What sort of society does Guernsey want?

Whether the States is small ‘c’ conservative or little ‘s’ socialist, unless islanders are clear what sort of future they do want, nothing much is going to change, says Richard Digard

(Picture by Shutterstock)
(Picture by Shutterstock)

NEXT year, for the first time in Guernsey’s history, States committees will spend more than half a billion pounds on doing whatever it is that they do. That’s £60m. more than this year, despite all 2021’s emergency expenditure on Covid to keep afloat businesses and essential services like the ports and Aurigny.

It breaks down to nearly £13,500 per taxpayer and is equivalent to £1.4m. a day – a substantial sum by any standards.

Two-thirds of it will go on what you might term as welfare – pensions, benefits, health and community services. Firstly, that doesn’t leave very much left for other things. Secondly, it rather reinforces Horace Camp’s contention here last week that a formerly self-reliant island has indeed been caught up in the great shift to small ‘s’ socialism, which he said was a feature of most European countries today.

Part of that additional £60m. – some £22m. – has been earmarked because part of the stuff committees wanted to do (AKA ‘service developments’) hasn’t yet happened.

Whether we’ve missed them is a moot point, but nevertheless the committees grind on with these things and so cost pressures and the demands on taxpayers mount annually.

The reason for mentioning this is because the island, from the recently released Budget, weathered the pandemic in surprisingly good shape. Yes, that’s because government handled it well, but chiefly because the businesses that survived, or were helped to survive, went on to do what they do best, which is make money.

There’s an irony here too for those who say the tax base is too narrow and GST is the only way forward – individual income tax receipts were £18m. more than expected and an immediate 8.3% boost to the exchequer.

In essence, Guernsey had a ‘good’ post-2008 credit crunch recession and a ‘good’ pandemic because of the strength of the economy. Apart from its role as enabler, that has had little to do with government, which is why the Budget is so surprised by the strength of the latest recovery.

It also goes to explain some of chief minister Peter Ferbrache’s frustration that he hasn’t made more progress since launching his ‘action this day’ programme after the first island-wide general election.

‘The process,’ he says, ‘is stultifying.’ And it’s one reason why he wants executive government so that future States can indeed Get Things Done.

The problem here, however, is that people really rather like things not being done.

Long-term solution to a Jerry-built wall at L’Ancresse? Man the barricades. Resume quarrying at Chouet headland? It’s an environmental catastrophe. Build 1,000 new homes to end the housing crisis? Not in the north of the island or anywhere near me. Develop the eastern seaboard to create new land, economic opportunity and a barrage to generate renewable energy? Civil disobedience.

So I’m not even going to mention the island getting a proper runway.

Time was, quarries were opened and fields turned into vineries because there was money to be made and wages to be earned. The inevitable downsides were viewed as a price worth paying.

I’m not suggesting these were the good old days or that we should return to them. Simply that something of a watershed approaches and it’s better embraced than approached by default.

In short, how do islanders want to see Guernsey change to ensure an economic future? Plenty want no change at all – which is understandable, but not an option.

The workforce is declining, staff shortages abound, demographic costs are spiralling, the impact of Brexit is still being felt, there’s a housing crisis, and we’re in active competition with the UK for migrant workers, where the cost of living is half what it is here.

Carrying on as we are and expecting a different outcome doesn’t strike me as especially sensible – and that’s before factoring in climate change and the required response to it.

So if you agree that change is inevitable, then the only question is how much?

Look at the Government Work Plan and it’s rooted in the here and now, not focused on what sort of society Guernsey wants or needs to be in 15 years’ time or after, say, three general elections.

Currently, policy is influenced most by what people don’t want rather than what they do, something much harder to establish.

To that extent, whether Guernsey remains a small ‘c’ conservative island with individuals happy to paddle their own canoe and rely on a minimal welfare safety net, or believes in much greater collectivism and equality, is really rather crucial.

Whichever it is at least means decisions can be taken, hopefully without the stultifying effects noted by Deputy Ferbrache. That said, islanders can’t rely on government to do that for them.

The last bout of States navel-gazing delivered Future Guernsey and ‘We will be among the happiest and healthiest places in the world…’, which didn’t get us very far, did it?

So if islanders really believe there is life beyond capitalism and economics can be made fit for 21st century realities, now’s the time to say so.

Unless you force government to change tack, we’ll keep on doing the same things and hoping for a different outcome.

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