'Tunnelling to France may not yet fall within the ‘Overton Window’ – but it may be heading that way'

Gavin St Pier

By Gavin St Pier

ANYONE who operates in the political sphere seeking change needs to familiarise themselves with the concept of the Overton Window. As these things are, it’s named after an individual – Joseph Overton. He was an American political scientist and the window named after him might be more readily recognised outside the political sphere as simply “a window of opportunity”. His contention was that there is a window comprising a range of policies which are acceptable to mainstream public opinion at any given time. Politicians need to operate within that window if they are not to appear too extreme and if they want to get elected or re-elected.

An example of how the Overton Window shifts over time can be illustrated by the public attitude towards same-sex marriage. In 2000, weighed down by several millennia of teaching and social expectation, majority public opinion firmly believed that marriage could only ever be between one man and one woman. By 2010, “love is love” was the prevailing view and equal marriage had become the political norm, such that those who held to what had once been the traditional view were now the radical non-conformists.

So in 2019, when Martyn Dorey, a Guernseyman, started pitching his idea of tunnelling to France, it was firmly outside the Overton Window in the radical and unthinkable bucket. Polite society smirked or giggled at the concept, particularly at the idea of dumping the spoils halfway between Guernsey and Jersey in order to build a new airport, freeing up huge tracts of land for redevelopment at the islands’ existing airports.

It took an age to get agreement that I and my counterpart at the time, Chief Minister John Le Fondré, should sign a short but simple joint letter which was the lukewarmest of government endorsements to agree “an initial feasibility study being conducted by a private company, with no commitments from either island”.

Five years later, the window has shifted. It’s an idea that might not yet have become the popular view held by a majority, but it is certainly now regarded as an acceptable policy, worthy of further investigation. It’s an idea that can now fill meeting rooms in both islands with crowds keen to hear from the dreamers who might one day become prophets.

Those hailing from the soft sea beds of the Faroes or Norway, previously painted as trying to sell a technology unsuited to the granite sea bed of the Bay of Cotentin, are now embraced as the experts that they are. The moonshot scale of the ambition, once fanciful, is now admirable.

The Government of Jersey and in particular Economic Development Minister Kirsten Morel are noticeably warmer to the concept than their counterparts in the States of Guernsey, who have remained largely mute. Some in Guernsey seem to be waking up to the fact that if Jersey were to go it alone, Guernsey could quite quickly become a backwater. But if Guernsey is going to be at the table, it needs to be there from the get-go as a full and enthusiastic partner with a clear idea of its ambitions and anticipated outcomes. This will be a challenge for a government whose crowning economic development policy achievement in the past three years has been to ban the private sale of fish from hedge-veg boxes along Guernsey’s green lanes.

If the project truly is economic, then the governments need to facilitate it with legislation and planning consents and then get out of the way to enable private enterprise to fund and build it. As with any project, there will be an endless list of reasons and risks not to proceed.

First – and most obviously – the cost and risk to the public exchequer of the project failing is a key issue that needs to be understood and mitigated. All of the practical problems will come to the fore as they did with the Channel Tunnel in the 1980s and 1990s.

The risk of rabid foxes wandering through the tunnel was one such memorable concern. Though that particular problem doesn’t seem to have come to pass. Security to prevent illegal migration will be its modern-day equivalent.

There will be a need to negotiate a raft of treaties and agreements with La Belle France, including new double-taxation arrangements for all those commuting workers among the connected 3 million who are going to come to service our businesses’ needs and propel growth in our economies. The fact our populations’ language skills might improve with a few more French people around has to be weighed against the very real change to our life as island communities once we are connected to a much bigger neighbour.

If the concept is to progress, it will require determined political leadership in both islands in order that the Overton Window is shifted further towards the policy becoming recognised by a majority of the public as sensible.

  • Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.

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