A guide to survival in the States Assembly

Former deputy Richard Graham offers some advice to the new political intake...

Royal Courts building. (Picture  by Adrian Miller, 28831762)
Royal Courts building. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 28831762)

AS A FULLY-PAID-UP member of the most recent version of ‘the worst States ever’, it would be presumptuous of me to offer advice to new members of the Assembly. That said, they may find that an account of my experience – as a first-timer – of life in the States debating chamber provides some useful examples of what to expect during those six-hour sessions in the Assembly some 40 to 50 days each year. Here are some observations.

In May this year Guernsey’s first female Deputy Bailiff was sworn in and soon made her first appearance as presiding officer of the States of Deliberation. One by one, members were keen to gush their personal approval of this historic occasion, no doubt hoping the new presiding officer would note their effusive welcome to her when it came to calling them to speak in the future. This did not stop many of them from referring to her as ‘sir’ and ‘Mr Deputy Bailiff’. I know that there is some confusion these days over gender, but to simple old-timers like me it was pretty obvious that the new presiding officer was a she and not a he. The new Deputy Bailiff presided over a morning session of the next States meeting and by lunchtime members were just about getting the hang of addressing her as ‘madam’ when the Bailiff complicated matters by appearing for the afternoon session and was promptly referred to as ‘madam’. And they expected us to run the government! For those members who care about such matters, referring to the Deputy Bailiff as ‘ma’am’ is a tad over the top, but if the term is used at all it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘swam’ rather than with ‘smarm’. Mention of smarm reminds me of one particular… on second thoughts, I will stop myself there before the sub-editor does it for me.

A generation ago, all male deputies would have been encouraged to wear suits in the Assembly. Nowadays, the guidance (such as it is) is ‘jacket and tie’. The tying of the tie seemed to pose a particular challenge for some. On especially warm summer days the presiding officer will invite members to remove their jackets if they wish, and it is a courtesy – ignored by some – to wait for that invitation before doing so. On one especially cold winter day when the heating failed, the Bailiff invited members to wear extra warm clothing. This led to the unforgettable sight of a Herr Flick look-alike, complete with long, black leather, Gestapo overcoat, stepping out from an episode of ’Allo ’Allo to take his seat in the Assembly. Curious eh!

There is a tradition that maiden speeches are applauded. I wasn’t aware of this, so when I just happened to be the first of the new intake in 2016 to make a maiden speech I was rather taken aback when the end of my wholly unremarkable five-minute speech about nothing terribly important was greeted with thunderous applause. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be a bit of a doddle: you only have to stand up and spout a few words and, hey presto, you are up there with Lloyd George and Churchill.’

Then the penny dropped. I recommend that the first-timers get their maiden speeches in early and enjoy the applause; it might not happen to them again in the next four years.

It is of immense help to establish some working class credentials. With this in mind, it is useful if you can recount personal use of an outside lavatory in your youth, and it is only marginally less convincing if you have to resort to telling stories of how your father or grandfather used to troop off down the back garden armed with a few pages of yesterday’s Daily Mirror and a bottle of Dettol. If you have to go back more than two generations, I wouldn’t bother if I were you; just come out of the closet and admit you are middle class and duly ashamed of it.

The Assembly used to be a debating chamber but became an emoting chamber during the recent political term. Time and again, sob stories trumped logic and evidence, and the ability to bring tears to the eyes of 20 members whilst nearly blubbing yourself proved a far greater asset than being able to get the same number of members to engage their brains.

At times, I sat there thinking that some of my colleagues were auditioning for the job of agony aunt on the Daily Mail. Serial offenders included both male and female deputies.

Call me old-fashioned, but I never accepted that important decisions of government should be made according to the weep-factor of this or that issue.

But of course I am old-fashioned. How else to explain my bewilderment that so many colleagues did not think it ill-mannered to chat noisily amongst themselves whilst a speech was being made. I had been brought up to think it impolite, but at any one time during a debate there were guaranteed to be pockets of conversation sounding off around the chamber whilst a member was on his or her feet in full oratorical flow. Spontaneous audible remarks are of course the very stuff of parliamentary debate but I sat immediately behind a compulsively talkative couple of deputies who frequently conducted their own lengthy tête à tête, whilst to my right a trio of deputies conducted a noisy, running commentary on the debate. I used headphones, not so much to amplify a speech as to blot out the chat going on around me.

