the basis of the UK's being a part of EFTA like Norway, Iceland and Switzerland? But what if the UK decided to negotiate its own free trade relationship with the rest of Europe and chose not to allow free movement of labour. I can think of a party that's doing rather well at the moment, with a leader who likes pints and cigarettes, that might choose to take such a line. Oh but they'd never stop us Scots living and working and getting benefits in England, I can imagine a nationalist saying? Look at how they always gave those rights to the people in Eire. Well I agree I find it hard to believe that we would lose those sort of rights, but then I find it hard to believe that we might vote for independence. Surely common sense would prevail. Let's all hope it would. But again it would all be a matter for negotiation between the UK and Scottish governments and if these go badly enough, then all bets are off. 

When I sat in a room in Govan with a number of nervous couples speaking a multitude of languages I realised how important my citizenship was. It's the basis on which my husband lives with me. I wouldn't give it up for anything. It allows me to travel pretty much where I want and gives me rights that many people in the world are very keen to have. I saw the relief on the faces of the couples as they were told that they could remain in Britain and I wondered why is it that the whole world seems so desperately keen to come to the UK except us Scots a fair proportion of whom rather perversely are doing all they can to leave.