Guernsey Press

Andy Sloan: A year of meh

Andy Sloan looks back on 2023 but can’t get overly excited at what has and hasn’t happened...


December 28, last Thursday of the month, reasonable timing for an end of year type review. I’ve snapped a tendon in my little finger. Sounds innocuous, but as a touch typist of 30 years it’s quite constraining, so to save a bit of time and effort I thought I’d give ChatGPT a go...

‘As we embark on a reflective journey through the contours of the passing year, one overarching sentiment encapsulates the collective experience – a resounding “meh”. The year unfolds before us like a lacklustre tableau, marked by a pervasive sense of indifference and mediocrity.

‘The year concludes with a miserable denouement, challenging the optimism once championed by intellectual stalwarts like Frances Fukuyama. The global stage is set with unsettling developments – the fraught landscapes of Gaza and Ukraine serving as poignant reminders of the world’s persistent geopolitical tumult.

‘The closure of global shipping lanes looms ominously, a harbinger of potential supply side shocks that could reverberate across industries. The cautious among us advise to brace for impact, recognising the interconnectedness of our global economic ecosystem.

‘COP28 unfolds with a peculiar dance of diplomacy, a “copwashing” of geopolitical interests. The sequence of events unfolds with intriguing rapidity – Putin’s involvement, a UN ceasefire, and China stepping into the role of co-sponsor. Yet, amid these diplomatic pirouettes, the war in the Middle East silently intensifies, with the world’s gaze inadvertently diverted, perhaps unintentionally neglecting the simmering tensions around Taiwan. Apologies arise for the oversight, directing our attention back to the Ukraine, a theatre of conflict where a crucial question lingers in the air: Are we truly prepared to allow Russia to emerge victorious?

‘As we find ourselves at the mid-point of this tumultuous decade, there is a collective realisation that time is a finite resource, one we cannot afford to squander. The urgency to navigate the remaining years with purpose intensifies, juxtaposed against the prevailing sentiment that, regrettably, we may have already allowed precious moments to slip through our collective grasp.’

A bit theatrical, isn’t she? Some of those sentences – in fact most of them – they’re all hers. I don’t think I’m being replaced by AI just yet. Bottom line. It’s been a bit of a ‘meh’ year. The half-year mark of the decade is looming large and my worry is that globally, nothing good’s going to come out of it. What I was saying was so much for the end of history, it doesn’t feel like it to me. We’re living through a period when western liberal democracy and the world order it created is under attack, in many cases physically. And at times it feels like the other side is winning.

Ordinarily, such geopolitical uncertainty would be good for offshore business, but capitalism itself, at least the variant we’ve been practising for the last 40 years, is also under attack. Piketty, Zucman, the Tax Justice Network et al. A point I’m prone to repeatedly labour in this column, as regular readers, both of you, will testify. And sure, feels like their side too is winning.

So for the Channel Islands to end the year in the doghouse with the House of Commons over our lack of a public register for beneficial ownership wasn’t just annoying, it was economically harmful. And, ignore the technical arguments, a needless own goal. It was foreseeable, and, at the risk of being crossed off more Christmas card lists, I’ll say it, perfectly avoidable.

I’ll save you from how ChatGPT interpreted my point that this was another year living with the hangover of the macroeconomic policy screw ups of the 2010s. The decade of putting it off. Result: we’re all poorer now. Huw Pill, the Bank of England’s chief economist, upset plenty of people for making the point earlier this year. Speaking the truth isn’t popular nowadays.

And against 2023’s global backdrop, what gave locally? What big issues did we resolve? Sadly, not much. Locally too it was a year of meh. A year of procrastination ending with a changing of the government guard. A ‘new’ P&R for the remaining 18 months of this term. A ‘new’ set of priorities. A ‘new’ optimistic leadership. Does the change put us ‘on the right track’ as US pollsters would put it? Should we all be trying the ‘change is as good as a rest’ Kool-Aid that Horace Camp and Richard Digard seem have been helping themselves to in the run up to the festive period?

I don’t know frankly. But is it realistic to expect anything to be achieved? What can be done in 18 months? Difficult to disagree with the priorities of Moneyval, housing, and economic growth. No-one wants to be on the Moneyval naughty step. As it’s a review of effectiveness, having rammed through a job lot of legislative changes in 2023, there’s plenty of areas the assessors could pick us up for if they were that way minded so let’s keep our fingers crossed. With housing, to paraphrase, it’s all about the supply, stupid. High build costs and a shortage of land. Get Leale’s Yard out of the ground. That’s possible in 18 months, but for the rest? It’s a long-run problem requiring long-run solutions. Remove rewards to economic rent. Penalise land banking, tax empty properties, give tax breaks to rapid development. Oh, and build upwards!

If we ever get round to fundamentally review the tax regime, consider a land value tax. And economic growth? A year ago, one of the myriad resolutions at the end of the tax review debate, was to command a new economic vision be delivered. I guess one might turn up the next 18 months. I’m not holding my breath.

And how about that other priority, making the States more popular? I’d wager that’s one objective that must be possible in 18 months. After a year of meh, surely things can only get better, or the only way is up. Excuse my slightly musical turn, I’m humouring myself.

But I think the majority would settle for making the States more effective than popular. We’re coming up fast on the halfway mark of the decade with little progress to show for it. There’s a real risk the whole decade goes that way. I think that there is a root cause to the problem, but few members and commentators seem to recognise that it’s structural. There’s too much celebrating of our idiosyncratic system and a clinging to the notion that if someone could wave a metaphorical magic wand, our old collegiate consensual States would return along with the halcyon uplands.

But to this observer, the States has become institutionally sclerotic. In my view, the recent changes made to the machinery of government, when departments responsible for doing were replaced by committees responsible for advising, are the main culprit. Bureaucracy has become the end in itself. It affects the body politic and civil service. And two election cycles in, few seem to know any better.

Deputies seem to have really taken it to their heart that everyone’s the executive, so much so that every meeting is spent trying to demonstrate the point to each other. Resolutions are so loquacious, Sir Humphrey Appleby would blush. Time was the budget was approved before lunch on the first day of a sitting, now it’s an amendment opportunity for everyone to prove their opinion is the one that counts.

Things can’t go on like this, it’s not sustainable. But as I’ve said many times before, Sloan’s Law, things can be unsustainable for a very, very long time. I’m not solving this in a – only mildly humorous, granted – year-end column in the Guernsey Press. But my sense of civic duty makes me feel I ought to bring it up.

So do excuse my ending the year on a meh.