Richard Graham: Blame, bluster and windbaggery
Richard Graham shares his thoughts on last week’s States meeting...
You won’t catch me getting into the ‘worst States ever’ game. It’s a meaningless term and a pointless game. But I think it’s fair to comment that never have we witnessed any States that was so woefully unconscious of irony as the current Assembly.
I was prompted to conduct a survey asking States members what they understand by the word ‘irony’. Twelve members told me what I could do with my survey and were especially helpful when it came to advising me precisely where it could go.
Other responses were illuminating. One member told me that he left irony and all that stuff to ‘the wife’; she normally did it after the washing up and before darning his socks. One of the older members spoke of irony with nostalgia; in his view Guernsey hadn’t had a decent one since Marquand Bros shut down. Three members scratched their heads before suggesting Irony might be a town in Normandy. All in all, the survey suggested that when it comes to irony, many States members just don’t get it. And the relevance to last week’s States meeting? I’ll come to that – eventually.
The meeting began with a continuation of the debate over funding for ESC’s Les Ozouets Campus project. Two amendments were in play to enable the project to go ahead. Both were lost. Two further amendments offered a potential lifebelt, but these were also both lost, hardly surprising since one of them was proposed by Deputy St Pier, who then abstained on the vote, and seconded by Deputy Soulsby, who voted against it. Bizarre!
We then witnessed a competition to establish who was the worst bad loser. I short-listed Deputies Mahoney and Kazantseva-Miller, both of whom delivered speeches that attacked the integrity and sincerity of members who didn’t agree with them. I think Deputy Mahoney just edged it. Along the way, Deputy Leadbeater had offered one of his pithy ‘they must be joking’ speeches. In contrast, Deputy Matthews’ contribution merely prompted a despairing Bailiff to ask the Assembly ‘Is somebody ever going to say something new?’
On the second day, the blame game began in earnest. P&R’s Deputy Murray was ready with a rescue mission. Irony alert. He began by asserting that the debate of education funding was making some members hysterical. I presumed he must be referring to Deputy Dudley-Owen, who had twice painted a dystopian picture in which all post-16 students would have to be educated in the grant-aided colleges or in off-island institutions. With a complete absence of irony, Deputy Murray then launched into an increasingly hysterical plea for £26m. to be spent on the education estate, alleging the Assembly’s decision had created an emergency. He failed to convince and the amendment was lost, but I was surprised that no member mentioned that the admittedly urgent need to upgrade The Guernsey Institute’s current estate had nothing to do with the decision not to fund the Les Ozouets Campus. Even if members had given the go-ahead to the campus project, the earliest it could open would be September 2026. We couldn’t possibly leave students and teachers to work wearing overcoats beneath leaking ceilings until then.
As the second day drew to a close, Deputy Meerveld moved a motion to reorder business so that the debate of no confidence in P&R could begin as the next item. This was enough to provoke Deputy Inder into making one of those weird speeches which have become his hallmark. He was not happy. The cause of his unhappiness? Deputy Meerveld had been lunching. There was no point in denying it; he had seen him with his own eyes, having lunch at the OGH. I thought cripes, I’m not a special fan of our placard-waving deputy, but even I think the poor bloke has the right to eat. But hang on, that was the least of Deputy Inder’s concerns. Apparently, Deputy Meerveld had been acting as clandestine leader of a covert paramilitary organisation. I’d previously thought that the threat posed by Deputy Meerveld was no more sinister than his role as a one-man rival to the pantomime industry. Even now, post Deputy Inder’s grave warning, I find it difficult to think of him as Guernsey’s version of Oswald Mosley. I wonder who his black-shirted insurrectionists might be.
So all was set for a final day’s debate of the no confidence motion. The outcome was as predictable as it was depressing. Just consider this. Each member knew in advance that cutting their lunch break by half an hour and extending the afternoon session would give them seven hours to decide the course of Guernsey’s government for the next 18 months. With 420 minutes available for debate, and allowing 20 minutes for Deputy Parkinson’s closing response, even the not-so-bright among them would have known that they each had a maximum of 10 minutes in which to make their speech. All that was required was self-discipline and focus. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask of responsible adults? It was.
