OPINION: The trouble with Guernsey…

It may have read like a cosy fireside chat, but retiring Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder’s farewell comments to the island were much more of a wake-up call. Richard Digard decodes the message.

Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder and Lady Corder leaving Government House with Milo the dog. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 30239569)
Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder and Lady Corder leaving Government House with Milo the dog. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 30239569)

THE trouble with Guernsey, according to retiring Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder, is that it’s too complacent, too comfortable and with a tendency to care too little for those doing less well than the rest. Admittedly, he didn’t put it in those words, but here’s why I’m sticking with that interpretation of his farewell interview in this newspaper last week.

Sir Ian is a skilled diplomat. It’s one of the reasons why he got the job here. He’s also a strategist, which is why he was the UK’s military representative to Nato and the EU before coming to Guernsey. And twice now, he has warned the Bailiwick to spend more time ‘horizon-scanning’ and identifying how the island can continue to prosper.

The first time was in 2018, about 18 months into his term of office, when he called on the Institute of Directors and other business leaders to help government articulate what sort of strategic future the Bailiwick should have to help it underpin its successes to date and mitigate the challenges ahead.

So you can take it as revealing that he has returned to the same theme for his farewell message, delivered as the best briefed individual on Guernsey, given his access to all levels of society here plus contacts with the UK government and the Crown.

It’s revealing, too, that he figuratively upped the volume on this when he urged the islands to start a conversation to identify what ‘good’ looks like in the long term for the Bailiwick. Guernsey in particular needed the time and capacity for a continuous conversation with itself on that long-term strategic future.

Knowing what good looks like in this context is also significant. As he said, ‘…although we are generally a wealthy and successful place, the cost of living here is extremely high and there are some very significant affordability hurdles for those who are not directly involved in, for example, the finance industry, or those lucrative occupations that support it. That is something we need to think about quite hard.’

‘Quite hard’ is actually a ticking off. Guernsey hasn’t done anywhere near enough to tackle inequality, particularly in access to and the affordability of accommodation. And now, after a global recession in 2008 and a pandemic over the last couple of years, the least resilient in the community face a housing crisis not of their making and a real squeeze on already-stretched disposable incomes because of rocketing inflation and rents.

There were two other themes raised by Sir Ian. The first was Guernsey’s utter reliance on its employee skills base. The second concerned the difficulty of getting anything done – ‘the specific nature of the representative government we have, in particular the committee structure, also requires a broader-based consensus to move things forward here’, as he put it.

And that consensus is so difficult to reach. Again, as he put it, ‘The population is, on the whole, quite comfortable and so there is a certain “Why should we?” attitude with some’.

Hence my summary of his message to Guernsey as being too complacent, too comfortable, and not caring enough.

The point is, none of this is new. Sir Ian is merely the latest and most eminent observer to say these things – and I detect some frustration in his having to return to the same theme yet again.

As he told the IoD in 2018, ‘Great leaders have a clear and credible “vision of the future”, not just a “position of the moment”,’ which makes you wonder what he makes of the Government Work Plan. He also observed that anyone can be ‘in command’ when everything is going to plan – ‘it’s when it isn’t that the commander earns his or her spurs’.

So what does a ‘good’ Guernsey look like – and how will that translate for the next generation, say come 2050?

Well, Sir Ian was upbeat. ‘Whatever happens in the world, I am confident these islands will be resourceful and imaginative in the way they respond, but that’s not to say there aren’t some significant challenges heading our way.’

Let’s hope so, but we’re certainly cutting it fine to demonstrate the resourcefulness and creativity he detects: education ‘reforms’ a cop-out compromise, with no chance of standards-improving local management of schools; desperately-needed harbour improvements sidelined; no steer on how we’re to decarbonise; public finances compromised; and swathes of the community in relative poverty and appalling housing.

The latest GDP figures, which show the size of Guernsey’s economy, indicate how bad the Covid slump has been for hospitality, transport and construction – areas that need staff and customers to recover – and to a lesser extent finance.

I mention that industry, despite it weathering the pandemic well on the latest estimates, because it is now 40% of the economy. That’s about the same as the public sector, retail, household and professional/business sectors added together – and finance is totally dependent on the ecosystem of talent and skills being sufficient for its needs.

Yet despite the population showing some signs of growth, the number in work is falling and is forecast to shrink further at a time when we already have staff shortages and wage inflation, the price of rents and property are at all-time highs and the cost of travel here is eye-watering.

Talk of expanding the working population has already triggered the usual ‘over-my-dead-body’ response and a suggestion (actually, it’s essential) that the runway be modestly extended has also provoked the equally predictable I’ll-die-in-a-ditch-first squad. Reference Sir Ian’s ‘Why should we?’ observation above.

Thinking about it, the Lt-Governor’s farewell message was pretty plain: ‘People of Guernsey, you’re a great bunch, we’ve loved being here, and the Bailiwick is a really special place. But for heaven’s sake wake up and smell the coffee. To keep it that way, you can’t keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome.’

So, yes, I agree with his analysis that the future is in our hands. It’s just that at the moment we look set to let it go by default.

PS: One of my favourite quotes from Sir Ian certainly seems appropriate at the current time:

‘You can always resort to the style of leadership personified in an apocryphal naval officer’s performance report... “His men would follow him anywhere, if only out of a sense of curiosity”.’

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