THE special States meeting held on Sunday 27 December combined two characteristics which at first glance would be considered contradictory, even mutually exclusive; it was a meeting that was at the same time both momentous and bland.
The momentous bit is easily explained. Guernsey’s government was gathered to signal our formal acceptance of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU, which would effectively bring to an end, on 31 December 2020, a constitutional arrangement which since 1 January 1973 had defined Guernsey’s relationship initially with the European Economic Community (EEC) and later with the European Union. It could be argued that at stake was not only Guernsey’s ability to trade with the EU but also our place and status in the wider world.
A bit of history would help set the context for last month’s meeting.
It had all begun as far back as 1967 when Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government applied for the UK to join the EEC.
Alarm bells were rung in Guernsey as it became clear that our historical link to the Crown faced a new challenge. Not for the first time, Britain had elected a governing party which was ideologically programmed to view such constitutional oddities as the Crown Dependencies with suspicion, if not with distaste, and if we in Guernsey expected the UK government to be concerned about the effects on our interests of the UK’s future membership of the EEC, then we needed to think again.
The Wilson government took the view that there was no prospect of the Crown Dependencies being granted any form of limited, associate membership of the EEC since such a concession would require substantial change to the Treaty of Rome, which it was not minded to seek. The options for these islands were membership of the EEC or independence, take it or leave it. Subsequent Guernsey generations have reason to be grateful for the sequence of events which then followed. Britain’s application to join the EEC was rejected, having been blocked by an anglophobic French President, General Charles de Gaulle. The irony of a French general saving the Channel Islands from the consequences of the harmful insouciance of a British government should not be lost on those of us with an interest in our history.
Further good fortune for the Crown Dependencies was to follow. De Gaulle resigned from the French presidency in 1969 and two years later Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed one of his ministers, Geoffrey Rippon, to be his government’s chief negotiator for Britain’s renewed application for membership of the EEC. Meanwhile, Guernsey had acquired its first Deputy Bailiff in the person of John Loveridge, who led Guernsey’s negotiating team in the discussions held between the Crown Dependencies and the Home Office. These proved successful, for when Rippon negotiated Britain’s entry, he did so on terms that were acceptable to the islands. Rippon made a point of addressing a special meeting of the States on 19 November 1971 at which he stressed that the terms of Guernsey’s relationship with the EEC, via Protocol 3 to the UK Treaty of Accession, included a guarantee of the island’s fiscal autonomy. Subsequent developments would cause some of us to view that guarantee with raised eyebrows, if not outright scepticism. The States of that day voted unanimously to accept the arrangement secured for Guernsey, thereby turning the first page in a highly significant new chapter in Guernsey’s constitutional history.
On 27 December 2020 the current States effectively turned the last page of that chapter and opened the first page of the next.
Momentous stuff indeed.
So why was it all so dull and unexciting? The answer is that, just as in 1971, the States had little or no option other than to accept what was on offer. There was never the slightest prospect that the States could do anything other than agree that the TCA be extended to Guernsey. No matter that there had not been time to satisfy ourselves that there did not lie, deep within the 1,246 pages of the agreement, some hidden Pooh-trap or other that would catch this or that benefit to which we have become accustomed. And no matter that the agreement offered more questions than answers about the future of the financial services sector of our economy. The blunt truth was that as far as Guernsey and the other Crown Dependencies were concerned, the TCA was a like it or lump it agreement, and any deputies thinking to dispatch Deputy Ferbrache to Brussels to tell Michel Barnier to keep his hands off our ormers or else, would be condemning our chief minister to a futile suicide mission. It is difficult enough to get European politicians and bureaucrats even to understand the concept of a Crown Dependency let alone persuade them to grant us special favours. Besides, it appeared to be a spiffing deal, a triumph for the officers in our excellent States external relations team (in my view the unsung heroes of 2020) and – before we get too carried away in congratulating ourselves – due in no small measure to the fact that in this affair our interests and those of the UK were broadly in harmony. Had they not been, who knows where we would be now.
So it was all a bit tame as States members went through the motions before doing what they were always going to do, voting unanimously to accept the TCA and all its terms. Predictably, there were some statesmanlike bons mots uttered along the way, accompanied by the multiple nodding of sage heads, including those still looking to find where the EU is on the map. There is a simply wonderful 17th century term, ‘nod-crafty’ which so effectively describes those who are given to nodding the head with an air of great wisdom. Spotting nod-craftiness in the Assembly could become an entertaining hobby, leading to the award of Nod-crafty of the Year. Tempting, eh?
During the last political term there were huge amounts of self-congratulatory hot air released about how Guernsey’s digital connectivity was undergoing a seismic improvement under the inspired political leadership of … it was so inspirational that I have quite forgotten which deputy was doing the inspiring. But for all the talk, no improvement could be discerned and Guernsey, despite apparently being hugely inspired, continued to languish near the bottom of the international connectivity tables. Whoever has inherited the task of providing political impetus to this – I believe it is Deputy Kazantseva-Miller – might usefully start with the connectivity between the debating chamber and the media facility below. After all, they are only a few feet apart, and it may only require splicing the end of two wires and interlacing them.
As far as I am concerned, connecting with the rest of the world can be put on hold just so long as I can listen to the debates, which was just about impossible during this last meeting when it sounded to radio listeners as if the Assembly was peopled by a gathering of Daleks practising heavy breathing into their microphones.
Apparently this was a blessing in disguise for those listeners who, like me, were driven to switch off early in the debate, thereby being spared listening to one speech that reportedly extended the boundaries of fawning, buttock-clenching obsequiousness into previously unexplored territory.
As one deputy put it to me, it was bad enough having to listen to it but being obliged to applaud it as a maiden speech was doubly hard to bear.
A debate about our post-Brexit future would not be complete without a ritual lament being played by at least one member of that dedicated band of Remainers for whom any form of exit from the warm embrace of the EU will inevitably plunge the UK into a dystopian world where political untouchables are condemned to cultural and commercial isolation from all that is good in the world.
Well something like that.
The lament duly came from my former colleague Deputy Peter Roffey, who seemed surprised that the Bailiff, as presiding officer, let him persist for so long on a theme of only marginal relevance to the proposition before the Assembly. The Bailiff appeared to be equally surprised by his own indulgence of the deputy’s waywardness, and seemed to put it down to the prevailing festive spirit.
To be fair to Deputy Roffey, he spoke for many who hold similar views, but they do not include me; I have never accepted that the rest of the world, and indeed humanity itself, begins at St Malo and ends at Poland’s eastern border.