Peaks and troughs
Last week’s States debate showed the Assembly at its best, but there were plenty of low moments too, says Richard Graham
PICTURE the scene.
The midday sun is high in the sky, beating down on the Assembly. The chocolates in Deputy Gollop’s pockets are melting. The presidents of Policy & Resources and Economic Development have dutifully delivered update statements containing little or no information that members didn’t already know. These presidents and three others have then dealt with questions asked by members who already knew the answers to them. The president of Environment & Infrastructure has at last been able to introduce her committee’s Electricity Strategy, Deputy Murray’s disingenuous delaying tactics having run out of steam and any logic they might have had – which wasn’t much. The policy letter is excellent, among the very best laid before the Assembly this term, and the E&I president has introduced it impressively, the more effectively – in my view – because she has delivered it as an explanation rather than as a lecture. Lunch is now only half an hour away, and the Deputy Bailiff is looking forward to a refreshing swim in the sea.
All in all, nothing in this benign scene prompts members to suspect that an outbreak of good old-fashioned xenophobia is about to invade the Assembly, but that’s because they haven’t reckoned with Deputy De Lisle, who is poised to inject a healthy dose of it into the proceedings in the form of an amendment to the policy letter.
Only a minute or two into his speech, members didn’t have to be particularly bright to deduce that Deputy De Lisle wasn’t especially fond of the French. I believe his family can trace its history back over several centuries, during which time the French must have done some nasty stuff to his ancestors during their periodic invasions of Guernsey. Let’s not speculate about the possible gruesome details for fear of upsetting my notoriously sensitive regular readers, but whatever it was, he was in no mood last week to forgive our garlic-chewing cousins. He wanted no truck with any electricity strategy that included a cable between Guernsey and perfidious France. The French couldn’t be trusted. Whenever the term ‘the French’ hissed from his lips, it was in a tone that suggested he had just trodden in something that didn’t smell very nice.
If Deputy Brouard had followed the Deputy Bailiff’s advice and refreshed himself with a lunchtime swim, he returned to shore a self-confessed ‘dangerous subversive’. Deputy De Lisle may have set the pace in the Let’s Not Trust Foreigners Steeplechase, but the Health & Social Care president was determined not to come second. He suggested that if Deputy De Lisle thought the French were bad, he should stay well clear of those Jersey crapauds. They were even worse. No better than ‘carpetbaggers’.
This was all too much for the delicate ears of Deputy Mahoney, P&R’s very own ‘goodwill-to-all-men’ ambassador. He was shocked. He couldn’t believe that committee presidents and civil servants could engage with their Jersey counterparts on the basis that they didn’t trust them. Listening to him, I thought to myself, ‘Cripes, how naive can you get? Mutual mistrust, far from being undesirable, is the only sensible basis whenever Guernsey and Jersey negotiate with each other.’
Some of our experienced political hands should take the Assembly’s novices aside and explain to them – slowly and patiently if necessary – that Guernsey politicians and civil servants are duty-bound to leave their Jersey equivalents in no doubt that they don’t trust them. Any other approach is to invite Guernsey being well and truly shafted, yet again. Cast-iron contracts are required, not trust. The art lies in letting them know we don’t trust them without saying it out loud to their face, all the time cooing warm words of fondness and respect for our dear neighbours while keeping a straight face.
To be fair to Deputy Mahoney, he wasn’t the only hapless innocent abroad. Others were keen to cite Germany and France as shining examples of former enemies who have learned to trust each other. Oh dear! Anyone who thinks that those two countries trust each other should try to see the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. The truth is that they maintain a diplomatic modus vivendi out of pragmatic necessity; mutual trust just doesn’t come into it.
