I am a middle-aged, married, working, tax-paying, house-owning man. I am not legally entitled to vote anywhere in the world.
You see, I am a British man who has lived in Japan for more than 15 years. When you have lived away from Britain for that length of time, you lose your right to vote in the U.K.. I suppose there is a logic in that. I don’t pay tax in Britain and I spend at most two weeks a year there, so what right do I have to say how things are run there? I accept that I have forfeited that right.
Japan is my home for now. I pay my taxes here and I have permanent residence here. But I do not have Japanese citizenship and because of this I am not enfranchised. It can seem a little unfair but if I felt strongly enough about it, I could apply for Japanese citizenship. I meet the requirements and don’t imagine I would be refused. I think I could become a Japanese citizen and obtain exactly the same rights as those who were born here to Japanese parents.
So, why don’t I do it? Well, for one thing, I already have indefinite leave to live in Japan. I don’t need citizenship to be permitted to stay. I am also covered by their excellent health system and entitled to a pension here, and should I fall into unemployment I would be entitled to benefits. To gain these rights I signed a couple of bits of paper and paid a fee that was so minimal I can’t even recall what it was. Suffice to say it was nothing like the fees one must pay to try to get the right to live in Britain. There was no language or culture test, either. In other words, upon marrying a Japanese citizen, I was made to feel I had a right to live in this country and indeed I have every right I could hope for except the right to vote. That is the only extra benefit that taking citizenship would confer upon me. There is one reason that stops me applying for citizenship, though. Japan does not recognise dual citizenship, and so in order to gain the right to vote in Japan I would have to renounce my British citizenship. That is not something I want to do. My wife – a Japanese citizen – and I have often thought we may one day move to the U.K and spend some time living there. Retaining British citizenship would make that much easier. Or I thought it would.
You are probably aware that there is a general election coming up in Britain. Although I have no say in this, I am following it with the heightened interest that comes with being an ex-pat watching home from afar. One thing that both grabbed my attention and dismayed me was the fact that the Conservatives have stated in their manifesto (peculiarly in a section titled ‘A COUNTRY THAT COMES TOGETHER’) that they want to increase the income threshold for ‘family visas’ where immigration is concerned. Now, what that essentially means is that they are discriminating on wealth with regard to the right to live in the U.K. with your foreign spouse. At present, under a rule devised by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, unless a British citizen earns more than 18,600 pounds a year, he or she can not bring a spouse to the U.K. to live. The conservatives want to increase that threshold so that you have to earn even more before you are allowed to bring your spouse to the U.K. ‘Well,’ you might argue, ‘times are hard, we can’t go handing out benefits to everybody who comes to the country.’ Okay, I’ll accept that. I can understand that reasoning. But Labour has a simpler plan, a more humane plan, a plan that isn’t pointlessly cruel. That is to allow foreign spouses in, but not entitle them to benefits. That way, we are kind enough to allow families to live together. And let’s be clear- we are not talking about permitting these people to become British citizens; we are simply talking about allowing them to join their spouse and perhaps look for work and contribute to society and help support their own family. We would be allowing families to stay together and accepting people who could quite literally only contribute to society. How is that bad? How can that have a detrimental effect on Britain? Unfortunately, the Conservatives will likely win the next election and more families will be separated.
I am fortunate. I earn a reasonably good income in Japan. I do so by teaching English. It is something that I have managed to turn into a good living in Japan but which I couldn’t hope to replicate in Britain. Were I to try to switch my career to the U.K., I would find it difficult to meet the income threshold to bring my wife with me. Why am I fortunate? I am fortunate because were Japan to implement the same rules as Britain, I could remain here with my wife. I would earn enough. I have friends, however, who are less fortunate. I have friends who wish to return to the U.K. and give their children the opportunity to spend at least a few years to get to know their own culture, and who can’t unless they also agree to leave their mother behind. I have friends who, if Japan followed Britain’s lead, would not legally be entitled to live anywhere with their spouse simply because they married a a foreigner and are not rich. Think about that for a second. Britain has enacted a law which, if followed by other countries, would mean some people would be forbidden from living anywhere legally with their spouse because they are not rich enough. How, I ask you, can that be acceptable?
I have kept my British citizenship and accepted my disenfranchisement because one day I might like to move home and spend some time with my parents in their frailer years. The current government is fairly sure to win the next election and make that dream all but impossible. And all because I have a Japanese wife. Of course, none of this would affect me at all if I were wealthy and had a high paying job in Britain. The defining condition for bringing a spouse to the U.K. has become money and for the current government that seems to be just fine.
I never used to think of myself as particularly proud to be British, but I’ve come to realise I was. Sometimes you don’t discover how proud you were, until you notice how embarrassed you have become.