'Never mind concocting hundreds of ideas – one or two good ones actually achieved would be a start'

John Henwood

By John Henwood

THE story has often been told of a meeting between Henry Kissinger and China’s leader Zhou Enlai in 1971. China was coming towards the end of its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, initiated in 1966 by Mao Zedong, and Kissinger asked China’s Premier what he considered to be the effects of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to tell,” was the reply.

This was taken to be an example of Chinese politicians’ ability to take a very long-term view of world events. Sadly, the story is apocryphal. It is based on a misunderstanding. The American diplomat was referring to the French Revolution of 1789, but Zhou Enlai thought he was talking about France’s student riots of 1968.

It is true though that Chinese statesmen have a propensity for long-term thinking and planning and that has certainly not been the case in Jersey for a very long time.

There was a period after the Occupation when the Island was blessed with a States Assembly comprising enough men (and one woman, Ivy Forster, elected in 1948) of vision with both the willingness and the ability to think, plan and act for future generations.

They had a huge task and not much money with which to realise the vision.

The hard infrastructure – roads, sewerage, communications, power, water – were all in a poor state, although sea defences were sound thanks to the occupiers.

The social infrastructure was, arguably, worse. There was no formal welfare system, no pensions or social security of any kind; the means to keep the population safe were left largely to the honorary sector, which did well under the circumstances, but was not equipped to meet the changing challenges of a post-war world.

There was no education system as such with head teachers running schools according to their individual measures; the health service was, at best, rudimentary.

Those elected were the first to sit in an Assembly without time-serving parish rectors and Jurats sitting, ex-officio, alongside them. They rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job, not feeling the need to call in external experts.

Most have had the lived experience that many of today’s professional politicians have not earned. They had the vision and the commitment to build the Island much as we know it (and sometimes don’t appreciate) today. They gave us a health service, a system of education, professional police and emergency services. They provided social security (and were vilified for doing it) and hard infrastructure taking power, water and sewerage to much of the Island.

Economic growth was essential to meet the cost of all this.

It was achieved initially by promoting tourism and then, in the 1960s, by removing the upper limit on interest rates which could be offered by banks and other financial institutions.

This marked the start of the finance industry and rapid growth in prosperity.

Compare and contrast the achievements of our politicians in those decades with recent governments. Nowadays, it seems no major decision can be taken without the advice of external consultants supported by an ever-growing army of civil servants.

A Jersey government of the 1950s or 60s would not have taken ten years and wasted £50 million in failing to provide a new hospital, nor would they have got us into debt. The negative effect of the finance industry’s success is that it allowed our lawmakers to have everything they wanted, spending our money like there was no tomorrow. Well, tomorrow is here and the government can’t break the habit.

Just one example: many questioned the need for a communications unit when it was introduced comprising a handful of local appointees. It has grown in a relatively short time to a grandly titled Communications Directorate of 32, many from outside, at a cost of £2.4 million.

How did that happen? It happened because employment in the public sector was allowed to get out of control and no politician was willing to be accountable for it.

Just as economic growth was the driver in 1950s and 60s, so it is today. Our economy has stagnated since the turn of the century, therefore it was encouraging that last month the directorate released a strategy which, says Economic Development Minister Kirsten Morel, “sets the direction for Jersey’s economy, and the delivery framework that describes the next steps that will enable long-term sustainable economic development”.

At last, someone is thinking long term.

Deputy Morel spoke of a third of residents soon being over the retirement age and a similar number left to produce the Island’s income.

About 25 years ago, I attended a meeting called by the late Colin Powell at which it was revealed the UK government actuary had predicted – accurately as it turns out – the massive problem of an ageing population.

Since then, we have seen countless initiatives designed to stimulate economic growth and diversity, but, ultimately, they all proved to be examples of public sector output with no effective outcomes.

One gets the sense that Deputy Morel has a good grasp of the issues and is resolved to make a difference. To do so, he will have to show a determination – even ruthlessness – to turn words into action.

To illustrate the problem, even though his department has been working on a government tourism strategy for about four years, still nothing has emerged despite encouragement and support from the industry, which needs to know that the government really does support it.

The new Economic Strategy runs to 35 pages, of which there are 24 pages of the framework supporting it and 400 ideas for stimulating growth. Words, words, words; as an editorial (JEP 20 October) put it, “A blueprint for decisive action it is not”.

It went on: “There needs to be a dramatic shift if [words] are going to translate into action and not languish gathering dust on shelves in some government vault.”

We need a government with the vision of their post-Occupation predecessors and the ability to deliver it.

Times have changed and the challenges are different, but the fundamentals are the same.

Never mind hundreds of ideas, one or two good ones actually achieved would be a start. Deputy Morel and his peers must roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.