Elections, economy

I HAVE certainly enjoyed my brief rebirth as a Guernsey Press columnist but sadly it has to come to an end. The eagle-eyed will have noticed I’d already stopped writing at the end of 2019 only to start up again a month or so back. Why? Simply because both the Press and I agree it would be unfair for me to have such a platform within six months of a general election in which I might be a candidate.

So it was only when the States voted to delay the election by a year, due to the pandemic, that I could metaphorically put pen to paper again. Now the States have revisited that decision and the election could come at any time between this September and next June, so the only safe option is to stop my scribbling.

Despite being slightly sad to be putting my pen down, I’m delighted at the prospect of the election being brought forward. That’s entirely due to Guernsey being in a far better place in respect of Covid-19 than anybody dared to hope just weeks ago. That in turn is largely down to the people of Guernsey and their incredible response to an historic emergency. It has been an exemplar of community action, so all islanders can give themselves a collective pat on their back.

There have been a few snide remarks suggesting the original decision to delay the election was an act of self-interest by the current crop of deputies. That’s certainly not true. I think just about every States member wants to see the current Assembly ended as soon as reasonably possible. The reasons for that feeling vary, as does its intensity.

Perhaps the keenest to draw the Assembly of 2016 to a rapid close are those who are taking a conscious decision to step down from politics. That’s understandable. They have done their tour of duty. Some have other life plans. Others are just weary of politics and looking forward to getting their lives back. So being asked to carry on for up to a year of ‘extra time’ is quite an imposition.

However, the wish to see the general election as soon as possible is also shared by just about every deputy who intends to stand for re-election. There is a consensus that this Assembly is in desperate need of renewal. A general feeling that this States has definitely run its course and has probably been too divided and fractious from the start to have been a particularly good one.

Of course, every member’s solution to that situation is for more deputies to be elected who broadly share their own political ethos. Inevitably some are going to be sorely disappointed in that respect but hope springs eternal and few, if any, deputies want to see the current membership remaining unchanged. That feeling is only increasing as the months tick by and the Assembly becomes more tetchy and dysfunctional in its dying months.

So what has been decided on the election date? Good question.

Basically the States’ Assembly and Constitution Committee will bring a report on when they feel a safe and free and fair election can be held. That could be in September or November this year or March, April or May next year. If none of those is deemed doable then the backstop remains June 2021.

That is all well and good but we didn’t half make a meal of making that ‘decision’. The upside is that the election will be held as soon as practical, which is good for democracy. The downside is the total uncertainty over the timetable, which militates against good government. Sadly I also expect the States to be in full ‘election mode’ from now on which – for the avoidance of doubt – is not a good thing.

The other issue/problem which the States is going to have to grapple with is the drawing up and implementation of a hugely important pandemic recovery plan without knowing at which point the crew of Guernsey’s ship of state are going to change. That’s problematic.

Make no bones about it the success, or otherwise, of that plan will determine what sort of place Guernsey is going to be for the next generation.

What will the economy look like? How much poverty will there be in the island? Can tourism survive as a significant industry? What will our transport links look like? How much will Guernsey be in debt? How much unemployment will there be? Can the finance industry continue to thrive? What will wage levels look like? Will there be big tax rises or austerity measures? What will our welfare state or our pensions regime look like?

I could go on. The point is that these are very big issues and the solutions selected will depend on the general political flavour of the States of the day.

It could be argued that this is a very good reason for an election right now to allow the wider community to select a team they trust to deliver that recovery plan. Sadly that simply isn’t possible for public health reasons.

The other good alternative would be to allow the current crew, led by Deputy St Pier, to really get to grips with that huge work stream and set Guernsey firmly on the right path. That would probably take six to nine months and point towards a spring election.

The worst possible outcome – from a purely practical point of view – would be for this States to work for four to five months on a recovery plan, only for an election to deliver a new set of politicians who disagreed with it, tore it up, and started again. It would not be the deputies who suffered from that outcome but rather thousands of ordinary islanders and the local business community.

For those reasons I personally favoured either an early or late election. I was happy to see a September poll if the public health advice indicated that was safe, and the Sacc advice was that it could be done fairly. Alas both authorities threw very serious doubt on that.

My next best option is for a spring election, which is why I supported the De Sausmarez amendment to rule out a November poll, which would come smack bang in the middle of implementing our recovery plan, including the most important budget for generations.

That said, I can see exactly that outcome looming. Sub-optimal doesn’t begin to describe it but as Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst possible form of government – except for all of the others.

Heather Watson playing in qualifying for the Nature Valley International at Devonshire Park in June 2019, had been showing some of her best form for years before the coronavirus put the tennis season on hold. (Picture by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

Before hanging up my pen I’ll return to another of those small incidental thoughts which have bubbled up in my mind during lockdown. This pandemic really has come at a rotten time for Heather Watson.

At the end of 2019, and during the early weeks of the 2020 season, the Guernsey tennis star had been showing some of her best form for years and moving rapidly back up the world rankings. With the vagaries of sporting performance, who knows if that upturn in form will last until the WTA tour can start again?

While to most of us Heather is still just a slip of a thing, in tennis terms she is very firmly into the second half of her career, so a lost year could be crucial. I know, tennis is only a game and people around the world are dying of Covid-19, but I still can’t help feel sorry for Heather. I only hope she picks up where she left off.

Bye for now – and once again ‘well done’ for the way our population has coped with this historic crisis.

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