Richard Digard: Whatever happened to good old Guernsey common sense?
The island used to pride itself on pragmatism and solutions suitable for a small island adrift in the English Channel. Now, says Richard Digard, the political 'cure' is often worse than the problem it's trying to solve...
At the risk of going all misty-eyed and harkening back to the halcyon good old days of yore – there’s far too much of that pointless claptrap already – there was a time when we had something known as the Board of Administration and a chap called Roger Berry. Which meant that Guernsey Got Things Done.
States meetings could last just half a day, Billet d’Etat reports were short, to the point and, importantly, could be understood by we proles. In essence, they said – here’s the problem, this is the solution. And, back then, committees were the establishment. Especially Advisory and Finance, which deputies would queue up to have a go at. Yes, we had a sort of opposition. Deputies scrutinised.
More often than not, however, proposals were carried and life went on without the States unduly interfering in people’s lives or making a pint progressively more expensive because, well, nanny knows best and you’re not to have the other half.
A few years ago, admittedly, but I sat through one States meeting when controlling foraging (otherwise known as shoregathering) for ormers took four hours of debate yet nodding through legislation that introduced an earnings-related social security system was over in 20 minutes.
That’s the same social security system – bitterly opposed at the time, chiefly by self-employed growers who were happy to look after themselves in old age – that now chews through 38% of all States expenditure, while a further 21% goes on health and social care. More than £120m. at 2019 prices went on the OAP alone and in all, nearly 60% of all government spending is on areas massively influenced by old people.
Would the deputies of the day have voted this through knowing the consequences? I think we can safely say no, because the States then had common sense, didn’t borrow and wouldn’t spend what it hadn’t saved or did not have.
Two events in particular put me in mind of this – the vote of no confidence motion facing Policy & Resources, and the rather arbitrary attempt to change the tax status of the Lt-Governor’s establishment payment.
By any standard, this P&R has not been inspiring. By any standard, its Budget is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. That’s why it faced 15 separate amendments. Members clearly didn’t have confidence the proposals were as good as they should be or that the revenue-raising was targeted in the right areas.
So the Bailiff’s decision as presiding officer to delay the vote until after the Budget debate made no sense to me and rather risked the appearance of straying into the realms of a political decision – get that through, chaps, and you’ve a better chance of surviving the confidence rap.
Similarly, what one commentator called ‘A low grade, fractious, poorly informed debate characterised by outrage’ ensued when a couple of members tried – as the Bailiff said they could – to take the confidence motion first.
Sorry, these are not sensible actions by supposed adults supposedly running the island.
I know ‘common sense’ means different things to different people but if you take the basic premise as referring to practical, everyday intelligence that helps people make sound judgments and decisions based on experience and reasoning, we’re all probably in the same ballpark.
That increasingly quoted source ChatGPT says it involves using logical thinking and a good understanding of everyday situations to navigate the complexities of daily life. Sounds about right, other than in the Assembly.
‘Common sense may vary from person to person and from one culture to another, but it generally involves practical knowledge and the ability to make reasonable decisions in different situations,’ this particular AI tells us.
That sounds spot on to me, so why’s common sense so absent from the way this States conducts itself?
I mean, there may be some merit in questioning the tax status of the Lt-Governor, as Gavin St Pier has, but why now and – especially – separately from the other two Crown Dependencies?
Strip away the populist ‘tax the toffs’ blather and what are you actually playing around with? The current incumbent, Lt General Richard Cripwell CB, CBE, is there simply because he’s King Charles’s personal representative in the Bailiwick. A hand-picked man – and an essential element of the constitutional relationship we and the other dependencies have with the UK and the Crown.
The first such appointee was one John, Count of Mortain (later King John), who took up the role in 1198, and we’ve had one ever since. In part, they’re there to undertake, on behalf of the Sovereign, many of the functions normally associated with the head of state in a larger jurisdiction.
The Lt-Governor also acts as a principal point of liaison between the governments of Guernsey and the United Kingdom and so is a useful sort of chap to have based here. Unsurprisingly, that’s not cheap. As Bailiwick Express breathlessly reported the other day, the cost has been nearly £6m. over the last nine years.
That pays for what’s known as the Crown establishment, including staff, and what is not generally known, I think, is that it’s not directly funded by the Guernsey taxpayer.
Go back a bit, and the monarch of the day used to collect an income (rents, feudal dues etc.) from his or her possessions via someone called the HM Receiver General (we still have one). Those revenues, which the UK used to pocket, were passed over to the States in consideration of the transfer of responsibility for the costs of the Crown establishment to them in the 1940s.
I assume the tax status of Lt-Governors go back to at least then, when the need/benefit of it being tax-free was established and accepted by the States of the day – no doubt a reasonable decision at the time for someone who is not, thank god, a civil servant or ordinary hireling.
Which brings me back to common sense again.
The average price of a local market property has just risen to £647,889, our public finances are in a mess, we can’t educate our kids properly or house young Guernsey couples affordably, and our inability to manage money sensibly will likely see another downgrading by the ratings agencies in January.
We don’t have the capacity to invest in public infrastructure sufficiently for island needs and we have a fearsome Moneyval inspection to weather, but we’re encouraged to believe the Lt-Governor’s tax affairs are somehow a priority.
Roger Berry, I’m happy to report, is still very much with us. His former colleagues, however, must be rotating at a hell of a pace.