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Senator steps down after 44 years of public service

Features | Published:

Sir Philip Bailhache this week became the latest in a string of senior politicians to announce that he was stepping down from the States. He spoke to political correspondant Michael Morris about a career spanning more than 40 years as a law officer, judge and politician.

To many Islanders Sir Philip Bailhache has been synonymous with the States Assembly and with Jersey.

Whether as a Grouville Deputy in 1972, a law officer providing legal advice to Members, chairing the States as Bailiff or more recently as a Senator and the Island’s External Relations Minister, Sir Philip has been a near ever-present feature of the Chamber for some 46 years.

But, like so many of his colleagues in the Council of Ministers, Senator Bailhache will bow out of politics in May after the election.

‘I suspect each minister has their own particular reasons which may not be part of any general trend,’ he said. ‘I think there are five ministers putting their names forward for re-election, which is pretty much on a par with previous elections.’

A States decision last month, when Members backed an overhaul of the machinery of government, contributed to Sir Philip’s decision.

Within those proposals was one key sticking-point – that all ministers will become part of a single entity called the ‘Jersey Ministers’, headed up by the Chief Minister rather than having responsibility for individual departments.

There were a number of reasons why he was not seeking re-election, said Sir Philip, who spent a number of weeks out of politics last year after being taken ill with a suspected heart attack. ‘Some of them have to do with health and with family obligations,’ he said, ‘but in professional terms I’m not entirely in favour of the way in which politics is developing in Jersey, and I think, therefore, it is time to draw my political career to a close.

‘There was a debate in the States on the proposals for reforms of the machinery of government. I lodged an amendment to that proposition which was narrowly defeated.

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‘For the reasons I gave during that debate, I am concerned that we seem to be centralising power – political power – in a way which I believe is not in the interests of Jersey. I think that the consequence of creating a single legal entity will be inevitably to diminish the authority of ministers and concentrate power in the centre.’

Sir Philip has something of a reputation as a staunch traditionalist. A large Jersey flag sits proudly behind his desk – almost as if it is watching over him as he works.

However, it is his inability to persuade Members to reform the make-up of the States Assembly that is one of his biggest disappointments as he leaves political office.

A Senatorial poll-topper in 2011, Sir Philip stood on a platform of reform – fewer Members and more streamlined decision-making. He said: ‘I have always thought that the way to begin reform is to start at the top, and the Assembly itself is an unwieldy body which is not entirely fit for purpose. There are far too many Members. That is not just my view – it is the view of every committee from Clothier onwards.

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‘Turkeys have a reluctance to vote for Christmas and Members tend to look at reform questions from their own personal perspective rather than from the perspective of the public interest.

‘I think if you get every individual into a dark room and put the spotlight on them, they would concede there are too many Members. People just can’t agree on how to bring the number down.’

Sir Philip was widely considered to be the favourite to take over as Chief Minister in 2011. His admission to Members that if he were to become Chief Minister he would make getting rid of some of them one of his top priorities may have gone against him when it came to the States vote.

He has formed what he calls a ‘good partnership’ with the man who defeated him in that race, Senator Ian Gorst. Although, he says, he has not been afraid to challenge him on certain matters.

‘We are politically quite closely aligned. We have disagreed about the role of the Bailiff and we have disagreed about the proposed changes to the machinery of government but I think in most respects we have formed a good partnership.’

Jersey has probably placed itself on the global stage more than it ever has before in recent years. The setting up of the External Relations Department is one of Sir Philip’s proudest political achievements and has given Jersey a platform to promote and defend its interests internationally.

But with Brexit negotiations set to drastically alter the Island’s standpoint in Europe, where does Sir Philip – the only External Relations Minister the Island has had – leave the department?

‘There was a time when Jersey used to hide behind the barricades, metaphorically speaking, and hope that nobody outside would notice what was being done in Jersey.

‘That is no longer the case. Jersey’s success as an international finance centre means the spotlight is very often on us and we need to be able to protect our own interests.

‘I believe and hope I’m leaving the Brexit situation in a good place so far as Jersey is concerned. We have done as much planning as it is possible to do.

‘We have explained our position to the UK government and now it is just a question of waiting to see how the negotiations between the UK and the EU work out and whether the UK can deliver for Jersey on our aspirations.’

It seems odd that a man in one of the key government positions never thought he was ‘particularly good at politics’.

‘Politics has been a completely new experience from my experiences as a law officer and a judge – I left the legal sphere and entered the political sphere.

‘I shall probably go back to law and spend more time on the Jersey and Guernsey Law Review and writing. I would like to get one or two books off my chest before it is too late.’

As a law officer, and subsequently as judge, Sir Philip was involved in some of the biggest cases of modern Jersey history. One, which grabbed national attention, was that of the murders of Nicholas and Elizabeth Newall.

An international manhunt was sparked for their killer son Roderick when Sir Philip – then Attorney General – was hastily flown to Heathrow to listen to a crucial piece of evidence.

Sir Philip said: ‘Roderick Newall effectively confessed to his uncle in Scotland, and that conversation was taped and it was brought to London for me to listen to at Heathrow so the police could obtain a warrant for the man’s arrest.

‘In the meantime, he had done a runner and was on his way to South America to join his girlfriend. He was intercepted by a naval ship and brought back to Gibraltar, which was where the extradition process began.

‘It certainly was a worry that we were going to lose that individual in Gibraltar.’

Despite his retirement, Sir Philip is not ready to completely wind down just yet.

‘I think if I wind down too much I have a fear I might just stop,’ he said. ‘I have a number of projects in mind – I hope one or more of them might come to fruition.’

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