Monday, 17 January 2011

Interesting Meeting Next Week

The famous or infamous, according to your perspective, economist Richard Murphy will be in Jersey for a public meeting on the topic “Jersey – Let finance work for you” at Hautlieu on 24th January at 7pm. He is looking forward to debating with his critics, as well as meeting his supporters, so it should be a lively and interesting meeting, wherever your own standpoint is.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs

Last week's conviction of the Jordans marks the end of the official action in respect of child abuse at Haut de la Garenne a generation ago, and the final flurry of publicity about it. By coincidence, while the Haut de la Garenne scandal has been refreshed in my mind, I have also been reading “Boy”, the non-fiction reminiscences of his own childhood by the mid 20th Century author Roald Dahl.

Dahl's book sheds light on the inspiration for the various bullies, sadists, ogres and psychopaths that so dominate his fiction. He paints a grim picture of life in upmarket private sector schools in the inter-war years. Boys were frequently beaten savagely with canes for trivial misdemeanors, or even mere unfounded suspicion of them. One incident he recounted was of the Matron filling the mouth of a snoring boy with soap flakes to stop him. Soap in a child's mouth struck me as having a resonance with the tales of the abusive “carers” in Jersey's Children's Service.

The question that has so perturbed us in the pampered 21st Century has been “How could they have allowed such things to go on?”. As I closed the book after reading the chapter about The Matron, I suddenly saw the answer:

The upper-middle class boys Dahl went to school with were being prepared to become officers and gentlemen in manhood. Perhaps they were somewhat damaged as individuals by the process, but the pay-off was that they left school able to submit to harsh and rigid discipline and able to face painful physical injury with calm courage and fortitude. In a time when there were major wars to be fought, their country needed men like these as leaders on the battlefield, and it had them in adequate supply.

But as well as being the officer class in war, they were also the professional class in peace. And they brought their battle-ready public school values to their civilian careers, too. Moreover, most public school boys were proud enough of their education to wish it on their own offspring, in turn.

Dahl's generation would have been the senior lawyers and administrators of Haut de la Garenne's most controversial days. In their own boyhoods, their fathers would have paid good money to have them brutally physically and psychologically abused, and called it giving them a good education. They would also have signed most of their own sons up to more of the same. How could we expect these men to have raised an eyebrow at the regime that prevailed in most children's homes of the day? These poor orphans were being treated to the key features of an expensive public school education for free. It is all very well for us to look back now and say such things have no place in our society in 2011. It wasn't 2011, it was 1965 or 70, and it was their call that such things did have a place in their society, then.

I can fully sympathise with feelings of the care leavers that their sufferings have still not been sufficiently acknowledged, let alone compensated. Dahl wrote his disturbingly vivid account of institutional child abuse nearly sixty years afterwards, and he made it plain that he still seethed with rankling resentment of his experiences. But, to be fair, the only valid context, in which to judge what was done then, is against the values of the time. Thus, I don't think there is much hope of any bigger apologies or gestures coming forth. We must simply be grateful that this is one respect in which the world has changed for the better.

However, in saying that 1965's child care should be judged by 1965 standards, I imply the corollary that 2011's child care should be judged by 2011 standards. This is quite another can of worms. It seems, from the occasional report or investigation, that Jersey's Children's Service has not kept pace, and too much still goes on that would have been all in the game forty years or more ago, but no longer is acceptable in the more enlightened and caring society that we like to think we have become since.. Then may have been then, but now is now. Jersey needs to catch up.

Friday, 7 January 2011

How Appropriate!

The award of the Order of the British Empire to Jersey's controversial former Chief Minister Frank Walker has provoked widespread approbation, but still more widespread anger. Even some fairly apolitical types have been raging that such a man should be so honoured.

However, it seems to me that, if one considers what the British Empire was, that an OBE is a somewhat backhanded compliment, that Mr Walker is in fact quite worthy of.

In its heyday, the British Empire, as all empires, was built by military and economic coercion and maintained by patronage, to the purpose of diverting much of the wealth of the colonies and other subject territories to the élite classes of the Home Countries; the aristocrats and plutocrats. A local suzereign would be allowed his prestige and circumscribed power so long as he oversaw that transfer of riches to the Westminster government, and more importantly, to those who pulled its strings, and all those directly concerned with the repatriation and the upholding of the imperial link gained reflected prestige in turn.

