Guernsey is one of those places.
Sitting in St James one recent Saturday afternoon in the pouring rain, enjoying the breadth and insight of the speakers at the Future Generations: Environment and Sustainability conference, it struck me that we have an exceptional level of democratic engagement between politicians and the people. The level of access that members of the public have to their government is far higher than almost anywhere in the world.
This is an incredible asset – and one that we don’t think about nearly enough. In Guernsey, perhaps more than anywhere else, that famous quote from Margaret Mead – ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world’ – holds true. In Guernsey, it only takes a handful of islanders with a heartfelt cause to reach out to their deputies and convince them to hold a debate, bring an amendment, or quietly pursue change behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, the flip side is that, while political engagement is good here, follow-through is often terrible. Especially where the issue is complex, as we’ve seen with the process of establishing legal protections against discrimination, progress can be painfully slow, years after citizen activism has lodged the issue high up on the States’ list of priorities. In large part, this is due to the fact that we do not have the resources to pursue an effective policy agenda – a situation that will persist as long as we operate within the deeply conservative limits of the Medium Term Financial Plan, however ambitious the government’s stated policy goals may be.
Lack of suitable resources will always be a drag on government progress. But even so, islanders have tremendous, and largely untapped, power to engage in shaping the future of the Bailiwick. Reflecting on the Future Generations conference, I began to think about how we could make the most of this amazing asset that we have – the opportunity for citizens to engage so closely with the policy-making process – and how we could really use that to shape a brighter future for the Bailiwick, and to have a positive impact on the wider world. For now, I think there are three simple guidelines – not extraordinary, but with genuine power and possibility:
First, don’t be a bystander. I could call this the Deputy Jennifer Merrett approach to politics, as it is shot through everything she does. Don’t wait for someone else to act if you are capable of acting yourself. Don’t stand by and watch a problem unfold and expect someone else to diagnose or fix it. If you can do something to change your world for the better, then do it. We’re not waiting for a hero, or for a perfect solution: progress is made by everybody contributing what they can, whenever they can.
The teenagers who put together the Future Generations conference were passionate, inspiring and full of ambition for the future of Guernsey. But if we are going to have the kind of future they envisage, they are going to have to put their shoulders to the wheel. I think they know that. But the same is true for every other islander who wants to see positive changes – you are going to have to work in service of your ideals. You might not like the idea of politics as a career, but please think about politics as public service instead – four years of contributing your skills and insights to the betterment of your island, in the same spirit as you might do jury duty in the UK. Or think about other ways you can contribute – as an educator, a carer or a health professional, a policy officer or a volunteer. If you care about the future, work for it – don’t think you can leave it up to anybody else.
Second, never stop learning. We can’t effectively solve problems that we don’t understand. Many of the issues that government deals with are complex – some of them challenge ethical boundaries, and almost all of them defy easy answers which everyone can agree on. If you think you have a simple and obvious solution, find out why it hasn’t been tried – please have the grace not to assume at once that everyone else is just too stupid or too selfish to act on it. Embrace complexity. If we want to make a better future for our island, we have to recognise that the threats and risks it faces are complicated, and that any solution will have consequences, both intended and unintended.
In fact, politics isn’t something that can be ‘solved’, so much as it is an ongoing, evolving response to the most pressing issues of the day. Whether you’re outside the government or within it, it isn’t about working towards Utopia – anyone who claims to offer that kind of happy-ever-after is probably lying to you, or to themselves. It’s about building a better world, day after day, for the people who are here right now and those who will come after us. There’s always a new challenge to deal with, or an old solution that no longer fits and needs to be revisited. It’s a bit of a labour of love – patient, principled working towards shifting goals in a complex, ever-changing and often frustrating environment – and it needs to be recognised as such.
Third, work together. Inside the States and outside it, we are stronger when we share ideas, cooperate on projects and pool our knowledge and our skills. The emergence of Charters, Associations and other political alliances – whatever their other strengths or weaknesses – is a recognition of this basic fact.
Alliances are especially vital when you’re not just pursuing a special interest – say, government recognition of climate change as an important issue that needs to be tackled – but trying to work on some of the underlying obstacles that prevent recognition from being turned into action. If one of those obstacles is lack of resources, then environmentalists need to make common cause with health and care workers in under-valued roles, islanders who are working full-time to raise a family on the breadline, and campaigners for equal rights, to press for government investment in vital and under-funded areas. If one of the obstacles is insufficient support for private sector innovation, then environmentalists should join with business lobby groups to press for seed funding for creative solutions.
But while alliances are essential in politics, they are also constraining. Making progress together means making compromises. It means pressing for goals that the whole alliance can agree on, but not putting energy into things that lie outside that shared centre of interest. So, in closing, make alliances with people you trust – people whose honesty and integrity you admire. When you do have to differ from each other, you’ll want to do so constructively and respectfully – you’ll find that possible only if you’re working with people who are good and fair, even if they are people whose values don’t always match yours.