What Hong Kong can do for Scotland – Roy Leckie

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It is well known that Scotland had a massive influence on the success of Britain’s former colony Hong Kong. It is more deeply rooted than just the preponderance of Scottish place names, the businesses with Scottish foundations and the fact that Hong Kong’s rugby team play in the blue of Scotland. It was an Edinburgh man, a disciple of Adam Smith called John James Cowperthwaite, who was the brains behind Hong Kong’s success. When he assumed the role of Finance Secretary in the colony in the early 1960s, the UK’s GDP per capita was about four times that of Hong Kong’s. Today, Hong Kong’s is substantially greater. Cowperthwaite, aided and abetted by vast numbers of Scots businessmen and administrators, was the architect of this prosperity.

It is time for us to ask the people of Hong Kong to return the favour to Scots and Scotland. Those seeking to escape China’s creeping authoritarianism should come and inject some much needed dynamism into Scotland’s economy. The Scottish government must capitalise on Westminster’s plan to offer a route to UK citizenship to the more than three million people living in Hong Kong who currently have a right to British National (Overseas) (BNO) passports.

From January 2021 holders of BNO status and their immediate families may apply for entry visas, for either two periods of 30 months or a single period of five years. After five years they can apply to settle in the UK, and then obtain full citizenship after a further 12 months. 

Scotland has a huge opportunity to benefit from this opening of our borders, by leveraging its historical and current bonds with Hong Kong. I would love to see the devolved government being proactive, positioning Scotland as the UK’s most attractive region for Hong Kong’s best and brightest to settle in. We should immediately start engaging with all of those Scots who have links to Hong Kong: individuals, businesses and our universities. Plans and policies should be designed and put into action.

Just as the recently launched inward investment strategy seeks to shape Scotland’s future economy, at least as much thought and energy should be allocated to the task of encouraging an influx of human capital, the return on which I believe would be considerable. If we can create policies that seek to incentivise companies to come to Scotland, let’s do so for Hong Kongers too.

Attracting 100,000 or more well educated, law-abiding, hardworking, enterprising Hong Kongers to Scotland would not just help fuel the eventual post-pandemic recovery. It would go a long way to alleviating some of our most intense structural pressures. 

Most worrying among these, if not immediately critical, is our demographic profile. Scotland needs more young, productive tax payers. Our population has barely grown over the last half-century, but it has aged. The ratio of workers to retirees is just over two, and falling. The fertility rate likewise, is low. It’s likely that (the BNO programme aside) constraints around the UK’s immigration policies will tighten rather than loosen. So how are we to fund future health, welfare and pension obligations? We have had a long bull market in expectations around welfare provision, but it’s been accompanied by a steady decline in our ability to deliver.

HMRC’s data starkly highlights the lack of breadth and depth across Scotland’s tax base. Too many people pay no income tax at all, and we have only 15,000 additional rate payers. As working from home becomes more the rule than the exception, the Scottish government should be concerned that some higher earners will move to more fiscally conservative (or sunnier?) climes. Indeed, by playing a game of arbitrage with the rest of the UK at the highest marginal tax rate, Scotland could become relatively attractive not just to those coming from Hong Kong, but to many high earning Scots currently living in London or elsewhere.

Hong Kong’s population is well known for its entrepreneurial vitality. Despite being devoid of any natural resources, the resilience and adaptability of its labour force has underwritten its success. We have much to learn (or re-learn) about the virtues of self-reliance and productiveness. Not only is Hong Kong wealthy, it is healthy. As far as education goes, Hong Kong ranks higher than Scotland in most international comparisons. In fact one just has to look at the attainment levels across UK by ethnicity. Chinese students are way out in front.  

Unlike most other solutions to our country’s challenges, an influx of Hong Kongers should be ideologically neutral from a political perspective. That is, there is no reason for any of Holyrood’s parties to object on philosophical grounds. This is a win-win proposal, for Scotland and for those who would choose to leave the growing menace of the Chinese state’s influence on Hong Kong.

If there is a downside, it is the risk of upsetting China. But my answer to this is that we should ‘play the long game’. In time, a substantial Hong Kong Chinese diaspora in Scotland would be of great benefit to our economic ties with the Orient. 

So this is a plea to those in Scotland who are in a position to affect this situation. As the Union Jack was lowered for the last time outside Hong Kong’s Government House on 30th June 1997, Highland Cathedral was played by the Hong Kong Police Pipe Band. It’s time to reacquaint the people of Hong Kong with the country to which they owe so much, and which owes them so much in return.

Roy Leckie is Executive Director – Investment & Client Service at Walter Scott, an Edinburgh-based investment management business.