Post Brexit, could Britain adopt ‘one country, two systems’ for Scotland?

Peter Gordon says perhaps Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangement is an idea whose time has come

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 3:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 5:50pm

Brexit has thrown up some knotty problems, one being the future of Scotland, which has little wish to leave the EU. There is speculation, not least from Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself, that this will lead to Scottish independence. There is even some discussion about how Scotland might Remain should Britain Leave.

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It seems a fanciful idea: Scotland would need to maintain a currency different from the rest of Britain, establish a border regime, have differentiated passports and implement different rules on immigration, residency and inbound travel. There would need to be customs procedures. Laws applying to the rest of Britain would not necessarily apply to Scotland. Scotland would enter into international agreements separately from the sovereign nation. On the other hand, defence might remain with Britain as a whole, as might foreign affairs.

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As implausible as it sounds, exactly these arrangements apply here in Hong Kong. The SAR has its own currency, immigration, passports, law and courts. It maintains a border with the sovereign nation and enters into its own international agreements on trade and other matters. So, what about “one country, two systems” for Britain and Scotland? Britain, one might mischievously note, keeps on telling everyone what a good arrangement it is.

Hong Kong is more used to thinking of itself as a constitutional laggard than possessor of an innovative model

Parts of Britain already operate under something similar. Due to some quirks of feudal history, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, for example, are neither part of the nation-state of Great Britain nor the European Union. While these islands might be written off as tiny and, hence, anomalies, Hong Kong and Scotland are comparable in gross domestic product and population; Hong Kong is in fact somewhat larger in both.

But Britain is not China, Scotland is not Hong Kong and the EU is not the international community. Still, this “thought experiment” serves as a reminder that “one country, two systems” is a constitutional arrangement with potential applicability to situations elsewhere. Hong Kong is more used to thinking of itself as a constitutional laggard than possessor of an innovative model that might be exported, or at least emulated. So, rather than being a consumer for imported political, legal and constitutional expertise, perhaps Hong Kong might become a source of such consultancy? Might recently defaulted Puerto Rico benefit from some additional economic and jurisdictional distance from the US, for example?

The world changes and what were once seen as drawbacks can end up advantageous. Perhaps “one country, two systems” is an idea whose time has come – and not just here.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books