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.
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