That apart, the debate of the electricity strategy showed the Assembly at its best. Presented with E&I’s thoroughly professional policy letter by a committee president admirably on top of her brief, members from all factions demonstrated their appreciation by offering well-deserved compliments and thoughtful contributions of their own. Deputies de Sausmarez and Murray should be widely commended for taking the initiative to jointly hammer out a shared amendment that reconciled previous differences and enabled the Assembly to reach a consensus without unnecessary, time-consuming debate. They provided a model for the non-partisan working which the fast-diminishing remainder of this political term deserves. If only!
When I mention the Assembly at its best, I include the eccentricities that rescue it from dullness. Deputy Gollop, for example, treated us to the fascinating experience of listening to debate of an amendment that had just been withdrawn – he’d prepared a speech, so was hell-bent on delivering it anyway.
Deputy Le Tissier is another serial entertainer. This time it was offshore wind farms that brought him to his feet. He was worried that they might put off whales from visiting our waters. He acknowledged that whales might not be here now, but what with global warming, you never know.
I wish I could be as complimentary about the subsequent debate of the future of Herm School. A good case could have been made for both sides of the argument, but with few exceptions members failed to make them. Education, Sport & Culture undermined its case by scoring three own goals.
The first was a calculated attempt to dismiss the significance of closing the school. ESC member Deputy Aldwell had already set the tone in a radio interview. In the latest of her stunning contributions to our knowledge of the Guernsey education scene, she had advised us that Herm School is not a school, as we had all thought, but merely ‘an arm’s-length classroom’. This theme ran through the debate. It seemed to me that ESC members – Deputy Cameron excepted of course – had been sworn to prevent the term ‘Herm School’ from escaping their lips. The ESC president lapsed on one occasion but was quick to correct herself.
This portrayal of the school as nothing more than a room with a few desks was accompanied by an equally unsubtle attempt to portray the closure as doing Herm a favour by liberating its children from a version of schooling that was so dystopian that it threatened to scar them for life.
The Assembly also witnessed a blatant ruse by the committee and some of its loyalist supporters to turn the issue into a dispute between the Guernsey taxpayer and the Herm Island leaseholder. In a scene eerily reminiscent of John Cleese’s unforgettable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, some members implied that it was about time Herm itself made some contribution. The message became clear – Herm was nothing more than a business which was freeloading on the backs of the Guernsey taxpayer, and the campaign to keep the school open amounted to an ill-disguised attempt to prop up that business.
The reality, of course, is the exact opposite. Herm’s leaseholders have personally invested millions in improving the island’s infrastructure, to the benefit of the States as landlord and at the cost of the business running at a substantial loss. Each year, Herm contributes several hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Guernsey treasury by way of income tax and social insurance contributions from its workforce and various excise duties, and as Deputy Inder astutely reminded the Assembly, plays a key part in attracting tourists to the Bailiwick. In return, Herm receives next to nothing in practical terms from the States, apart from the provision of its ‘arm’s-length classroom’.
I suspect that ESC lost some marginal votes through these ill-advised, cynical tactics, and it didn’t help the committee that its president slipped briefly into her holier-than-thou mode to mount personal attacks on the integrity of some members’ motive in opposing the school closure.
I believe all members should take note that sanctimony in debate rarely serves an argument well.
The requete to save Herm School was led by Deputy De Lisle. His speeches aren’t exactly renowned for the blistering pace at which they navigate their torturous way from beginning to some sort of end, so the prospect of listening to him make several speeches on the same subject (the requete and its three amendments) suggested a long day lay ahead. So it proved. At one stage, his pauses became so long that I thought his neighbour must be checking his pulse for signs of life. It didn’t help that with a few honourable exceptions the speeches from both sides of the argument plumbed new depths of awfulness. The adjectives ‘repetitive, unstructured, rambling, long-winded and self-indulgent’ do not begin to convey the agony of having to listen to such an appalling anthology of tripe.
The Assembly spent over seven hours debating the requete. By five o’clock on Friday members had talked themselves to a standstill and all too predictably had left no time to deal with important business. They do it nearly every month and show no signs of resolving to do better.