False narratives

POLITICS is not immune to the regrettable fact that if a narrative is repeated enough times and for long enough it becomes accepted as a conventional wisdom and is adopted as a baseline assumption for all that follows, irrespective of whether the narrative is true or false.

P&R president Peter Ferbrache arriving at the Royal Court for the Government Work Plan debate. (Picture by Cassidy Jones, 29785795)
P&R president Peter Ferbrache arriving at the Royal Court for the Government Work Plan debate. (Picture by Cassidy Jones, 29785795)

We see a classic example in the USA where the Trumpian narrative that the 2020 presidential election was one gigantic fraud was repeated time after time until today around 50% of US citizens accept it as a proven fact. Moreover, even though authors of the narrative deploy it initially as a cynical device, knowing full well that it is false, they soon start to believe in it themselves. I bet that by now Trump has convinced himself that he was indeed cheated of victory by a corrupt election system.

The recent debate of the Government Work Plan was dominated by its own version of a false narrative that seems to have taken a majority of States members prisoner, including those who started to spread it. Put simply, the narrative to which I refer runs as follows. ‘Since we (States members) were elected, we have been shocked to discover that the state of public finances is so appalling that anything we said or failed to say when campaigning for election last year is now irrelevant. We may have promised to reduce the size of government, to lower taxation and avoid either introducing new taxes or borrowing more money; and we may have omitted to warn you (the electorate) that we would take some highly unpleasant measures such as increasing class sizes in our schools. But, that was before we learned how badly the previous States had mishandled the economy and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s more, we hadn’t realised that the commitments made by the previous spendthrift States were going to cost so much money. In other words, we had no idea things were so bad, so it’s not our fault if our election promises now count for nothing.’

Cobblers. During last year’s election campaign, the state of public finances was out in the public domain, including the likely extent of Aurigny’s deficit. All candidates had access to estimates of the probable damage inflicted on the economy by Covid-19 in the form of loss of States revenues and the various expenditures on fighting the pandemic and sustaining economic activity during the first lockdown. Similarly, all the principal commitments made by the previous States had been costed and published, even though admittedly in some cases no decision had been taken on how to fund them in the medium and long term.

So what’s happened since the election to justify the ‘shock-horror’ narrative? The answer is ‘nothing’. In fact the public finances and the economy generally are now, even after a second, unexpected lockdown, healthier than was officially forecast during the election campaign. Nor have the estimated costs of commitments made by the previous States risen since last October.

The simple truth is that all promises made by candidates last year were made in complete knowledge of the state of the economy and public finances. The same can be said of the situation in which candidates deliberately kept quiet about policies that might prove unpopular.

Put simply, our public finances have taken a hit from Covid-19 of around £120m. over the past 18 months; a lot of money but a sum well capable of being managed from our reserves. Such unforeseen setbacks are what we hold reserves to meet. So, all the hand-wringing protestations we heard that members wouldn’t have made their popular promises or kept quiet about their unpopular policies had they known then what they know now simply won’t wash, even with the liberal gushing of crocodile tears that threatened to flood the debating chamber. If any election candidates didn’t bother to gain an understanding of the public finances and the economy or were incapable of understanding them, I don’t think they were fit to stand for election last October, let alone to be trusted with the responsibilities of government. And let’s not forget, 18 of the current deputies were members of the previous States. It is their legacy as much as anybody else’s that has been handed down. Furthermore, 11 of them are now either presidents of States committees or members of P&R.

As for the Government Work Plan itself, it is far too early to pass judgement on it. Like any plan made by any government anywhere in the world at any time in human history, the GWP is unlikely to survive intact its first encounter with reality. Its success or otherwise can be judged only by how it adapts to the twists and turns of events so that the objectives it is designed to achieve and the results that it aims to deliver are indeed achieved and delivered.

This is where there is confusion. Too often, plans are regarded as an end in themselves, whereas their correct role is to provide a means to an end. We should judge a government on objectives achieved rather than on plans made. In my view, we will only be able to judge the GWP when in 2025 we can answer the question: has it delivered the outcomes for which it was designed? And in order to do that, we first need to know precisely what our government’s objectives are and how they can be measured. Does the GWP spell out in concrete, measurable terms what its objectives are? I leave readers to make their own judgement.

The current States membership has one big advantage. Although it has taken it nine months to come up with a plan, it still has a full, four-year term in which to fulfil it. The previous States made a late resolution to extend the term of their successors by a period of eight months. Unlike many of the resolutions made by their reviled predecessors, the present States members rather like this one. They have chosen to keep it rather than pour scorn on it and then rescind it or simply ignore it, as they have done with most of the other resolutions they inherited. How curious! And the person responsible for this gift? None other than their bete noir of the previous Assembly, former Deputy Fallaize, who laid the successful amendment. Ironic eh!

Anyway, come June 2025, there can be no excuses that ‘we ran out of time’.

I offer three vignettes from the GWP debate.

. Whatever happened to modesty? It was with embarrassing effusiveness that successive committee presidents congratulated themselves and their committees on managing to come up with a plan after nine months in office. There was me thinking that that was what we elected them and paid them to do. I therefore cheered the candour of the Economic Development president, Deputy Inder, when he broke off his speech to admit that he was boring himself with telling the Assembly how marvellous he and his committee had been. Let’s have more members pricking the Assembly’s bubble of pomposity like that – it will save me having to do it for them.

. The Assembly actually supported an amendment proposed by Deputy St Pier and another by Deputy Roffey, both of them against the advice of P&R, and rejected one proposed and seconded by Deputies Soulsby and Ferbrache respectively. Need I explain why this phenomenon is worthy of note?

. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Discuss. Some deputies thought the States should first establish how much revenue it could raise via the imminent fiscal review before it decided how to spend it. Others, crucially P&R, advocated the opposite – make your commitments and then work out how you will raise the money to pay for them.

Needless to say, P&R won the vote, if not necessarily the argument.

Lest we forget, it is P&R’s go-to argument that the previous States made commitments without having a clue how to pay for them, which in some cases is undeniably true. I’m trying to get the words ‘sauce’ and ‘gander’ out of my head.

How disappointing that an amendment brought by deputies De Sausmarez and Falla failed. If successful, it would have kept a standing commitment to complete a review of primary education. Why is such a review necessary? For two reasons. First, we have 13 primary schools in the States sector, some of which are bursting at the seams with up to 550 pupils, while others have excess places with as few as 150 pupils. In short, there are too many schools in the wrong places.

Deputy Taylor suggested a novel solution. If the schools and pupils are in the wrong place, move the pupils to the schools by building them houses in the rural parishes. I think we should encourage such lateral thinking.

Come to think of it, instead of trying to raise the Titanic, why don’t they simply lower the Atlantic? Somehow I suspect the idea of moving Les Genats Estate to Torteval might not catch on.

The second reason for a review is that it would tell us whether to rebuild La Mare de Carteret Primary School for two-form entry or three-form entry. The difference in cost would be several millions.

The ESC president told the States that her committee has neither the resources nor the time to conduct a review. Bunkum.

The real reason for ESC’s reluctance is that a review will be political dynamite because of the recommendations it is likely to make about the future of the primary schools in the south-west parishes. Take it from me, with three ESC members living in parishes that are within the catchment areas for those schools, there is no chance of a review of primary education being completed in this political term.

I hope I am proved wrong, but with 27 deputies voting against a review, a rebuild of La Mare de Carteret Primary looks a long way off.

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