OPINION: Welcome to Wonderland

A series of political events has left Deputy Gavin St Pier feeling as if he’s tumbled into one of Alice’s adventures...

I HAVE a confession.

I’ve never liked Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy tales and narratives with their twists and turns offended my preference for logic and order. My childhood had enough going on without reading about fictional oddities too.

So you can imagine my surprise at finding that we are living through Guernsey’s political equivalent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

‘Curiouser and curiouser’

The penny first dropped during the March 2021 debate on the Deputy Bury/Gabriel amendment to the first phase of the Government Work Plan.

The amendment sought to ensure the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture completed a comparative review of their preferred secondary education model. This didn’t seem such an outlandish suggestion, given everyone knew that a comparative review had been worked up and nearly completed after the success of the ‘pause and review’ requete led in February 2020 by none other than Deputy Dudley-Owen herself. And yet seemingly everyone who had argued for just such a review during that requete debate in February 2020, or in their October 2020 general election manifestos, was now arguing it was utterly pointless.

‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards’

If that debate was a single political event, it would be interesting in itself. But because it is one among many, counter-intuitively perhaps, they all start to merge into one alternative reality.

The narrative is that this not-so-new administration is working seamlessly in some new happy clappy, love-in nirvana. In reality, any challenge or question is regarded as an act of treasonous dissent, exposing a fragility and lack of self-confidence for all to witness.

This has manifested itself in many different ways. Starting at the very top, we’ve had our most senior politician using no less than the public platform of the Assembly to threaten lawsuits against members of the public. They had the temerity to legitimately utilise the only method available to them – the States’ Code of Conduct – to question States members’ conduct.

We have also had repeated calls for dissenting voices to be silenced, including this and other columns.

These are also ‘through the looking glass’ moments, given that the establishment regard cancel culture and attempts to ‘no platform’ as the preserve of the woke.

‘I’m not strange, weird, off nor crazy, my reality is just different to yours’

Then, it would seem, that the historically normal rules in Guernsey’s consensus system of government for accommodating States members who don’t agree with their colleagues appear to have been discarded – or at least suspended.

Deputy Andy Cameron stood in the general election on a platform that looks remarkably like ESC’s proposals for secondary education. Fairly late in the day, he seems to have changed his mind – or at least had it changed for him – having listened to all the head teachers and an overwhelming number of the teaching profession, who have been telling ESC for months that their proposals are, in essence, worse than doing nothing. They propose swapping one four-school model for a different, expensive-to-run, four-school model, spending an additional £40m. that we don’t have in the process, in order to move the sixth form centre 500m down the road from the perfectly serviceable one that was only completed 16 years ago.

Aside perhaps from providing a backdrop of justification for the need for higher taxation to fund such excess, the proposals have no merit. They will increase class sizes, close La Mare and cram its students into the other three 11-16 sites, without increasing the capacity of those sites. Among other things we are told, this will mean some lessons – such as the sciences – will end up being taught outside the specialist spaces designed for those subjects to be best taught. And to cap it all, aside from a woolly objective of ‘parity of esteem’, there are no clear benchmarks set for all of this reorganisation madness to improve educational outcomes. That will emerge, apparently, from an as-yet-unseen ‘educational strategy’.

So ‘bravo’ to Deputy Cameron for recognising the flaws in his committee’s proposals and lodging his own alternative. He then found himself facing the committee’s wrath.

Deemed to have a conflict of interest – which, to be clear, a minority view most emphatically is not – in an extraordinary breach of the committee rules, he ceased to receive relevant papers or participate in his own committee’s meetings when secondary education was discussed.

As an indication of the price that dissent in the new government carries, he was then referred by his own committee colleagues to the Code of Conduct panel for sharing what everyone knew – that the teachers think the committee’s proposals will not work.

And the final twist in the tale – in a scene straight out of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – was Deputy Sue Aldwell’s refusal to sit in the same meeting rooms as Deputy Cameron, preferring to join the meeting remotely from the room next door, until he is excluded on secondary education items and she can re-join in person.

Remote participation in meetings, under the committee rules, can only take place with the prior agreement of the member chairing the meeting, normally, of course, the president of the committee. So we know that this is officially sanctioned behaviour.

Happy clappy, love-in nirvana this is not.

As Alice would say: ‘It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.’

‘I’m under no obligation to make sense to you’

Next, we have the fiction and reality of our public finances.

You already know the long-standing rhetoric, reflected in many candidates’ manifestos – public finances are shot; we’re mired in debt; the public sector is fat and lazy, waiting for their final salary pensions, which will bankrupt us all. And spending is out of control because of prior States’ decisions, so we need to cut spending, ensure no tax increases and absolutely no more borrowing.

The reality is somewhat less popular – we have one of the smallest public sectors in the developed world, the financial transformation programme delivered £28.7m. per year in savings, the public sector pension scheme has been reformed with benefits reduced and, while not fully funded, is one of the highest funded of its type. In addition, total debt was less than 15% of the economy, while most developed economies have public sector debt at or in excess of 100% of their entire economy, and we had surpluses in 2018 and 2019 for the first time in a decade.

In short, we are in exceptionally good shape by any comparison, but like all developed societies, we do face medium- and long-term increases in demand for public services, the largest of which are health, long-term care and all our old-age pensions. However, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Planning for and navigating these pressures requires significant political leadership. Instead we’ve had the extraordinary spectacle of the treasury lead trashing his own policy via a Facebook post, even before the policy’s full publication. Having diligently led the tax review since October 2020 and presented its findings to numerous meetings in recent months, we’re now told the review was asking the wrong questions. This airbrushes out the fact that if the Policy & Resources Committee was unhappy with the terms of reference the prior States had agreed, they could – as they have with multiple other resolutions – ask this States to rescind or amend them.

It seems obvious that the inevitable public backlash to a goods and services tax meant it started getting a bit hot in the kitchen, so the Knave of Hearts was forced to tell the Queen that he really hadn’t stolen her tarts – GST was definitely not his idea at all, and it’s all very perplexing why it’s one of his committee’s policy options after all the work he’s been leading on the tax review.

‘Birds of a feather flock together’

Meanwhile in the Government Work Plan phase two debate, all those elected on promises of no new taxes or debt happily rowed in behind proposals to raise taxes by £4m. a year by 2025 and to take on another £200m. of debt, turning down any opportunity to support amendments from those of us who were trying to put some kind of brake and scrutiny into the process, belying what we are repeatedly told, that there is no such thing as a Van Party/Guernsey Party Coalition.

Maybe we should just rename it the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Coalition and be done with it.

Perhaps wisest of all was the Cheshire Cat: ‘I never get involved in politics.’

Too late for me.

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