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Nick Barber: After the Vote: the Citizenship Question

Three intertwined questions relating to citizenship will become of great importance if there is a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum. First, who will become, or be able to become, a Scottish citizen? Secondly, who will remain, or be permitted to remain, a United Kingdom citizen? Thirdly, and relatedly, who will become, or be permitted to become, a dual citizen, a citizen of both Scotland and the United Kingdom? Aside from a very good paper by Jo Shaw and a Scotland Analysis Paper produced by the British Government, these questions have not received the attention they deserve.  The questions around citizenship are given added significance because of the role, in the background, of European citizenship. European citizenship is dependent upon the individual holding citizenship of a member state: those in the United Kingdom are currently European citizens because of their UK citizenship. If Scotland votes for independence it is likely – it is almost a certainty – that there will be a gap between independence and Scotland joining the European Union. During this time Scottish citizens would not be European citizens unless they were also citizens of the United Kingdom (that is, citizens of the remainder of the United Kingdom after independence).

Who will be a Scottish Citizen?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Scottish Constitutional Convention that is intended to draft a constitution for Scotland will not be assembled until after independence – and so the citizenship question will need to be settled before it sits. Like a number of important issues, it seems citizenship will not be a question that the Convention will be empowered to answer. The Draft Interim Constitution gives an indication of those who will become, or who may apply to become, Scottish citizens. The Draft Interim Constitution needs to be treated with a little caution as it embodies the view of Scotland’s SNP controlled government; after a ‘yes’ vote it is possible that the Scottish Parliament might revisit the citizenship question.

Section 18 of the Draft Interim Constitution identifies the following groups as automatically receiving Scottish citizenship or as entitled to apply for citizenship:

(1) The following people automatically hold Scottish citizenship, namely—

(a) all those who, immediately before Independence Day, hold British citizenship and either—

(i) are habitually resident in Scotland at that time, or

(ii) are not habitually resident in Scotland at that time but were born in Scotland,

(b)  any person born in Scotland on or after Independence Day if either of the person’s parents, at the time of the person’s birth—

(i)  holds Scottish citizenship, or

(ii)  has indefinite leave to remain in Scotland, and

(c)  any person born outside Scotland on or after Independence Day if—

(i) either of the person’s parents, at the time of the person’s birth, holds Scottish citizenship, and

 (ii) the person’s birth is registered in Scotland.

(2) The following people are entitled to claim Scottish citizenship according to the prescribed procedures, namely—

(a) any person born in Scotland on or after Independence Day if either of the person’s parents meets the prescribed requirements,

(b) any person with—

(i) a prescribed connection by descent with a person holding Scottish citizenship, or

(ii) any other prescribed connection with Scotland.

(3) A person holding Scottish citizenship may also hold other nationalities or citizenships at the same time.

(4) Further provision about entitlement to Scottish citizenship is to be made by Act of the Scottish Parliament, and “prescribed” means prescribed by or under such an Act.

(5) Such an Act may, in particular, include provision supplementing, qualifying or modifying the provision in this section.

The first point to make about these criteria is that they are quite extensive (though not quite as extensive as the original proposals found in the Scottish White Paper). There are about 810,000 people who were born in Scotland but live elsewhere in the United Kingdom – that is equivalent to roughly a sixth of the population that currently lives in Scotland. There might be a large number of people who discover, to their surprise, either that they have been granted Scottish citizenship without their knowledge or can acquire citizenship on application. It is conceivable that the large number of Scottish citizens living outside of Scotland may present challenges in the future: would they be entitled to vote in elections, or, if it is held, in a referendum on a draft Scottish Constitution?

The second point to note is that these criteria have been drafted in ignorance of the United Kingdom’s (that is, the remainder of the United Kingdom after independence) view on citizenship. This will be discussed in the next section, but it is possible that the UK will be unwilling to allow so many of its citizens to hold dual citizenship with Scotland. If so, the Scottish citizenship rules may need to be modified to prevent the automatic conferral of citizenship on people who have no wish to become Scottish citizens and wish to remain UK citizens.

Who will be a UK Citizen?

The Scottish White Paper assumes that UK citizenship will persist after independence. If this were correct, on the day that Scotland becomes independent all Scottish citizens would also be UK citizens. Between six or seven million people would then become dual Scottish/UK citizens. British citizenship law is quite generous in respect of dual citizenship: in general it allows its citizens to hold citizenship of other countries. There are, however, a number of reasons why Scotland might be treated differently, at least initially.

First, it is unusual for a state to have quite so many of its citizens holding dual citizenship. Classically, citizenship is presented as the highest form of political membership that an individual can possess: their membership of the state.  States are partly characterised by the claims they level over their members: they present themselves as exercising supreme authority, claiming to have the final say about the obligations of their members, to be the final determiner of political and personal disputes. Citizenship is a form of state membership that brings with it a share in the governance of the state: it is the citizens, through the institutions of the constitution, that determine the decisions and policies of the state. Understood in this light, dual citizenship is inherently problematic. The individual is a member of two states, states animated by two distinct citizenries, which make competing claims to supremacy over her.

