Guernsey Press

Prophecies of doom

Richard Graham shares his thoughts on last week’s States debate.

Deputies arrive for the second day of the 2023 annual budget debate. Left to right: Neil Inder, David Mahoney, Mark Helyar, Sam Haskins and Nick Moakes. (Picture by Luke Le Prevost, 31437125)

JUST when I was beginning to think that Rishi Sunak had the makings of a sensible prime minister, stone me if he didn’t go and blow it.

No, I don’t mean his appointment of several gormless goons to his cabinet, bizarre as that undoubtedly was. I might comment on that in a later sketch. What gave me cause to think again about the latest temporary occupant of Number 10 was when they wheeled out the Downing Street lectern for the umpteenth time this year and he promised to unite the nation ‘with actions not words’.

I thought, crickey, they never learn, do they? This Churchillian stuff just doesn’t work. Dippy Lizzy said the same and look where that led. And we heard it here, too, didn’t we?

When the current Policy and Resources Committee made that early promise to lead a States that would march to the drumbeat of ‘action this day’ and ‘actions not words’, I remember warning that it would hold them hostage to fortune. Wrapping oneself in Churchill’s greatcoat and expecting it to fit, always ends in discomfort. And so it has proved. They would have been better advised to look to good old Will Shakespeare for a more appropriate source of inspiration.

‘If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.’ Thus said Macbeth as he psyched himself up to stab King Duncan in the back. Come to think of it, that would have been especially relevant to our new Assembly back in October 2020 because the only quick action seen from its members these past two years was the back-stabbing regicide of King Gavin in that first week of its life.

More than once – sensing that it was wearing a bit thin – I resolved to stop teasing P&RC about those rash claims made in the early flush of power, but every time I did so, some twerp or other would repeat the absurd mantra. In last week’s budget debate, it was Deputy Vermeulen who was at it, strutting his ‘man of action’ path through one of those meandering speeches of his that go nowhere. I hereby promise to stop pulling legs about these ill-advised and unsubstantiated boasts as soon as certain States members stop shouting them to the rooftops. Goodness knows, they would stop soon enough out of embarrassment if only they knew how ridiculous it makes them sound. Much better if they stopped kidding themselves that they are any quicker to action than any of their predecessors. They aren’t. Instead, I invite them to share my faith that most Guernsey folk are bright enough to understand that getting government right takes time.

Last week’s debate about the budget for 2023 was dominated by the elephant in the room, the looming publication and subsequent debate of P&RC’s proposals following its much-delayed review of taxation. Prophecies of doom filled the air. For a moment, I thought I had tuned into Dad’s Army by mistake. Private Frazer seemed to be everywhere.

One by one, P&RC members stood to warn that the state of the public finances was dire. The message was clear. Each and every deputy was in the last chance saloon. Inflation-busting budgets, a trademark of the current States, had had their day in the sunshine. Current members had already indulged in two of these and they could treat themselves to just one more addictive puff. Thereafter, members should prepare to kick the habit and deal with the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

At one stage, I heard the rare sound of deputies Ferbrache, Parkinson, St Pier and Trott speaking in harmony. Mind you, it took an amendment to the budget from Deputy Inder to do the trick. The point of agreement was that the amendment had scarcely anything to do with the budget, in which case they wondered why they had spent two hours discussing it.

I was left thinking how wasteful it is that only one of these four political big-hitters occupies a top bench which is notoriously low on wattage.

The unity didn’t last long of course. Deputy St Pier had laid an amendment with proposals which Deputy Ferbrache considered to be a capital gains tax. In his view, such a tax was alien to Guernsey’s culture, an English tax that was not wanted here. He would have none of it. Deputy St Pier responded that he would listen with interest during the January debate on taxation when Deputy Ferbrache will propose to introduce a Goods and Services Tax which, as we all know, is an English tax that is alien to Guernsey’s culture and is not wanted here. Deputy St Pier won’t be the only one paying attention, will he?

Deputy Murray, one of the four Guernsey Party members still standing after two years of life, provided us with a foretaste of the party’s likely approach to the imminent debate of taxation. Party members face a difficult dilemma. In 2020 they were voted in on promises of reduced government spending and lower taxes, but, once in power, they all voted for two budgets that produced the precise opposite – and were about to do it yet again. Worryingly for them, the electorate is wise to their embarrassing u-turn.

Deputy Murray’s response was to blame it all on someone else. He had been sold a pup. He never got round to telling us who had sold it to him. Nobody – whoever nobody was – had told him that the cupboard was bare and that Brexit might pose problems. Poppycock!

At the time of the general election the state of the public finances was in the public domain for all to take note, including P&RC’s estimates of the damage done to the economy by Covid-19, estimates which subsequently proved to have been much over-stated. As for Brexit, the withdrawal agreement was finalised in October 2019 and came into effect on 1 February 2020, a full eight months before those populist election promises were made.

Deputy Murray offered his own answer to Guernsey’s fiscal difficulties; the States needed to do things differently. Simple as that. On and on he went, repeating this message without ever getting round to providing any examples of what differences he had in mind. I would like to be charitable about his contribution, but it’s difficult to be polite about pure goop. I don’t know if it’s something in the Education, Sport and Culture coffee machine, but there is a distinctive ESC brand of verbal ‘goopiness’ in the stuff with which members of that committee routinely spray the Assembly. Mind you, the ‘Blob’ seems to lap it up, so who am I to pontificate?

These days, no States meeting would be complete without a sob story. Deputy Oliver duly supplied last week’s meeting with one. The president of the Development and Planning Authority saw fit to make a wholly unconvincing plea for members to share her sympathy for our impoverished property developers who she claimed are on especially hard times. She did so on the day it was announced that 25% of houses sold last month in Guernsey went for more than a million pounds. Not great timing for passing the hat around, eh!

Deputy Le Tissier was in spiky mood. His challenge to the Assembly pulled no punches. Spending was out of control. If they couldn’t make savings, they should make way for those who could. I’m not sure who he was looking at when he spoke, but perhaps as a one-time member of the Guernsey Party he was aiming his remarks at his former party colleagues who, unlike him, have had two years’ experience of serving on States committees and should know where their promised savings can be made. Deputy Le Tissier’s point would have been more convincing if he had himself cited specific saving opportunities, but no doubt he was keeping them for the January debate. We wait agog with expectation.

Towards the end, the Assembly agreed to Employment and Social Security’s proposal to remove the cap on earnings for entitlement to income support, although nine deputies voted against it. I suspect that most of the nine simply thought it either unaffordable or unnecessary, but Deputy Dyke, true to form, had a novel reason all of his own. He portrayed the cap as a contraceptive device. Remove it, and we would all be breeding like rabbits.

‘Hang on,’ I thought, ‘what about joined-up government? Doesn’t the States want us to increase our young population?’ Deputy Dyke had the answer to that: apparently more children in large families would be the wrong sort of children. Funny that, when you think that William Shakespeare and Edward Elgar each had seven siblings, Beethoven had six while the Duke of Wellington and Gainsborough each had a whopping eight.

Interestingly, Vladimir Putin is an only child. That worked out well, didn’t it?