To start 2018, we’ve asked Guernsey’s foreign minister, Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq, to share his thoughts on the challenges facing the business community in the islands in the year ahead.
As the member of Guernsey’s government tasked primarily with the external relations mandate, in reviewing 2017 and looking into 2018, I focus inevitably more globally than domestically, identifying things which, although seemingly outside our direct sphere of influence, nevertheless have had and I believe will have a significant impact on our lives in these islands.
Domestic issues – e.g. education, taxation, consumer prices, transport and travel – whilst the focus for many islanders and businesses who just want to get the government out of their hair and get on with their lives (a sentiment with which I empathise despite my lack of hair!) are all issues over which events happening outside of these shores do regularly have an impact.
Nevertheless, the last couple of years have been significant in that trends have been especially difficult to predict, so in forecasting what 2018 may hold, the one thing we can all be certain of is that I am likely to be wrong. So with that in mind, I will use three themes to illustrate my thoughts and the first sums up my latter point precisely, and it is this: Uncertainty.
Ironically, the year in which Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap election because “what the country needs is certainty” proved to be a move towards greater uncertainty. Instead of the landslide Tory victory the polls were indicating, we saw a hung parliament in which May’s party clutches on to power through a fragile agreement with a few Unionist MPs.
This of course has done little to assuage the markets or British industry where continued vagueness and apprehension persist. The whole Brexit issue serves to illustrate a people and their leadership who perhaps know what they don’t want but are not yet at all sure of what they do. There is no lack of course of speculative dreamers on the one hand and doom merchants the other, but the fact is uncertainty remains.
For us this is less problematic than for the UK, we have not changed our relationship with the EU and our constitutional relationship with the British Crown remains, but it still means some uncertainty in 2018 for us since inevitably we currently rely on the UK for so much; in its success we flourish, we are in the Sterling zone and Britain remains our closest trading partner.
That said, we have worked hard in 2017 to do as much as is within our power to ensure certainty for our community in the future. This has included monthly engagement at ministerial level with the UK in order to be engaged in minimising any problems and better prepared for maximising any benefits. It has also included fortifying our relationships with France, both regionally and nationally, and with the EU, as a Third Country. Like others in Europe but not in the EU (eg. Switzerland, Andorra, the Faroe Islands etc.) we have agreements and arrangements that enable us to trade, travel and maintain safe borders, with EU member states.
We have successfully taken steps to ensure we are not put on blacklists, continue to hold “equivalence status” for General Data Protection regulatory purposes. Additionally we have negotiated and signed agreements with the Ille & Vilaine Département in Brittany mirroring similar accords with Normandie and La Manche. In 2018 we will be visiting Paris to meet with government ministers and departments, and to develop greater relationships with the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat (similar to the CI All Party Group in Westminster). Whilst uncertainty predominates, especially in the UK, we will be doing all we can in 2018 to foster and strengthen our external relations.
Sadly uncertainty has also dominated locally too, especially in the ongoing proposals for restructuring secondary and tertiary education, meaning that children, parents and teachers are not sure what curriculum, which schools, post-16 options, will be available where or when, despite the fact that removing selection at 11 has been confirmed. The division that this has caused in our assembly and in our community is shameful and an indictment on our consensus system of government.
So, to the next theme: Consensus. Or rather lack of it. Especially in western democracies. This is evidenced by the diminution of moderates and liberals, and the rise of populism, polemicism and extremism on all sides. The exception is France, where a young liberal newcomer, Macron, pulled off a surprise victory, creating a new centrist party in the process. He’s proving to be a liberal strongman too — approval ratings dipped in the early autumn but returned to over 50% by the end of the year.
Elsewhere angry outbursts, hateful, personal attacks, lack of respect and self-control have become more common place exhibiting an uglier side of politics. Whether witnessed in violence linked to Islamic extremism, Catalonian independence, white supremacy demonstrations, racism and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees, the dial of civil consensus generally seems to have been turning down. We are not immune as islanders to the attitudes behind such events; social media here is certainly full of more hate and personal attacks which, if they existed in other forms when I was first elected in 2000, were never articulated publicly. Thankfully this does not overspill into violence, and I hope that will continue here in 2018.
There will be further challenges in 2018 for our consensus style government in Guernsey. Many enjoy our committee system with its dispersion of executive power so that the whole of the States Assembly ultimately makes the decisions. However it is clear that others do not understand the implications in terms of process and decision making, so apply false expectations of rapid executive decisions which our system is not capable of delivering. Similarly some expect individual accountability as seen elsewhere which again our system generally avoids. We can’t have it both ways, and as former deputy Roger Perrot said during the debate on the 2017 reforms, this is “last chance saloon” for our committee consensus system. As we prepare for a referendum on Island Wide Voting perhaps a new quasi-party system may emerge.
Hope is my third theme. As I look into 2018 I do see reasons for optimism. We may live in uncertain and unsettling times, but I see people who come alive and flourish when adversity or challenge confronts them. I believe we will see greater entrepreneurial initiative in 2018 as enthusiasts seek to succeed where governments regularly fail. Transport, construction, health, horticulture, agriculture, travel, tourism, are all potential areas for new ideas. This means there will be some failures too, and we all must be prepared for that. But it is in trying, failing and trying again that we learn new skills, our ancestors did this time again as industries morphed from knitting woollens to shipping wine, developing fine harbours in the process; from privateering to quarrying granite, growing tomatoes to fund management.
We are already beginning to see some fresh shoots, and I hope that the most significant growth in 2018 will be found in new initiatives pioneered by our resourceful and courageous island entrepreneurs.
Happy New Year!
You can follow Deputy Le Tocq on twitter here.