Guernsey Press

'A political upset of seismic proportions'

Today marks 40 years since Deputy Peter Roffey was first elected to the States. He looks back at that fateful night and considers how things have changed since.

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An elated Peter Roffey after the election result was announced on the evening of 17 March 1982. (30605349)

FORTY years ago today I was starting to get very nervous over the result of the general election in the Vale.

I say starting to because until a few days earlier there had really been nothing to be twitchy about. I was a serious candidate and I had worked very hard on my election campaign but I knew for sure that I was going to lose.

Why? Because in those days the States was overwhelmingly full of business owners and retirees. The idea that a long-haired, 23-year-old, slightly-left-of-centre idealist stood any chance of success was risible.

I was standing to make a point and to use the platform the campaign provided to express some of my deeply held concerns over the island’s direction of travel. I hoped to get a decent number of votes but regarded being elected as such a long shot as not to be taken seriously.

Then on Monday 15 March – two days before the election – the traditional hustings took place in an absolutely packed douzaine room. There was a real frisson in the air. Guernsey was in a dire financial position due to the rapid decline of the growing industry. That created an enhanced level of interest in local politics, and the Vale was a more political parish than most.

It was clear that this meeting was going to be pivotal in many people’s decision making on how best to vote just two days later. And as the evening went on it was equally clear that many of my campaign messages were finding far more resonance in the hall than I had really expected.

What were those issues? Concern over population growth and resultant over-development. Worries about the crippling cost of secondary medical care. A clear message that the old, non-elected, conseiller system simply wasn’t democratic enough in the brave new world of the 1980s. Equal pay for women. The list went on and on.

I thought it would be all too much for middle Guernsey but I was wrong. I could read the room and realised I had far more support than I had expected. And I knew that the messages over who 'had done well in the hustings' would go out from the couple of hundred actually there to the wider parish.

So that was why I was on tenterhooks a couple of days later as all the candidates stood like lemons outside the polling station watching the voters file in. It was because I realised for the first time that I might just pull off a political upset of seismic proportions. Suddenly I had something to lose.

A few well known figures surprised me by assuring me confidentially on the way in that they intended to put a cross against my name. Often as part of a slate which also included several more staid and established candidates. 'I think it is worth giving you a chance' seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

My favourite moment of the day came when Tony Webber (another candidate) pulled up outside the douzaine room and helped a very elderly lady out of the passenger seat of his car. As she hobbled in on sticks she asked if she could have a quiet word with me. 'Mr Roffey, I am voting for you, not Mr Webber, but I thought I would ask him for a lift to the polling station as I didn’t want to take up your precious time.'

At about 10.30pm on St Patrick’s Day 1982 the results were announced. There were five seats up for grabs. The poll-topper was my former teacher, Joyce Cook. In second place was political stalwart Deputy John Cooper. Third was sitting Deputy Henry Lancaster. I was fourth and Peter Derham came fifth.

It was an upset on two levels.

Firstly the Vale had elected three new faces among their five deputies. In those days that was a remarkable degree of churn because very few sitting deputies tended to lose their seats. How times have changed.

Secondly, what were they doing electing a 23-year-old? It just didn’t happen back then. In fact it hasn’t happened again since and I can’t help thinking that it is high time that I lost my mantle of Guernsey’s youngest ever deputy. Maybe today’s youngsters simply 'have got more of a life' than I did.

How were things in the Assembly different in those days compared to the States of 2022? Lots of ways.

For a start there were 57 States members rather than the 40 in today’s slimmed down Assembly. Of those only 33 were directly elected deputies. The States terms were just three years and deputies 'pay' was absolutely minimal.

Then there was a bewildering array of States committees covering every aspect of island life – from Sea Fisheries to Housing and from Public Transport to Agriculture. Busy members usually served on at least three or four separate committees. Despite this it took me nearly a year to be elected to my first committee because I was regarded with clear suspicion by the old guard.

To be fair, once I was given a chance to prove myself – first on Housing (under president Lincoln) and then on Health (under John Henry) – attitudes rapidly changed and by the end of the term I was very hard worked indeed.

Of course, both the issues and the social mores of Guernsey have changed beyond all recognition over the last 40 years. Many things which were regarded as unthinkable back then are now taken for granted. From today’s perspective some of the battles which were so hard to win now seem wholly uncontroversial.

I will cover some of those changes in policies, and laws, and social attitudes in a follow-on column but one more thought before concluding this rather whimsical trip down memory lane. That relates to the seemingly lost art of being able to disagree agreeably.

I remember that in the States of 1982-85 the late Deputy Bill Green and I were great sparring partners. We disagreed on virtually everything and were never afraid to point out the errors of each other’s views in no uncertain terms.

So were we enemies? Politically maybe, but personally we were great friends, with a warm fondness for each other. We both knew the other one was genuine but mistaken and we were happy to rub along as friends who simply disagreed over politics. I don’t know why but that art seems to have been lost over the intervening decades.

So it’s 40 years since I was first elected, although thank goodness I haven’t been in politics throughout that time. No doubt there will be lots of reminiscing as members from all 12 assemblies since 1982 gather for a curry tonight and to chew the fat of politics past and present.