No taxation without representation
Today is the day of the London mayoral election. Ken and Boris are squaring off over who gets to claim credit for throwing money at London, and who gets to avoid blame for transport failures. And I, a taxpaying resident of London, who regularly uses public transport, do not get to vote.
As I’ve previously written, studying African colonial history can help to prepare you for the weird and wonderful rules of citizenship, and remind you that there is no ‘natural’ truth to this stuff – it’s all a series of compromises and contingencies. So in the UK, citizens of Commonwealth countries, the Republic of Ireland are allowed to vote in all elections, and the European Union are allowed to vote in local, supralocal (today’s), or regional assembly (Scottish parliament, etc) elections. So (some) former subjects of the Empire are treated locally as citizens. And current members of the EU are treated (sometimes) as citizens.
Americans in Britain usually get told in this kind of situation that we fought a war and so if we wanted those rights we should have stuck around in the Empire, etc etc. But since the Republic of Ireland gets these rights, that seems a little false in this case. On the other hand, the US doesn’t let foreigners vote at all.
So why does this always come back to colonial history? Well, growing up in the US, the story that you get is that the British Empire was bad because it taxed its subjects without allowing them to have elected representation. And there’s a general feeling across the board that part of what makes imperialism so damaging is that it is run by unaccountable autocrats. And a lot of that comes down to tax extraction again, and the idea that the taxes being bullied out of Africans or Indians were not being used to develop the local infrastructure, education provision, etc, but were being used to build parks and public works in London and Manchester.
In other words, there is an immigrant class of most countries today that is not represented in the system in which they’re paying tax. And when a lot of public vitriol is directed at this class, and silly policies are put into place, it becomes clear that their under-representation creates a delightful new way to ‘other’, and to exploit from the inside.
We like to think that all of the great voting struggles were overcome by the anti-colonial revolutions, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, women’s suffrage…. we like to think of the West as being complete democracy and of being the only way that modernity could have happened. But as I’ve said in previous posts, there are a lot of different ways that things could have turned out (and could still), and the assumption that immigrants should not vote is just that – an assumption, not a ‘truth’. As the inclusion or exclusion of different types of immigrant in various countries shows, citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities that come with it are invented, and could easily change again.