Guernsey Press

Richard Digard: Which island is best?

Despite Jersey having had ministerial government since 2005, there are persistent calls in that island to return to a Guernsey-like committee system. So which approach works best? That’s not easy to answer but Richard Digard comes to a firm conclusion...


Few, if any, of us believe that the States works very well. If that assumption is correct, any dispute will be over the way in which it is deficient and how that might be rectified. Cabinet government anyone? This train of thought was triggered by, of all things, the editor of the Jersey Evening Post, who wanted to know which was best – their ministerial system or Guernsey’s committee-based approach.

In turn, that was prompted by the persistent calls in the other island to overturn the Clothier Report of 2000, which introduced ministers, and return instead to good old committees, just like Guernsey. So, which is the better system?

Well, 2,500 words, a lot of research and a double-page spread later and I can tell you it’s a damned difficult question to answer, for all I expected it to be pretty straightforward. For a start, how do you define success and how do you measure it? After all, there’s no way of saying definitively whether a council of ministers in Jersey or the States of Deliberation in Guernsey came to a better decision.

To remove some of the subjectivity, you could look at something called the Better Life Index, a basket of feel-good factors that the OECD calls the 11 dimensions of wellbeing, and which both islands sign up to.

This measures income, jobs, housing, health, safety, civic engagement, community, education, environment, life satisfaction and work-life balance and Jersey had an overall 6.4 score (out of 10) on it. That sounds good, but actually places the island below the OECD average and, revealingly, behind the United Kingdom and France. It also dropped five places overall in 2021 compared to 2019, placed in the top 10 for jobs and earnings, and community, but ranked bottom for civic engagement.

Here, where the States rather infamously declared in 2016 that ‘We will be among the happiest and healthiest places in the world…’, Guernsey was ranked third out of 31 countries in 2019, but doesn’t report BLI in the same way as Jersey and didn’t even score a one for the cost of housing, because it’s so expensive.

Overall, however, we do seem ahead in the happy stakes under the committee system – and that’s reinforced by some economic data as well. Look at GDP per capita – which helps indicate average living standards and economic wellbeing – and it was £51,868 in 2019, or 56% greater than it was in the UK in 2018 and 14% greater than Jersey’s, which was £43,470 in 2018.

That feel-good factor was also confirmed by work done by the UK economic forecasting group EY, which reported that Jersey’s economy shrank by 9.2% in 2020, similar to the UK level, while in Guernsey the figure was a mere 3%.

None of that, however, has any bearing on how well or badly the systems performed as such. Guernsey’s better GDP was a consequence of Covid and border control, not a conscious decision to boost economic output.

The other thing is the actual difference between the two States. In Jersey, it’s pretty clear where power lies. As tells us, ‘The Council of Ministers is the Government of Jersey.’ In other words, ministerial authority is vested in 12 individuals who act as Jersey’s executive.

Here, the Royal Court’s own explainer is that, ‘The island parliament (the States of Deliberation) is responsible for all aspects of government, with the exception of foreign relations and defence. The States of Guernsey constitute the parliament or legislature. Full administrative powers, including the power to levy taxation, are also vested in the States, but are delegated via the machinery of government.’

So whereas just 12 people call the shots in Jersey, all 38 Guernsey States members (plus two Alderney representatives) have to come together to make the big decisions and agree policy. And that reference to machinery of government is crucial. It means the silo-like Guernsey committee structure is where the real day-to-day power lies, subject to any modification and – especially – funding imposed or denied by the Assembly as a whole.

Fine, but what does this actually mean? Here’s a definitive answer from an independent 2009 review of governance in Guernsey: ‘The States lacks identifiable, corporate political leadership. This is… due to systemic and structural issues which mean that [leaders] are not vested with the authority to act decisively. This can result in an inability or delay in being able to take key decisions in an expeditious way. This lack of enforceable political leadership is highly detrimental to the effective governance of the States and has resulted in a lack of strategic direction and focus, indecisiveness in decision making and an inability to drive change.’

And ditto in Jersey before the Clothier reforms. But despite the changes there designed to solve the problems, there are still deep-seated concerns that government still isn’t delivering despite the ministerial system.

My conclusion therefore to which system is ‘better’ is simple – it’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking which approach provides the best outcomes for islanders. And, again, the answer is quite simple – neither does, because they can’t.

Since each Assembly is essentially a collection of independents, islanders have no idea of what policies or direction of travel they’ve voting for. As a commentator in Jersey put it recently, ‘…our system is too vulnerable to policy by individual whim rather than evidence and consensus.’

In the early, post-Occupation, days of what was then a new democratic system based on elected deputies, that didn’t matter too much. Getting the islands back on their feet and building a better life for Jersey and Guernsey people was a common goal. We knew what good looked like then and worked towards it.

That sense of direction has now been lost and, no matter how you vote, there’s no system for choosing a direction of travel or economic or welfare policies. Those emerge after the Assembly has been formed, and remain a lottery.

This is why we have a housing crisis, uncontrolled government expansion, budget deficits, failed public investment and a flat-lining economy. No matter what islanders may want in these areas, States members simply cook up their own policies rather than being elected on a collective manifesto to deliver change.

So what we can say with some certainty is that the Jersey system delivers more efficiently on a day-to-day basis – 12 ministers v 38 Guernsey States members – but neither appear to give electors what they want.

In the UK, for instance, you can plump for free-market policies, individual responsibility and a smaller role for government in your life, or more social justice, workers’ rights, and a more active government role in addressing inequality simply by voting for someone sporting a blue or a red rosette.

Here, despite each candidate’s promises, what flavour States you get remains a fudge, which is why that dissatisfaction about outcomes and how they affect individual islanders’ wellbeing is growing because life for many folk here is getting worse.

So to that extent, don’t bother asking which island’s system is better. Both are fundamentally broken.