23 October 2018
The British royal family has sovereignty over the Channel islands, hence the steadfast loyalty of the people to the British monarch. Photo:
The British royal family has sovereignty over the Channel islands, hence the steadfast loyalty of the people to the British monarch. Photo:

Channel Islands: Where ‘one country, two systems’ is a win-win

The British royal family is still very much in favor with the public, but advocates of republicanism in the UK have vowed to push for a referendum on abolishing the British monarchy once Queen Elizabeth II has passed away.

Recently I have visited the Channel Islands, a tiny island chain in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy. When I asked the local people how they would react if the British people eventually voted to get rid of the royal family, their answers were almost unanimous: they are welcome to move the capital there.

They might have only been joking and one might not have taken their “invitation” seriously, but joking apart, people of the Channel Islands have actually been known for their unwavering loyalty to the British monarchy for centuries.

And despite its small size and tiny population, the Channel Islands indeed have a very unique and interesting historical background so much so that the place has remained a subject of particular interest among international relations academics and historians over the years.

The Channel Islands are interesting because, even though they are populated predominantly by Brits and are often considered British territory by foreigners, constitutionally speaking the islands are in fact neither part of the UK nor its overseas territories. Therefore, the Channel Islands don’t fall within the jurisdiction of the central government in London.

Instead, the Channel Islands have been officially existing as a “crown dependency” since as early as the 10th century when the British Isles were conquered by the Normans.

In other words, constitutionally speaking, the sovereignty of the Channel Islands actually belongs to the British royal family rather than the British government, and hence the local population’s steadfast allegiance to the British monarch, who has been, for more than a millennium, ruling the islands in name only not in their capacity as the king or queen, but rather intriguingly, either as the Duke or Duchess of Normandy.

With an area of just 200 square kilometers and a population of a little more than 160,000, the Channel Islands are made up of two administrative districts: the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, both of which are given a high degree of autonomy strictly observed by London and are run separately by their own local authorities.

Since the Channel Islands have been adopting a multi-layered governance framework, and each layer of government also enjoys a high degree of autonomy, therefore not only do Jersey and Guernsey have their own governments, legislatures and courts, but the sub-regions under them, such as the tiny islands of Alderney and Sark under the Bailiwick of Guernsey, also have their own legislatures.

As such, laws passed by the central parliament of Guernsey don’t automatically apply to either Alderney or Sark: they have to be submitted to the local legislatures of these two islands for scrutiny and voting to decide whether they will be applicable there or not.

(Editor’s note: For readers who might find it a bit incomprehensible, let me put that in another way. Imagine this: every district or island in Hong Kong is given a high degree of autonomy. Therefore, for example, any piece of legislation passed by Legco won’t be applicable to Lamma Island until it is also passed by the Lamma district council. And this is exactly how things work in the Channel Islands.)

As far as the British government in London is concerned, it has jurisdiction over the Channel Islands only when it comes to foreign policies and defense, other than that it doesn’t have any say in their internal affairs.

Likewise, laws passed by Westminster don’t apply to the Channel Islands until they get the thumbs up from the Jersey and Guernsey legislatures.

However, the power to name the governors of both Jersey and Guernsey, who also by tradition serve as their chief justices and parliamentary heads concurrently, does remain in the hands of the British monarch.

When Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973, the Channel Islands, given its unique identity, were asked to negotiate a separate treaty with Brussels.

And as London is embarking on Brexit talks with the EU, the Channel Islands are also negotiating a separate deal with Brussels under which its products and produce can, hopefully, continue to have free access to the European single market in the future.

Despite being a bit complicated, the unique constitutional and political structures of the Channel Islands have stood the test of time and are still functioning well even after almost a thousand years. In particular, the existing system has proven instrumental in preserving the local character and tradition of the Channel Islands, thereby creating a win-win situation between them and London.

The successful experience in practicing “one country, two systems” by the Channel Islands for the past millennium may in fact provide some useful insights for Hong Kong into how we can reduce tension between us and Beijing and also facilitate a win-win situation across the border.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 14

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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