All the world’s a stage
IF YOU had a problem, what would you do? Keep quiet? Hope it all goes away? Or use it as an opportunity? Would you tell your story to change the debate, particularly if was an issue with international ramifications?
It was these sort of questions that Guernsey’s government was grappling with when a deluge of stories around the so-called Paradise Papers broke last November. This huge leak of documents about ‘tax havens’ was generating headlines around the world. Sure, Jersey was getting a particular beating rather than Guernsey. However, all international finance centres were in the crosshairs by association – whatever the actual ‘truth’ of the situation.
To such a backdrop, there were two options for Guernsey. Hold back or speak out. What to do amounted to a question of leadership. Having consulted the States’ top team, the answer came from P&R president Gavin St Pier.
Now was the moment to go on the offensive and grab the ear of the UK and indeed the international public. The way to do it? With some plain, even blunt, speaking from Deputy St Pier via the media.
With a deliberately robust approach to stir up media interest, Deputy St Pier went on BBC 5 Live’s Wake Up to Money programme. Within 30 minutes of that interview, I understand that he was contacted by Adam Boulton of Sky News to appear on the news channel. From there, it snowballed – the strategy had worked a treat.
The key message was that Guernsey had nothing to be ashamed of and that the Paradise Papers were a ‘well-planned ongoing political campaign’. Within a few short hours, Deputy St Pier had reached potentially millions of people through the media. Crucially, he was helping frame the debate while putting Guernsey and our reality on the international stage.
It’s not easy to appear in the full glare of the media spotlight and face a grilling from journalists. However, there was confidence that Deputy St Pier’s calmness and knowledge – and a nice turn of phrase – would see him through. His performance also generated an international response.
Following the media coverage, I understand that messages arrived in the States’ email inbox from senior business people from across the globe. It was great to see a government leader speak in such terms, said the messages. Closer to home, there was praise from businesses in Jersey – with some even questioning whether they had chosen the right island to base their business.
That decision to go on the offensive last November is also one that has been playing out ever since. Sensing the success of the Paradise Papers response, Deputy St Pier and his team have deployed his enhanced profile to stake out and defend Guernsey’s position in the face of considerable external pressures. The experience and expertise of Lyndon Trott as P&R vice-president and Jonathan Le Tocq, who has the external relations brief, have also played a key part in this strategy.
Take the near-constitutional crisis over attempts by some British MPs to make domestic law for the Crown Dependencies in May. The discrete matter in hand related to forcing public beneficial ownership registers on us. However, it would have overturned centuries of constitutional conventions that the British parliament does not legislate for us on domestic matters. Deputy St Pier was not backwards in coming forward to spell out the consequence.
He raised the prospect of a referendum on the Bailiwick’s constitutional relationship if the UK breached those constitutional conventions. If it ever happened, surely Guernsey would stick with Britain? Or might it go the way of the Brexit referendum? I’m not sure any UK minister would want to go down in history as the person who lost such a referendum in Guernsey.
The tough language was the equivalent of a verbal warning shot across the bows of the UK government and a demonstration of the island holding its own on the international stage.
Having put down a clear marker on the constitutional issue, which remains, it was interesting to see how Deputy St Pier and the Guernsey delegation engaged during the British-Irish Council summit held in Guernsey just a few weeks ago.
The council is made up of the UK and Irish governments, plus the devolved administrations of the UK and the Crown Dependencies. It discusses issues of common concern, with Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, UK Cabinet minister David Lidington and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar among those at the summit.
In its communique, the council said that ministers recognised the importance of respecting ‘complex, long-established and formal relationships’ across the islands of the council. Certainly, it was more diplomatic language but made the point about respecting constitutional conventions – and this was reinforced at the summit press conference.
Deputy St Pier, who hosted the summit, was on the platform with senior and seasoned British and Irish politicians. However, he was anything but fazed. He used the opportunity to set out Guernsey’s position on issues such as tax and Brexit – and send the message out to a wider audience through the assembled international media.
It was telling when Nicola Sturgeon warned the UK government to respect constitutional conventions and stay out of making law that the devolved authorities and the Crown Dependencies are responsible for.
Guernsey also won praise for meeting global standards in terms of its financial services sector, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Lidington both recognising that they needed to ensure that was better understood – including by British MPs.
I also understand that senior officials from other delegations were full of praise for Deputy St Pier, along the lines of the island being lucky to have someone like him to protect and explain its position.
Such comments take us back to the start of this column and that question about how to reframe the debate. In that respect, Deputy St Pier and his team have held their own nationally and internationally – and been doing a pretty good job for Guernsey to boot.