Bridging the divide

THE first thing this States of Deliberation did, back in 2016, was to cast 20 votes for Gavin St Pier and 20 votes for Peter Ferbrache in the election for a president of the new-fangled Policy & Resources Committee. It then took several rounds of tense voting to break that tied result, with Deputy St Pier eventually winning by 21 votes to 19. The whole episode seemed to cast the die for one of the most fractious and factionalised Assemblies of recent times.

 (Picture by Lightspring/Shutterstock)
(Picture by Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Although those ballots were rightly secret ones, I have no problem with revealing that I voted for Deputy St Pier in every round. It’s not that I have anything against Deputy Ferbrache. Indeed I have often been on his side in major arguments. It was just that on balance I thought Gavin’s skills – in particular in representing and defending Guernsey off-island during a critical time for the island – just pipped Peter’s.

Let me state clearly for the record that I would never even consider surrendering one iota of my independent judgement by becoming part of any faction, no matter whether it be ‘Team Ferbrache’, ‘Team St Pier’ or ‘Team Anybody Else’. But at times it does feel as if sections of the Assembly may have done just that – or at the very least allowed personal loyalties to become one significant factor in their decision-making process.

Of course, even in a parliament made up entirely of independents, there will always be other members who you tend to agree with more often than others. So I am happy to confess that the experience of the last three years has taught me that I am liable to vote the same way as Deputy Rhian Tooley more often than with Deputy Carl Meerveld. I suspect the official record will confirm this. Such is life. Our personal political credos are simply more closely aligned.

My point is that I would never vote for something put forward by Deputy Tooley just because it was coming from her. If I disagreed with it, I would fight it robustly. In the same vein I would never oppose something put forward by Deputy Meerveld, if I felt it had merit, just because it was his initiative. To me it is purely the merits of the case that count, not the proponent.

Thinking about it, I suppose my promiscuous choice of allies and foes, from issue to issue, according to who I happen to agree with on the matter under consideration, means I am completely unsuited to the brave new world of parties, alliances and associations. I am a classic independent and the freedom to always vote according to my conscience, rather than following any party line, is one of the things I have always cherished most about Guernsey’s traditional, consensus system of government.

So if I decide to stand again next year it will definitely be as a pure independent, even if that means that I am out of step with most other deputies and wannabe deputies who may all be coalescing into groupings by then. I really hope they don’t actually do that, but if they do then they are welcome to it.

Going back to where I started this column and the riven nature of this States. Maybe it was unavoidable simply because the public had elected a particular mix of deputies which was always likely to split down the middle. The great sadness for me is the way that this split has manifested itself in matters that should transcend any type of group loyalty.

This trend for pack behaviour was very noticeable when the so called ‘charter faction’ was first formed. For a while the chartists seemed to vote together far more often than would have been their natural inclination, but to be fair that collective stance seemed to unravel after a few months.

That said, there often does appear to be a tribal atmosphere bubbling under in this Assembly which makes me feel uncomfortable. Every States I have ever been in has had some unofficial factions which have shifted over time, but never anything quite like this.

A classic example is States members’ responses to the various highly critical reports which are now stacking up into the way Home Affairs is being run. Those responses certainly feel like they are highly subjective and based more on personal loyalties or animosity rather than on objective critique.

I make no bones about the fact that personally I think Home Affairs should step down. Not because I dislike its members but because I think the core criticisms in those reports are correct. That is the issue. It is not about the personalities, or at least it shouldn’t be.

My opinion of the various members of Home Affairs ranges from huge respect to the complete other end of the scale. That is not the point. It is how they are operating as a committee which matters. Are they more or less than the sum of their parts? It is clear from the observations of two disinterested experts that the committee is misfiring badly and if we regard the public interest as being paramount then we really should do something about it.

That is just a single example of the growing factionalism. The real question is whether it is likely to become more or less pronounced in the next States. Who knows?

I suspect that if we remain a parliament of independents, then it is unlikely that the electorate will again choose quite such a perfect chemistry for conflict as they did in 2016. On the other hand if – heaven forfend – party politics start to take root then we can expect the factionalism to sharpen, become formalised and never disappear.

What a sad day that will be for Guernsey.

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