OPINION: From Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll
Col. Richard Graham took his seat in the wings to assess last week’s activities of the States of Deliberation
‘ALL the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.’
Bill Shakespeare knew a thing or two about humanity and he told it in words and images that, once read or heard, sear his perceptions into our own consciousness. Just read his account of the seven ages of man and you will see what I mean.
One man who recently made his last exit at the end of his seventh age was former deputy Peter Bougourd. Last week’s States meeting began with the Deputy Bailiff’s appropriately fulsome tribute to him. Listening to her, those of us who knew him could picture him so clearly. He belonged to a generation of States deputies who would have had nothing to do with the sort of political shenanigans that we witness nowadays.
If the States of Deliberation is our stage and our deputies are its players, a lot of the political action takes place off-stage. Typically, we heard many noises-off between April’s and May’s States meetings.
Deputy Roffey managed to stir up a nest of vicious hornets.
His crime? In calling for a review of primary education, he speculated on the outcome if such a review were to be conducted and went so far as to name two primary schools that would be ripe for a merger.
In my view it was both unwise and unnecessary of him to go that far because it distracted from his argument, but that said, he was only being honest in mentioning out loud an outcome whose predictability is secretly acknowledged by just about everybody who is aware of the irrational and hopelessly inefficient structure of Guernsey’s primary school system, but keeps quiet about it. The reaction from the educational establishment could not have been more vitriolic and alarmist if Deputy Roffey had proposed bringing back the cane. Bucket loads of synthetic, sanctimonious outrage were emptied over his head by the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture. How dare he spread alarm over such a sensitive matter? Meanwhile, the ESC itself was sitting on the knowledge that it was about to announce, out of the blue, the closure of Herm School, giving parents and pupils only a few weeks’ notice. Talk about double standards.
The furore served a useful purpose in demonstrating that any review of primary education will be political dynamite, an act of electoral suicide for whichever committee implements its findings. If you doubt me, just ask former deputy and Education president Robert Sillars. Which is of course the real reason why ESC is determined to avoid a review at all costs. In my view you can forget the nonsense you hear about shortage of resources and it being the wrong time – it’s a case of a good, old-fashioned political funk.
We also heard plenty of off-stage noise about the States’ joint purchase of a boat. I’m staying out of this controversy other than to voice the thought that even after lending Condor £26m. and coughing up £3m. towards the purchase, we will still be left with a passenger ferry service that is less reliable and sails at less convenient times than the one we enjoyed 50 years ago. That’s progress for you.
Last week’s States meeting began its business with updates from the presidents of Employment & Social Security and Health & Social Care. I recently expressed scepticism about the value of these periodic statements but last week’s left me feeling more positive about them. Deputy Roffey’s update was informative rather than self-congratulatory and – joy of joys – was delivered within the time allowed. By and large, States members set personal antipathies aside and responded appropriately with sensible questions that were answered by a committee president clearly on top of his brief.
I mention in passing that not for the first time the Deputy Bailiff had to remind Deputy Moakes that question time is meant to allow members to ask questions and not to make statements of their own, no matter how helpfully intended. Apparently, the clue is in the heading ‘question time’.
The HSC president devoted much of his statement to making the case for Phase 2 of the hospital extension to have priority over ESC’s proposed development at Les Ozouets, much as the ESC president had used her update in April to argue the opposite case. I’m staying out of this ding-dong.
Deputy Gollop had lodged three questions to the ESC president about the coming Island Games. Each of the questions had only one possible answer, namely ‘yes’. Deputy Dudley-Owen dutifully replied ‘yes’ to each of them. It left me wondering what the point was in asking the questions in the first place. Suitably encouraged, Deputy Gollop launched into four questions to the president of the Development & Planning Authority concerning a review of the Island Development Plan. Big mistake! Half-an-hour later he probably wished he hadn’t. After a session which reminded me of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, he must have felt like one of those croquet players who got on the wrong side of the Queen of Hearts and finished up well and truly malleted. The DPA president stopped short of demanding ‘Off with his head’, but not before – how can I put this charitably? – she had favoured Deputy Gollop with less patience and more ill-concealed exasperation than members of the Assembly customarily show to her contributions.
The Deputy Bailiff mercifully called an end to the session, with a chuckle that suggested she couldn’t quite believe what she had witnessed.
Any deputies naive enough to assert that the toxicity in Guernsey politics doesn’t come from within the Assembly but is the weapon of sinister forces on the outside might care to explain a blatant example of group spite when members were invited to re-elect two serving members of The Ladies’ College board of governors, Deputy Soulsby and Brian Acton, both of whom were recommended by the college itself. Even though there were no other candidates, the rules demanded a secret ballot. While all members were content to elect Mr Acton, 11 members couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Deputy Soulsby and made a point of either spoiling their ballot paper or leaving it blank. Let us be clear, this was not a case of 11 members doubting Deputy Soulsby’s suitability for the position – no, the motive was pure, spiteful malice. Even more reprehensible, it was done in cowardly fashion under the anonymity of a secret ballot. Pathetic.
Mind you, secret ballot or not, those of us who understand the personal dynamics within the Assembly could tell you who the eleven were. No toxicity within the Assembly? Tell that to the fairies.
Nearly all deputies were keen to replace the Code of Conduct Panel that hears complaints made against deputies with a new creature called the Commissioner for Standards. There was a widespread belief that the system was broken, not least because certain deputies had abused it by weaponising it to attack political opponents. That belief, it seems to me, is expressed most self-righteously by those suspected of having themselves weaponised the system to attack political opponents in the past.
The debate soon exposed widespread concern that the proposed new system lacked any appeal process. The president of the States Assembly & Constitution Committee, sensing that his pet project was in danger of defeat, requested an adjournment to enable his committee to prepare an amendment that would address that concern. He assured the Deputy Bailiff that it would take only a quarter of an hour. Forty minutes later the meeting reconvened and the amendment was overwhelmingly approved. Deputy Meerveld’s gratitude to States members knew no bounds. He thanked them profusely for ignoring the temptation to kick the can down the road via a sursis or a delaying amendment. I thought crikey, that’s a bit rich coming from a deputy whose autobiography is titled Can-kicking For Pleasure – A Life Well-Lived, but this sort of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ stuff has become so commonplace in this Assembly that it didn’t raise even a hint of a giggle.
The editor kindly allows me to treat some matters with appropriate seriousness rather than with my customary leg pull. One such issue was the Assembly’s support for a projet de loi which will lead to the Lt-Governor being empowered to grant Royal Assent to much of our legislation. While we shouldn’t exaggerate the practical effect of this change, it is nonetheless a change in the right direction. I was pleased that Deputy Le Tocq paid due tribute to the late Roger Perrot, who campaigned long and hard for this reform as a member of the Constitutional Investigation Committee. But it’s just as well Deputy Le Tocq didn’t mention my own modest role on that committee – if he had, the members wouldn’t have voted the projet through unanimously.