I moved to Guernsey in 1988 after spending 10 years in the murky alleyways of London politics and knowing many of the then leading UK politicians. One of the things that surprised me about Guernsey was the prevailing belief that the UK (or the Mainland as I was told to refer to it – though France is so much nearer) would always do the right thing by Guernsey and not let us down.
There was pride that Guernsey had its own parliament, that we had a separate legal and judicial system and a separate tax system. There was also a satisfaction, however, that we were part of the British family and held a tremendous respect and affection for the Queen. I don’t think that these attitudes have changed much over the last 32 years. I also found that Guernsey had aspects of a colonial society underpinned by Guernsey’s system of governance and by the UK’s judicious conferment of honours. Over the years I also learnt that the Guernsey civil service defers unduly to the men in Whitehall and that the UK is quietly prepared to crack the whip whenever it considers that our ‘autonomy’ threatens what is perceived to be an important UK interest. The ‘masquerade’ may continue subject to UK ultimate control. But why should this surprise us? There are over 66 million people in the UK as against around 67,000 people in Guernsey (roughly 0.1% of the UK population). The UK has its own economic and political imperatives and the best interests of Guernsey are pretty low down the pecking order. Of course they are. The UK Government will obviously prefer the economic and political interests of British voters to those of others (including Guernsey). And actually, so they should. As Machiavelli appreciated, the wellbeing of the state and its people is the responsibility of the ruler and should be achieved by any means possible.
So if the UK Government wants to play tough and plunder our fisheries what can Guernsey do about it? There is no magic wand to wave. Guernsey is the little guy in the playground when the bigger boys cut up rough. Some musings however (they hardly qualify as suggestions).
1. Choose our battles wisely. Within the context of Brexit, fisheries are a particularly sensitive area for the UK. The masquerade of autonomy must continue or severe adverse economic consequences will result. The fig leaf must be protected at all costs. If it is stripped away then Guernsey’s naked weakness will be revealed. The risk is too great.
2. Continue to develop Guernsey’s own separate identity around the world. Work to improve channels of communication with France, with the Scots and Welsh governments, with Commonwealth countries, with small members of the United Nations.
3. Wherever possible sign anything directly as opposed to the UK Government signing on behalf of Guernsey.
4. Always try to work in conjunction with Jersey and the Isle of Man.
5. Don’t continually ‘tug the forelock’ and automatically adopt any ‘suggestion’ of best practice or whatever from Whitehall. It does not always know best in a Guernsey context and may speak with a forked tongue.
6. Never threaten anything you are not prepared to carry out.
7. Difficult discussions should preferably take place behind closed doors.
8. There may come a point, however, when Guernsey’s very economy (and hence its success as a viable society and community) is at risk as a result of centuries old constitutional conventions being trampled underfoot. This would be an existential moment and hopefully will never come. However, the possibility of it should be quietly discussed at senior level in London. No society can be expected to cut its own throat.