Consideration for expats has been so far down the mix in the Brexit cacophony as to be all but inaudible. Perhaps this is just as well, given the antique slanders flying around about quislings, appeasers, traitors, collaborators and the rest. Better not talked about at all, than talked about by Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson. And no doubt they would say that it is we
who have turned our backs on our own country, not the other way around. Which I suppose it is.
So it came as no surprise that almost the first thoughtful or kindly word I've heard from a politician about us expats came from a French politician, not a British one. 'I want to tell British people living here that they will be welcome tomorrow as they are today', said Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau.
'They must not become hostages of a no-deal', Loiseau said. 'We commit ourselves without ambiguity to do everything to ensure a situation comparable to that which they would have benefited from in the context of the [Theresa May] deal.' Which is not the same as the rights that free movement bestowed before the 'Boy's Own' fantasists back in Blighty took charge, of course, but it's better than nothing, and the Assemblée National has backed it up with enabling legislation that will allow our rights to be shored up short-term if the UK does blunder out of the EU without a deal.
I read Loiseau's speech in The Connexion, an excellent monthly newspaper for expats in France. The same issue runs an interview with Olivier Cadic, who is a publisher and a member of the French Senate, or upper house. Cadic is one of 12 senators and 11 French MPs elected specifically to represent the interests of French people living overseas. Each of the MPs covers a particular foreign jurisdiction: the senators have a worldwide roving brief. The MPs are directly elected by French residents in the relevant country, the senators chosen by a consultative body, the 'Assembly of the French Abroad', which is elected by all French overseas citizens registered with the consular service.
What is particularly interesting about Cadic, who currently lives in Kent, is that he has also taken on a proactive role as a spokesman for, and defender of, the rights of British people living in France. 'I consider that defending the British of France is in a way an extension of defending the French of the UK', he told The Connexion. 'It's the other side of the coin. It doesn't seem right to me not also to think about them. Their fates are linked and I found it natural to speak for both.'
Cadic does not trouble to labour the contrast with the treatment of British expats by the British political system. Britain has spent the last few years closing consulates for the usual reasons of fiscal parsimony, though it claims now to be ramping up staffing levels at those that remain in a belated effort to help expats who will need to acquire carte de séjour residency status (a painstaking process that took us more than half a year) after Brexit demolishes our rights as EU citizens. Presumably, it will be just a temporary expansion.
Officially, however, the position of the British government is that if expats want help, they should talk to the MP in the last constituency where they lived…the enthusiasm of MPs for helping people who can't vote for them being, of course, well-known. Only the Lib Dems have advocated MPs for expats, which is not a huge comfort. 'What it means is that for the [British] government you don't exist, as British expatriates', says Cadic. 'The British have an insular view and if you're not on the island any more it's over.'
Which set me to wondering whether this idea of designated representation for Scottish expats isn't something the Scottish parliament might look at.
An MSP or two charged with representing Scots resident overseas would provide expats with the assurance that their wellbeing was at least formally of interest in Edinburgh. Ideally, this would be additional to the current 129 MSPs, though I'm frankly unsure whether it is within Holyrood's power, after all the reboots of the Scotland Act, to increase its own membership. But it would be a parliamentary, not a governmental or constitutional, reform. The remits and responsibilities of MSPs are for Holyrood, not Westminster, to determine. If electing additional MSPs is not allowed, then redesignating existing ones (as the French did) surely would be. The quality of Scottish democracy would not be massively diminished by diverting a list MSP or two into representing the diaspora.
This would not be a role that exercised any executive power beyond the normal voting and speaking rights of an MSP in the Holyrood chamber. Foreign affairs are a reserved power, and upholding (or not) the interests of Brits abroad would remain the prerogative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But a designated MSP would provide a channel into public debate for the concerns of Scotland's expats, and lend the authority of an elected parliament to any case that needed made on their behalf. It would also burnish Holyrood's sense of itself as a beacon for all Scotland's people, wherever they might have roamed. It would give exiles someone of elected authority to pursue issues for them, and it would enhance the international profile that the parliament has sought to build through initiatives like the Malawi projects and the 'Scotland House' hubs overseas.
Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that there's already a minister for the diaspora. As a diasporant myself, I certainly was. He is Ben Macpherson, junior to Brexit brigadier Michael Russell, and I'm sure he's a perfectly decent chap. But since his remit also includes big ticket issues like migration, fair trade and international development – not to mention the trifle of the EU – it seems unlikely that disgruntled expats dominate his in-tray. MSPs elected to nudge his elbow might help.
It's hard to see why these MSPs couldn't be directly elected by their constituents. The French route of consular registration would probably not be available, since it is unlikely the FCO would play nice. But it should be fairly easy, in the age of data, to check whether Scots wishing to vote for an expats' MSP have previously been on an electoral roll in Scotland, or whether they or their families list Scottish birthplaces in those retro blue passports we're all so excited to have been promised.
For sure, this idea would be only a modest substitute for the ideal of a Scotland restored to full membership of, and fully engaged with, the European Union. All the same, electing someone to speak to power on our behalf would go some small way to mitigate the official indifference of which Brexit has made expats deeply conscious.
It would not restore the assurances we enjoy under freedom of movement. It would not replicate the privilege of EU citizenship. Life in the wake of the Brexit vote is only ever a quest to make things less worse: there is no part of it that makes anything better. Nor do expats look for favours from the country they left behind. This is not about entitlement. But when your country is wantonly, negligently and needlessly threatening the life choices you have legitimately made for yourself, it would be good to think that someone back there was contractually obliged to give a damn.