In the real world, of course, this is rarely a problem. Having a small number of people within the state who possess dual citizenship does not significantly impair the state’s capacity to coordinate action within the community. But if all, or a large portion, of the Scottish citizenry were also citizens of the (remainder of) United Kingdom, the potential for tension would be far greater. The capacity of the United Kingdom to control its people – to make good on its assertions of authority – would be significantly impaired. And, by derivation, the capacity of the citizens of the United Kingdom to control their state would be reduced.

The converse of this observation also presents difficulties. Whilst the state asserts authority over its citizens, it purports to exercise this authority to advance their wellbeing: the welfare of its citizens is, or should be, the primary concern of the state. If Scottish citizens were also UK citizens, UK institutions would have a direct interest in the ways in which Scottish citizens were treated. In such a situation, the UK could properly take an interest in the decisions of Scottish institutions; indeed, it could be argued that it would be under a duty to do so.  The overlap of citizenship could, then, generate conflict between the two states.

Furthermore, British citizens who live abroad are entitled to vote in elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1985, a British citizen who has lived abroad for up to fifteen years can register to vote in parliamentary elections. Registration is tied to the last address at which the person lived – and this requirement might be enough to ensure that UK citizens in Scotland are not able to vote in elections (their place of residence now being part of a foreign country). But there are the seeds of an interesting legal challenge here. The driving purpose of these provisions of the RPA 1985 was to give citizens living abroad the vote. The registration requirement was included to ensure that this right could not be manipulated by political parties, who might be tempted to fill up marginal seats with friendly ex-pat voters. It could be argued that where a person’s place of former residency has disappeared, she should be permitted to register in the constituency nearest to that location. The Human Rights Act might be invoked to support or require this reading. Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights has been construed to include the right to vote in elections. The European Court of Human Rights has accepted that states can place residency requirements on the right to vote – it is permissible to deny those settled in a foreign country the right. It could be argued, however, that a law that gave the right to vote to a UK citizen living in Spain, but denied the right to a UK citizen in Scotland amounted to discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights: if the UK gives this right to some citizens who live abroad, it must accord the same right to all such citizens.

Finally, dual citizenship raises a broader question of fairness. Whilst all Scottish citizens would maintain their UK citizenship, those living in the rest of the UK who did not satisfy the Scottish citizenship test would not be able to acquire dual citizenship in return. Scottish citizens would gain the benefits of UK citizenship – being able to move freely between the two states, benefiting from consular representation overseas, perhaps being able to vote – whilst most UK citizens would not receive the benefits of Scottish citizenship.

For these reasons, it may be the case that the UK, at independence, will not initially permit its citizens to hold dual citizenship with Scotland. People alive at the moment of independence may have to choose: they can be either UK citizens or Scottish citizens. Such a requirement need not be permanent. Once the two citizenries are relatively well-defined, people born after independence could then benefit from the normal rules that govern joint citizenship – with a modest number of dual citizens emerging over a long period of time.

The European Dimension

A few paragraphs ago, I commented that dual citizenship is unusual and, in some ways, problematic. European citizenship might be thought to be a form of dual citizenship writ large – it is held by all citizens of the Member States of the European Union, and is dependent upon their national citizenship. This duality has spurred considerable discussion of the nature of citizenship in European scholarship: does European citizenship show that the institution of citizenship can transcend the state, or is it window-dressing, an effort to persuade the peoples of Europe to accept the governance of the European Union? For our purposes, though, it is the link between UK citizenship and EU citizenship that is of importance.

If the tight timetable for independence following a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum is adhered to, it is almost certain that Scotland will become an independent state before its accession to the European Union. It is also almost certain that the remainder of the UK will remain a member of the European Union after independence. There will be a period when the UK is a member of the EU, but Scotland is not. Consequently, the assertion in Section 25 of the Draft Interim Constitution that Scottish citizens will also be European citizens will be ineffective: conferral of European citizenship will not be within the jurisdiction of the Scottish state at that time.   The gap between independence and accession will necessitate the creation of temporary legal structures to enable Scotland to operate as if it were a member state, devices which, at a minimum, ensure the Scottish people continue to enjoy the basic rights that membership of the EU brings.

There are a number of ways in which this might be achieved, but one which may tempt some EU institutions – especially the European Court of Justice – is by preventing the UK removing the citizenship of those who are also citizens of Scotland. If all Scottish citizens were also UK citizens they would continue to enjoy the rights conferred by the European Union – in particular, they would continue to benefit from the right to freedom of movement within the territory of the Union. In the case of Rottmann the European Court of Justice held that as the removal of national citizenship caused the loss of European citizenship, decisions of Member States regarding the removal of citizenship were reviewable under European Law. If the United Kingdom were to attempt to strip Scottish citizens of their UK citizenship it is likely that this would be subject to review in the courts, and likely that the ECJ would be asked to rule on the question. It is possible, at least, that it might conclude that the removal of European citizenship from such a large number of people runs contrary to European Law.


There are no easy answers to the citizenship questions that would be raised by a vote for independence. If the UK were to permit Scottish citizens to retain their UK citizenship, problems would be raised around the participation of Scots in UK parliamentary elections. If, as is, I think, more likely, the UK were to require people to choose between UK and Scottish citizenship, the decision may run into problems with European Law.

Nick Barber is Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Oxford University, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. This post first appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Blog.

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