Echoes of Gulliver?

LOOKING back over the past political year for signs of what to expect from this year, I’m prompted to ask, does anybody read Jonathan Swift these days?

Gulliver captured by Lilliputians. (Picture by Shutterstock)
Gulliver captured by Lilliputians. (Picture by Shutterstock)

Come to that, are we even allowed to read Jonathan Swift, or is he one of those authors who has been ‘cancelled’? After all, his use of ironic satire came close to the bone at times and there are plenty of tender souls out there who are queuing up to be offended by that sort of thing.

You think I’m exaggerating about this cancel culture thingummy? Well, let me remind you of the British head teacher who would permit his secondary students to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped only if they were warned beforehand that it might contain reference to somebody being kidnapped –otherwise he feared the poor dears would be traumatised. Come back, Wackford Squeers, the nation needs you.

I hear you ask, what’s Jonathan Swift got to do with local politics? I’ll tell you. He has two points of relevance.

First, I’m a fan of his. While I’m not even a poor imitator of him, I do share his experience of what happens when you pull pompous political legs. Swift got into trouble with the political establishment of his day and I’m not exactly flavour of the month with ours. If one of our male deputies behaves like a chump and I draw attention to it, I’m labelled a card-carrying Marxist-Leninist keyboard warrior. If a female deputy makes a prat of herself and I draw readers’ attention to it, there are cries of ‘misogynist’. I don’t mind in the least, but it is a depressing reminder of the clunky thinking prevalent among some of our elected representatives. Let’s hope they develop thicker skins and broader minds this coming year, because I won’t be letting up.

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels offers the second relevance to how political business is done here these days. It was one of the first books I read as a child, and above all I remember it for the striking illustration on its front cover, which showed the giant figure of Gulliver overpowered by the sheer number of tiny Lilliputians who had pegged his hair and body to the ground by a myriad of guy ropes. It is a powerful image which could apply to our States Assembly last year just as accurately as to the island of Lilliput in 1702.

I offer no views on the relative merits of the two candidates for the post of our ‘chief minister’ just over a year ago, but by any measure it was extraordinary that the man who was the overwhelming first choice of the voting public was not only rejected by 23 States members, but was then dispatched with relish to the back benches, denied even membership of any committee, the victim of small-minded vindictiveness, like Gulliver pegged to the ground by the strands of petty resentment and suspicion held by little people.

That’s the image I have of our States Assembly in 2021. So what does it tell us about what to expect in 2022? In the book, Gulliver escapes to a neighbouring island, leaving the Lilliputians – who are renowned for their preoccupation with trivial matters and their quarrelsomeness – to squabble over the problem that obsesses them most, namely, to decide which end of an egg should be cracked.

I intended to refer to a third connection between Swift and last year’s political scene, namely that he could easily have written another of his major works, A Tale of a Tub, with the Guernsey Party in mind. That was before I was advised that the book’s title might, erroneously, be taken as an unkind reference to someone’s rotund shape and that the relevance of the book’s theme to the party’s political narrative would go unnoticed. So I decided not to mention it.

There are other pointers from 2021 as to what 2022 might have to offer politically.

The last year began with a number of themes that were left over from the general election campaign but which already seem to have been abandoned by the end of the year. I offer just three of many possible examples.

u In late 2020 and early 2021 the popular narrative was that the civil service was bloated and could be reduced in size without jeopardising public services. A year later, the Scrutiny Management Committee’s recent public scrutiny of P&R and then of Education, Sport & Culture has suggested the opposite. P&R members, having criticised the previous States’ P&R plan for being an ambitious wish list with too many objectives that could never possibly be delivered, now conceded that the Government Work Plan is also an ambitious wish list with some objectives that have little chance of being delivered. And why won’t they be delivered? The explanation was that there are insufficient resources to support them. In other words, far from there being too many civil servants, there aren’t enough of them.

We got the same explanation from ESC that the reform of secondary and post-16 education risked being delayed partly because of staff shortages within the committee and the lack of project managers within the States.

u Closely related to the above theme was the initial majority view of the new Assembly, and especially, but not exclusively, the view proclaimed by the Guernsey Party, that our government was too big, doing too much and spending too much.

We have since seen two successive, inflation-busting, annual States budgets. In other words, government is getting bigger not smaller, spending more not less. Ironically, it was the political leader of the Guernsey Party, wearing his treasury minister’s hat, who in a recent Guernsey Press article reminded us – and it would appear reminded himself – that the notion that our government is unreasonably big and expensive is a bit of a myth. To reinforce his argument, he quoted an international report prepared by ‘impartial experts’ who refer to Guernsey’s ‘already small share of central government spending relative to GDP’.

u Here’s a third narrative that seems to have changed over the past year. A year or so ago, we were told that the more the States could hand over services to the private sector the better – they would be delivered more efficiently and more economically. And yet, when SMC held its public scrutiny of P&R early last month, we heard a frank recognition and acceptance of the benefits of keeping services and the people to deliver them in-house.

There is other concrete evidence that belief in the almost magical powers of the private sector to sort things out for government has undergone a change. Here are two examples. First, we had the recognition that when it comes to providing the island with high-speed fibre optic broadband within five years, the private sector and private investors are simply not up to the task. Instead, the private sector has sought to join up with the States for funding, and the States has had to obliged to the tune of up to £12.5m.

Second, P&R has announced that government can no longer rely on the private sector to provide us with acceptable sea links. For several years we have given private companies a monopoly for the provision of those links and they have not come up to the mark. So the States will soon find itself fully engaged as a business partner in the sea ferry business to the tune of an investment of between £15m. and £20m. This may well be a good move, although I wonder if the Assembly will ever see the business case that shows it to be justified.

The principal debate of the first States meeting of 2022 was about how to manage the interface between the Assembly and the Civil Contingency Authority when faced with an emergency. It revealed possible signs for the future.

It confirmed my impression that a majority of P&R members are set on marginalising the role of the Assembly in all matters, but interestingly, compared with previous major debates, there seemed to be fewer P&R catchfarts* who were prepared to follow, come what may. As a result, except for one proposition, an attempt to bring a wrecking ball to the amended policy letter failed, with victory going to those members from across the political spectrum who had worked together collaboratively to improve it.

Fifteen months into the life of the new Assembly, and Deputy Ferbrache happened to address Deputy Kazantseva-Miller as Deputy Casanova-Miller. He did so on more than one occasion. Mmmm! It was to her credit that her response to this discourtesy was both measured and dignified.

As for poor old Gulliver in exile, I don’t want to cause alarm, but Deputy St Pier proposed not only one successful amendment, but two. Whatever next?!

*A wonderful 17th century word for submissive servants who follow their master rather too closely.

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