O tempora, o mores!

Whilst on the subject of speeches, deputies who are new to the Assembly ought to be pre-warned. For those who, like me, prefer to make eye contact with their audience, there are precious few eyes that are not focused elsewhere. It is difficult to direct words, facial expressions and physical gestures – the elements of effective speech-making – towards the many colleagues who are heads-down into a lap-top, tablet or bundle of papers or are writing their own speeches, always supposing they are not already engaged in face-to-face conversation with a neighbour. My tactic was to catch the eye of the three or four deputies most likely to be in attentive mode and then address them as if they typified the general audience, which of course they didn’t.

As for listening to speeches, members will need to steel themselves against some torrid times to come. Some speeches will be delivered in a soporific monotone emitted from somewhere behind a laptop held high in front of the disembodied speaker. As a form of delivery, this was pure formaldehyde for me. I would also caution against allowing spirits to be prematurely lifted when words such as ‘finally’ and ‘in conclusion’ are heard during a tedious speech; when uttered by some colleagues they are a false dawn and will signify that at least a further 10 minutes has to be endured.

It was George Orwell who in Nineteen Eighty-Four addressed the manipulation of words by politicians to control the way people think and the complicity of the people in letting themselves be controlled in this way. In another work he wrote of the invasion of minds by ready-made phrases that anaesthetise a portion of the brain. This sort of political language doesn’t have to be sinister in intent: it can be deployed with the relatively harmless purpose of giving the illusion of substance to pure wind. I offer some examples from the 2016-20 Assembly.

l High-net-worth individuals. I think I had reached the age of 70 before I first heard this curious expression being deployed, but in the States Assembly it is flashed around with an extravagance that suggests its use is embedded there. Of course, it refers to ‘the rich’, a term that you never hear used in the Assembly. Those of my generation used to append various adjectives to the term to signify disapproval or envy of those with lots of money; hence the pejorative ‘stinking/filthy rich’. On the other hand, if we approved of them we might refer to them euphemistically as ‘the wealthy’. Anyway, new members who wish to give an impression of worldliness and a sophisticated understanding of States economic policy should remember that Locate Guernsey is not seeking to attract the rich to Guernsey, it’s those high-net-worth individuals they are after.

l Going forward. I do not recall any deputy at any time in any debate using the term ‘in the future’. Instead, they were all ‘going forward’ or ‘moving forward’. I believe this has caught on because it implies activity of some sort. The reverse does not seem to apply; members still refer to ‘the past’, presumably on the basis that ‘going backwards’ is not the sort of action with which they wish to be identified.

l With the greatest respect. This wholly insincere phrase is commonly deployed when referring to a previous speaker with whom you disagree. What you are really thinking is that you have been forced to sit and listen for far too long to a load of self-indulgent codswallop spouted by a complete nincompoop but the Code of Conduct prevents you from saying so.

l Evidence-based. Every single member is convinced that they are an evidence-based politician, and they never tire of assuring the Assembly that they are. They do so to the point of embarrassment. Of course, they really believe themselves to be what they claim to be, but it is manifestly obvious that they cannot possibly be, because on most of the big issues, members come to two or three entirely conflicting conclusions, presumably from evidence rather than from just reading yesterday’s Guardian or Daily Express. It is best to be frank about this and accept that, with few exceptions, members start out with a fixed view for which they embrace supportive evidence whilst shunning non-supportive evidence.

l Those with the broadest shoulders.

A variant on this meaningless phrase is ‘those best able to shoulder the burden’. It emerges whenever the Assembly has committed itself to an expensive policy and then looks around for someone to pay for it. It is commonly deployed by members but never with the faintest idea as to whom it refers, other than someone else. The nearest I can get to identifying who these people with massive shoulders are is that they are probably all those who are better off than everyone else. I hope that helps.

Looking back over the past four and a half years, I never consciously thought to set myself apart from my colleagues in the last Assembly, but there were times when I felt as if I were the sole surviving member of a species on the brink of extinction. I shall be interested to see whether that species survives in the new Assembly in the future, or even ‘going forward’!

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