United Kingdom: Full rights for Commonwealth citizens

United Kingdom: Full rights for Commonwealth citizens


The citizens of the 54 countries that belonged to the former British Empire are entitled to vote and stand for election for all elections

In Great Britain, there is a unique type of legislation concerning the voting rights of foreigners. This is because there is distinction made between two types of foreigners: those who are citizens of the Commonwealth and the others. The difference lies in the rights that the former enjoy and that the others do not. The Commonwealth has 54 member countries, and their citizens have privileged status in the United Kingdom by comparison with foreign citizens of non-member countries. They have voting rights for all elections, with the exception of the European elections, and can, in addition, stand for election for all of them. These rights were established with the aim of organising the representation of minority groups, and are not based on the principle of reciprocity, unlike the case of Spain; not all Commonwealth member countries grant this right.

Each level has its own law governing representation, with the 1983 Representation of the People Act granting eligibility to Commonwealth citizens. According to the official figures given to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2006, 1,162,00 of the 3,353,000 foreigners residing in the UK are citizens of Commonwealth countries. Of this figure, 988,000 are adults from the Commonwealth and are thus entitled to vote in all British elections.

One might think that after the rupture of decolonisation, these countries could not demand the right to vote for their citizens. But the 1918 Representation of the People Act granted voting rights to all British subjects. If the countries gained independence, their citizens would lose these rights. When the Commonwealth was founded, the rights were re-established. After many racial riots, the British government passed legislation on racial equality for the first time 1976 in an effort to combat discrimination.

An essential question now faces the United Kingdom: what is to be done for foreign people who have been residing in the country for many years? There are two possible solutions: extend Commonwealth voting rights to the citizens of other countries, or grant British nationality to foreigners residing in the country.

Alexandrine Yala