Such empires have ever been unstable things, prone to either wholesale collapse or apical revolution, if not both, and Britain's turn came to have to let go within a few years of reaching its peak. However, there are still many relict institutions from those days, and the Order of the British Empire is one of them.

Jersey is close enough to mainland Britain in every way not to have been an imperial possession in the usual sense, but even so, there seems to be strong parallels with the imperial process in the relationship with the finance industry. Like the Israelites in “The Life Of Brian”, the answer to “What has the finance industry ever done for us?” turns out to be rather a lot, but, like them, the long term price for it will be not far short of complete destruction, and the short term price is some relative discomfort for all those not directly working for the colonising powers.

The finance industry has been nice work while we can get it, although, admittedly, not the most honest living Jersey could have made. However, it was hardly sustainable to opportunistically cash in on unintended defects in other jurisdictions' tax regimes, and it can only be expected that the more successful offshore tax affair management becomes, the more it becomes worthwhile for our victim states to revise their laws to keep their tax at home and turn our money supply off at the mains. Even an insider and stalwart defender memorably admitted that it could all “leave at the click of a mouse” a few years ago, and that was before the 2008 credit crunch destabilised the global finance industry.

Given the obvious lack of future prospects, it was rather perverse of the States to devote a couple of decades to building the finance industry to a size where the formerly sustainable tourism and agricultural industries were crushed and pushed aside. It was a handy sideline, but now it has instead become a harsh master.

The most obvious damage so far has been in the bloated and distorted property market. The past willingness of Jersey banks to lend massive multiples of salary for mortgages has inflated the housing market to a level where few can afford to buy, and few can afford to sell, either. All the interest on these huge loans is creamed off out of our own economy to the UK banks, of course.

Now the governing clique that Mr Walker once fronted has rearranged our economy to be utterly dependent on the revenue, in both salaries to local employees and tax to our government, provided by the finance industry, the trap has sprung: They will not keep paying those vital salaries here unless we forgo a large chunk of the tax they used to also provide. So, now the three-quarters of the workforce who do not have our snouts in the finance trough have moved from having our taxes subsidised by the finance industry, which was the great justification, to having to subsidise their taxes instead, lest the loss of all those jobs takes all ours with them. While that is not the worst thing to happen here in living memory, nor is it exactly good.

So, we are still getting by for now. Offshore finance as we have known it for the last half-century is probably in its sunset years, as the major economies wise up to how much money that they could have done with at home is slipping away from them and seal the loopholes. All too soon, there will be a sharp decline in how much profit can be successfully and safely hidden in tax havens, and a corresponding decline in how much business it pays anybody to put our way. And then, having run down the rest of our economy, we shall face a devastating slump. The flats and offices that so characterise the Walker clique's rule will be left vacant as the staff are withdrawn to the mainland or let go altogether. But they were built on his watch, and symbolise the priority given to the short-term profit of developers and financial institutions from elsewhere in his policies. For all the posturing about tough decisions, making a fast buck for somebody consistently came before building a future for islanders in general.

The combination of upholding the glory of the Crown and its institutions, and helping the powerful elsewhere keep more of their money than they really should, and be paid more of ours than they should, too, is enough to justify Frank Walker being honoured in the name of the British Empire.

There is another angle to this, though. When even sleazy pop singers can earn knighthoods for being successful, what does it say about the official view of how well Mr Walker performed his service, that he only rates a mere second-rung OBE for it? Surely someone so long a senior dignitary could expect to be feeling the flat of Her Majesty's sword on his shoulder for it all. Perhaps it is less an honour than a snub, really. After all, he is widely despised within Jersey and remembered more for handling the Haut de la Garenne affair maladroitly than anything else without.

Frank Walker had a catchphrase, “We are where we are.” with which he used to justify unpopular expediencies. Being fobbed off with this tinpot gong is all he deserves, for we are indeed where we are, and he has left us up there without a paddle.