By Gavin St Pier
SPARE a thought for Rishi Sunak’s wife and two young children. Three weeks ago, he was just a backbencher, living at home with lots of spare time for his family. Now, they are left crammed into a tiny flat above the office in Downing Street while he’s jetting around the world meeting his opposite numbers, no doubt with little time to call home to check in before the children head to bed.
Last week, Sharm El-Sheik for COP27. This week, Bali for the G20 meeting of the largest 20 economies in the world, with a quick side meeting between the Nato leaders present to discuss missiles straying into Poland. In between, he even managed to slip in a quick trip to Blackpool to meet our Chief Ministers. (Well, to be honest, he was really there to meet the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister, Micheál Martin, in a bid to secure a solution to the self-created problem of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol. He just got our Chief Ministers thrown in.)
But he’s not the only one travelling. It’s that season for international get-togethers. And yes, there really is such a season. Just after we’ve sent representatives to rub shoulders with the national political leaders at their various late summer party conferences in September, there’s a couple of months for travel and international conferences before the Christmas and new-year season begins in earnest.
While Jersey and Guernsey’s Chief Ministers were at the twice-yearly meeting in Blackpool with the rest of the British-Irish Council, comprising the political leaders of the UK, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Crown Dependencies, their External Relations Ministers had been in France for their regular meetings with political colleagues from Ille et Vilaine, La Manche and Normandy.
This was rapidly followed by a trip for the External Relations Ministers to Brussels. These visits normally take place twice a year, but the last one was in March 2020, just as the Covid tide rolled in, so there had been a long absence from the capital of the European institutions. Having done my fair share of these trips during my time as Guernsey’s Chief Minister, I know the pattern. They normally comprise at least two days of back-to-back meetings organised by the Channel Islands Brussels Office with representatives of three key institutions in the European Union: the European Commission, which is the permanent civil service – albeit normally headed up by commissioners who are heavyweight individuals seconded from national politics in the member states; the Permanent Representatives, who are the member states’ appointed ambassadors to the European Union; and MEPs, or Members of the European Parliament. To get the most out of these visits, you really do have to be on top of your brief, knowing who you are meeting, what their key interests or concerns will be and having absolute clarity about what you want to get out of your limited time together. Personally, while I found these trips very tiring, they represent the best opportunity Jersey and Guernsey have to be able to demonstrably work effectively together. I found that both a lot of fun and rewarding.
All political leaders, given the chance, like to stride the international stage. What’s not to like? They are away from the daily stress, limelight and grind of their own political maelstroms and opponents, in an environment where those they are meeting don’t have the knowledge or inclination to challenge them on domestic minutiae. They are welcomed as honoured guests, often accompanied by frippery, from fine dining and gift exchanges to smart hotels and official cars. I have no doubt this is why the external-relations gig is much sought after in most jurisdictions, including our own.
But there are obvious questions for us as taxpayers funding such excursions. What do we get from it all? Is it worthwhile? Answering these questions is hard, because the performance metrics are so subjective and ephemeral. I no longer have any skin in this particular political game, so have no personal or vested interest to defend this type of work but, in my view, we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face if by short-changing off-island travel budgets we lost these engagements. We have all learnt in the past two Covid-infused years the value and role of remote-meeting technology. While these platforms are clearly a very good alternative for many meetings, they are not ideal in all circumstances and, in particular, cannot replace that personal engagement that was so missed during lockdowns. To build a personal rapport and knowledge of an individual, nothing can (yet) quite substitute being in the same room. It’s during the few minutes while you grab a coffee at the beginning of a meeting when you learn about your opposite number’s partner, their families and their personal interests. It is the dialogue – both of officials and their political masters (or ‘principals’ in civil servant speak) – which takes place ‘in the margins’ of set-piece meetings, where progress on knotty problems can often be made. For the highly choreographed larger conferences – such as Cop27, the G20 or, for us, the BIC – the ‘bilaterals’ or ‘trilaterals’ between two or three different jurisdictions are not part of the formal agenda, but are very much about seizing the opportunity of being in the same place at the same time.
Deputy Max Andrews publicly raised concerns last month about off-island travel when he stated he’d be paying himself to attend a meeting in London. To be fair, he drew a distinction between the travel that he recognised needed to be undertaken by ‘senior’ politicians and the rest. In essence, he was asking whether the inter-island annual political tiddlywinks competition ever led to the delivery of better or more efficient services in either island. Or has attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference for small states in the southern hemisphere ever led to the adoption of less onerous positions on harmful tax competition? Probably not. But today’s less-senior politicians at either end of an off-island engagement may find that they are tomorrow’s senior politicians, with whom we have developed some knowledge, experience and personal rapport. In the wider context of overall public expenditure, these commitments are minuscule. We should instead see them as opportunities to send missionaries to evangelise in different forums about who we are, where we are, why we are different and why we are force for good in the world. Taking that perspective, these engagements become incredibly good value. There is a caveat – an important caveat. The emissaries we send may be their interlocutors’ only shop window into the Channel Islands and the event may be the only opportunity to state our case in those jurisdictions, so whomever we send had better do a good job at delivering the right messages.
Whether our politicians are up to the job is a completely different question. And one best not answered by a serving politician.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.