I was once invited for a dram to the home of an elderly Scot who had spent his working life making a stack of money in Bermuda, and had now retired there. He was called something like Sandy McTavish-Brown and his home resembled a tourist hotel in Fort William: all tartan carpets, cromachs, polished quaichs and walls garnished with targes and clan insignia.
Reason insists that he greeted me in immaculately pressed Bermuda shorts, knee socks and a Munrospun tie, but when I think back on the encounter I always see a dress kilt and Glengarry. Like many Scots toffs, he had lightly overlaid an Etonian drawl with occasional phlegmy Scottish consonants, like James Robertson Justice in Whisky Galore
I had been invited via a mutual friend because, as a journalist on The Scotsman
, I represented an irresistible link with The Auld Country, of which his memories had been coloured, I suspect, by too many years reading Compton Mackenzie and John Buchan. He kept asking whether I knew people with names like The Macgregor of Achnapuddle. I was in my mid-20s, and the people I knew back home had names like Stevie and Dave. I was, I fear, a sorry disappointment to him, though he couldn't have been nicer about it.
He became my stereotype for the long-term expat who has spent decades gazing on the homeland from afar through the wrong end of a rose-tinted telescope. It is a caricature that has been enhanced by decamping to France myself, and encountering seasoned expat Brits: usually, it must be admitted, while moving as fast as I can in the opposite direction from the approaching bray.
I do my best to avoid them, not out of snobbish disdain but because they are not the people I came here to meet. Occasionally, though, I find myself in one of those areas, in the Dordogne or western Provence, where they do cluster and form their reading groups, bridge clubs and Gilbert & Sullivan societies, and the whole commune looks and sounds like a Surrey garden fête without the drizzle. I contemplate the Panama hats, Blue Harbour polo-shirts and Laura Ashley dresses in the market square and speculate that if an incontinent seagull were passing overhead and wanted to avoid hitting a card-carrying Conservative (though why would it?) it would have its work cut out.
Such thoughts filled my mind this week as I was performing one of the periodic rituals of the expat: namely, filling in my annual Overseas Voter form. These days you do it online, and an automatic reply pings back acknowledging receipt and warning you that Priti Patel is going to be pretty miffed if you've told any fibs. A day or so later, a further email arrived from one Graeme Strachan, electoral registration officer for Lothian, reminding me that I could only vote in UK-wide elections, that my vote would be counted in the UK constituency I last inhabited, and that I should remember that the postal service might have been Trumped into taking a while to convey my ballot paper.
Various disconnected bits of legislation have left me in the odd position that I can only vote in those elections in which I have the least direct stake. The Brexit fiasco robbed me of my previous right, as an EU citizen, to vote in French municipal elections, despite the king's ransom I fork over in municipal taxes for local services that I actually use. Meanwhile, the legislation setting up the Scottish Parliament decreed that voting for Scottish elections and referenda should be confined to people resident in Scotland. Hence, I'm stuck with Westminster elections where, as we all know, the votes of Scots, wherever resident, almost never have much bearing on the outcome.
That said, I strongly supported the Holyrood residency rules at the time they were formulated, and I think I still do. The devolved parliament may legislate in all the policy areas about which I, as a keen consumer of political debate, care most – education, health, economic development, justice, local government, arts and heritage – but I can't honestly pretend that many of the decisions it takes now affect me personally. Sure, such tax and NI as I pay on my scraps of residual income as a mostly retired journalist is paid in Scotland, but that liability may shift to France with the final Brexit breach. Not that it will exactly revitalise the economy of the Fifth Republic.
At the time, Holyrood was rightly concerned with demonstrating that a devolved Scotland would be ethnically inclusive, and that citizens' voting rights would reside in the people of Scotland rather than in Scottish people – in other words, in those, of whatever origin, who chose to live in Scotland, rather than in Scots who chose to live somewhere else. I can't take serious issue with that.
But I do sometimes feel envious of English fellow-expats, who continue to exercise all the voting rights they would have if they still lived in the UK. And I wonder what real entitlement any of us have to expect to continue to influence electoral outcomes in the countries on which we have turned our backs. At present, overseas voting rights last (annually renewed) for 15 years. The Tory manifesto last December revived a previous undertaking to make it lifelong. I thought again of the old boy in Bermuda, who had probably last engaged in person in Scottish politics to vote for Churchill in Dundee.
So did I vote in last year's UK General Election? Yes, hypocrite that I am, I did. For one thing, I'm romantic enough to think that voting is important and that the privilege should be exercised whenever it's available. For another, I reasoned to myself, someone had to counter-balance all those Surrey Tories.
Or so I thought, until I read of a quite astonishing survey conducted recently by the University of Sussex. The survey, reported in the English-language newspaper The Connexion
, completely demolishes the standing assumption – corroborated by research from the 1990s – that the typical British expat in France is a Tory with a tan.
According to these latest figures, just 9% of the expats here who voted in December 2019 voted Conservative. This accords with a steady shrinkage since the millennium in the expat Tory vote, which was 19.4% in 2015 and 12% in 2017. Between 2015 and 2019, Labour and the Lib Dems' share of the expat vote in France climbed from 67% to 85%. Support for the SNP, we must assume, is bound up with the Greens in the 6% vote for 'others' in 2019.
The researchers attribute the decline in part to the availability of low-cost internet-booked flights, which have put travel to and from France within the reach of many more people. But they are also clear from their interviews that disgust over Brexit, which has disadvantaged expats in many ways, played the major part in the anti-Tory backlash since 2015.
Has Dominic Cummings seen this study? If so, we expats had maybe better not hold our breath for those lifelong voting rights.