This time last year, I must confess, I viewed the enthusiasm for constitutional reform in Jersey, that most of my more political friends had, with detachment, and maybe even a little disdain.
It seemed to me that all the fine and fancy posturing about separation of powers, and checks and balances, that the world's major democracies boasted, was not really relevant to our cosy little island. Here we had a neat and efficient method, whereby we could rely on the “great and good” to sort things out between them, and, while it might have been preferable, if more of the negotiations held on the links or at the lodge had been conducted across the floor of the States Chamber, it did not really make any practical difference to how most things turned out. In a small place, all the most important people can be expected to know each other, and so long as their dealing are fair and not corrupt, it is of no consequence if they know who to ask to do what, without advertising. The occasional bit of dodgy dealing used to come to light, and get handled rather poorly, but on the whole, it used to appear that the worst rumours always were only that; rumours.
Early this year, however, a catering sized can of worms was opened. The tales of the institutionalised abuse at the Haut de la Garenne orphanage were abhorrent, but, sadly, fairly commonplace. All over the world, and all through history, orphanages have provided opportunities for the cruel to vent their darkest urges on the defenceless, and Haut de la Garenne was far from unique in its failings. What was unique, though, was the way that all of Jersey's institutions seemed to be implicated in the cover-ups of Haut de la Garenne and other child abuse cases revealed in its wake. Some of the supposed cover-ups may yet be revealed to be paranoid conspiracy theories, but the bones have been dug up to prove that the very worst did happen, and at least some mouths that should have opened must have stayed shut.
Suddenly, a new light was cast upon the cherished Jersey Way of doing things. The old joke “It's not what you know, it's who you know.” became an unfunny explanation for how victims and witnesses had been brushed aside, when they tried to complain about abusers with friends in high places. At last, it became clear that the nod-and-wink dealings behind closed doors were including a lot of deeply corrupt string-pulling to look after those in the network, alongside the honest fixing of matters by those who could be trusted. There is no need for me to rehash all that has come out in recent months; if you are one of the few that have not heard, then go to Stuart Syvret's blog. He has been finding out, and in a break with the Jersey Way, telling. A picture has emerged of civil servants, honorary officials and policemen closing ranks against the public interest. Shockingly, it appears that membership of the network takes precedence over all morality. Were anybody in my own circles discovered to be committing heinous crimes, they would be regarded as an embarrassment, and probably disowned altogether by many. Most ordinary people look for integrity in their friends. Not so in Jersey's secretive web of power and influence. Being one of them seems enough, and they will happily back each other, whatever they may have done.
So, what can we do about it? The answer, as my friends have been telling me for years, is constitutional reform. I no longer think “Oh, no, here we go again.” when the subject comes up, and nor should you. Starting at the top, the Bailiff's position is a dire relic of the downside of feudalism, and must be looked at. I never used to see why there was a problem with a senior judge, trained and experienced in conducting fair and correct procedures, taking charge of the States sittings, too. Now, Sir Philip Bailhache has kindly given an object lesson in how it can go wrong. One man, who publicly declares his opinion that the real scandal of Haut de la Garenne is how loudly the whistle has been blown, not the children who were harmed, has much of the control of all three civic functions, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, destroying their natural abilities to put brakes on each others' failings. A senior politician raises the subject in the States, and is silenced. The police arrest people with enough evidence against them that they want to charge them, but the other Bailhache brother orders them to be let go, instead. A minister loses faith in his senior civil servants, whom he has reason to suspect have been have been pulling the wool over his eyes, and his head rolls, not theirs. The Jersey Way in action. Thus, we need to replace the Jersey Way with the rest of the world's way: We need to adopt the checks and balances, and separation of powers that serve other, larger jurisdictions so well, and no longer cling to a failed way, just because it is ours. Until we do that, we cannot stop and draw a line under the ever-growing list of abuses of position.