A third of members never made it to their feet, despite the valiant efforts of a gallant few (in ascending order of commendable brevity: Deputy Leadbeater, Alderney Representative Roberts, and Deputies Kazantseva-Miller, Burford, Fairclough, Mahoney, Le Tissier, Le Tocq, Dyke, Gabriel, Cameron, Moakes, De Lisle, Brouard and Falla). The remainder (in ascending order of culpable windbaggery: Deputies Queripel, Vermeulen, Gollop, St Pier, Roffey, De Sausmarez, Prow, Matthews, Dudley-Owen and Inder) seemed determined that the debate wouldn’t conclude that day. Deputy Parkinson, as the lead signatory to the motion, and Deputy Ferbrache, as the lead counsel for the defence, were entitled to extra time, albeit the latter’s 56-minute ramble risked being seen as a metaphor for this political term under his leadership.
The narrative of the debate proved to be as predictable as the day’s outcome. Around half of States members, including P&R members themselves, praised the senior committee’s political membership as a stunning array of talent and integrity; in short, they were nothing short of God’s gift to democracy and good governance. The other half concluded that if that was the case, the Almighty must have been in a foul mood when he offered the gift. What unified members was that, without exception, they claimed to be desperately sad to be debating a motion of no confidence. And of course we believe them. Don’t we?
Several speeches still echo in the chamber of my memory.
As a signatory to the motion of no confidence, an emollient Deputy Vermeulen attempted to soothe the debate with a plea for a political culture of courtesy and respect among members. Such naive idealism cut no ice with Deputies Prow and Moakes and Alderney Representative Roberts, who were prominent among those who dismissed the motion of no confidence as nothing more than a self-seeking bid for power by you-know-who. Mr Roberts went even further, blaming all the ills of the current political term on the previous Assembly – the tight-fisted lot who wouldn’t promise Alderney a new airport.
The late Graham Guille would be as proud as punch to know that he’s quoted in the Assembly more frequently than Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. For the umpteenth time Deputy Queripel reminded the current Assembly of the former Vale deputy’s epigram for a hidden agenda: ‘It’s not always about what it’s about’. Excessive repetition has made the Guille quote embarrassingly stale but that didn’t dissuade Deputy Prow from repeating it later.
Deputy Matthews for once eschewed his trademark ‘I wasn’t going to speak but ...’ and instead began his speech with the promise that it would be concise and focused. It was neither.
Any hopes that the resignation of two P&R members would enable the senior committee to be refreshed and strengthened were dashed by Deputy Dudley-Owen, who concluded her speech with the promise that she wouldn’t vote for any potential replacement who supported the motion of no confidence. So, same old then!
Deputy Roffey pursued a military theme, calling for an end to Guernsey’s civil war; he’d personally never wanted to serve in either of the warring Ferbrache and St Pier armies.
Deputy Mahoney portrayed his resignation from P&R as a noble sacrifice and painted a picture of himself as a heroic warrior brought to his knees by lesser beings. I could see him there, a cross between the boy on the burning deck, Horatius at the bridge and Gulliver helplessly bound by the myriad threads of those pesky Lilliputians.
He dismissed accusations of unacceptable behaviour by P&R members with accusations of his own against those who had made them. Second irony alert. There was, he insisted, no evidence, an assertion repeated on the Royal Courthouse steps by his fellow resigning P&R colleague, Deputy Helyar. Statements by members claiming to have witnessed such behaviour at first hand were dismissed as mere hearsay. Had the two deputies conveniently forgotten the fourth-hand hearsay that they had gleefully embraced when attacking Deputy St Pier only weeks ago?
It’s a pity that Deputy Burford spoke relatively late in the day because her speech included a few sentences that captured the essence of the motion of no confidence, thereby demonstrating how previous hours of tedious repetition could have been avoided. She reminded members that it was Deputy Ferbrache himself who’d publicly insisted that the States simply couldn’t carry on as they were. He’d suggested that the impasse could only be resolved by an early general election. Since that option had subsequently been ruled out, Deputy Burford argued that Guernsey’s government needed to reset itself. Members had to decide whether that reset could be achieved under the current P&R membership. It was that simple. They may give the answer in December. Deep breath everybody.