Monday, 14 March 2011

Dick Buesnel: A "No Hoper" who was Elected!

Jersey Norman-French is not dead, said Senator Reg Jeune, president of the Education Committee, in reply to a question from Deputy Dick Buesnel (St Helier No. 2)about the steps the committee are taking to encourage the preservation of the language. Deputy Buesnel asked "In order to preserve and encourage the speaking of Jèrriais, will the president initiate a five-year programme of substantial prize awards in both junior and senior categories to promote our cultural heritage?" In reply, Senator Jeune said that provided sufficient numbers of students enrol and tutors are available, then adult education classes at Highlands and Les Quennevais will continue. The committee would be pleased, he added, to receive any specific suggestions from Deputy Buesnel, other States Member, or member of the public as to any reasonable steps the committee should take to assist. The brief discussion was ended by Deputy Jean Le Maistre (St Helier No. 3), who made a statement in Jèrriais, which he explained afterwards was a light-hearted jibe at Deputy Buesnel and Senator Jeune. (JEP 21/4/1982) (1)

But who was Dick Buesnel?

Few people now remember Deputy Maurice Buesnel, usually known as "Dick Buesnel". I remember him quite well; he was a very short man, who had a deformity of his spine, but who despite (or perhaps because of) his infirmity, was a tireless battler for what he thought was needed to make Jersey a better place for all its people. Every time he was standing for election, he would invariably turn up in the month before elections at St Aubin on the Hill Church for the morning service, which I always found slightly amusing, as he was never there on any other occasions. He wasn't standing in St Brelade, so he was certainly not there to ingratiate himself with the electorate. Perhaps he thought a few prayers might help, and wouldn't do any harm anyway. But perhaps he saw government as something serious, an act of vocation which required the kind of heart-searching honesty about selfishness and motivation that he found in his Christianity, and which Christians find especially in Lent.

He wrote letters to the paper, and acquaintances of mine always spoke of his "common sense", but somehow, despite standing again and again in elections, he never managed to get that over to the greater electorate. Of course, these were the days before the internet, before phone-in shows on BBC Radio Jersey, when the only way of getting publicity was to write letters to the Jersey Evening Post (and hope they would be published) and do the rounds of the "hustings". States minutes were published, but only for sale on request; there was no online system or yet a Hansard. The information available to the average voter was very selective, largely limited to the JEP's reporting of hustings, and very little compared to today.

The type of letter he wrote varied, but in particular, I remember he was in favour of some kind of installment system for income tax, like the UK's PAYE. When in the States, he tried to edge the States closer to this kind of position, but would come up against a brick wall of States heavyweights. Which is ironic, considering that we now have an ITIS system, and it was all those speeches against the idea of any kind of PAYE by members of the States that were, in hindsight, a waste of time. But unlike the richer States members, for whom income tax and management of their finances was not problematic, Dick could see the problems faced by people on low earnings, who often found it difficult to set aside sufficient funds from their wages for the lump sum requested by Income Tax in September, and would get into all kinds of difficulties over paying.

Sometimes he would try for Senator, sometimes as Deputy, but you could usually expect Dick Buesnel to be almost at the bottom of the votes cast, squeezed out by the "first past the post" system, as even those who wanted to vote for change would not back such an obvious loser. But like Robert the Bruce, he would "try and try again". If I had a "spare" last vote that I did not have any other preferences for in Senatorial elections, I'd usually give it to him, but, of course, that wasn't always the case. I suspect that was the same for other voters.

Under the proposals currently for a £500 deposit, he would have lost his deposit time after time; and he was not a rich man. And this was a time when there were no limits to election spending, and he couldn't afford the glossy colour brochures, personalised with name and voting number, that some politicians had posted to everyone who could vote. I remember those well. But he was undeterred, and eventually, in St Helier, he succeeded at last in fulfilling his lifetime ambition, and he was at last elected to the States as Deputy for St Helier in 1981.

In the House, he did not, I think, succeed as easily as he had hoped. In many ways, he was an outsider, and often lost votes almost as badly as Geoff Southern. The realities of political office never quite match up with expectations, especially as one has to carry other States members with the argument, and members may well enter the Chamber to simply listen speeches with their minds already made up. Nowadays, they simply leave the Chamber and head for the coffee machine, thus making this position blatantly transparent, but in the 1980s, members did at least have the courtesy to be present, even if some nodded off.

But every States members can ask questions which are in the public interest, so that is what he did. And here is a very modern question that he asked:

Deputy Maurice Clement Buesnel of St. Helier asked Senator John Clark Averty, President of the Establishment Committee, the following question - "Will the President inform the House as to the number of Chief Officers of Civil Service Departments who receive an annual salary equal to or in excess of the Treasurer of the States".

The President replied as follows -"There are 8 Civil Service Chief Officer posts which carry a salary equal to the post of Treasurer of the States. There are 3 Chief Officer posts which carry a salary in excess of that of the Treasurer of the States. These salaries are related to gradings which have been established since 1977 when, following several years of disagreement between the Establishment Committee and the Chief Officers themselves, a jointly agreed evaluation of their posts was set in motion and the results agreed."

And considering the cost of medical fees, and the fact that there is no longer a Parish system for helping those "temporarily financially embarrassed", this is also a pertinent question. How does income support manage to cope with the occasional person who has temporary money troubles (perhaps because of unemployment), and who would have gone to the Parish? Can it cope with such circumstances?

Deputy Maurice Clement Buesnel of St. Helier asked Senator John Le Marquand, President of the Public Health Committee, the following question "In view of the hardship caused to young families through high medical fees, will the President reconsider reopening the General Hospital Medical Clinic for such patients?" The President of the Public Health Committee replied as follows - "The answer is no, mainly for these reasons. For many years the morning Medical Clinic accepted local residents for treatment but with the introduction of the Social Security Health Scheme, in 1968, these facilities were gradually phased-out. Deputy Buesnel will be aware, as a Member of the Social Security Committee, that the Health Insurance Exemption Scheme which is designed to aid cases of hardship, is extensively used by over 2,000 persons currently entitled to free health and prescription benefits. I am also given to understand that persons who are in receipt of Welfare Benefits or who may be temporarily financially embarrassed are helped by the Connétables with medical and pharmaceutical aid."

Yet he could also be mischievous. When the States were (in 1984) considering a Proposition of Senator Ralph Vibert regarding the constitution of a Special Committee to consider the making of a contribution to the United Kingdom towards defense and international representation, he wanted the States to ensure that the committee was representative of the States as a whole, and included newer members (of which, of course, he would also be numbered!): His amendment that those serving "should include one lady member of the States and also a member who has not served in the States for more than three years" was however rejected by the Assembly.

Maurice Buesnel failed to be re-elected 1993 and left the States , and died in January 2002. He left in the Jersey Archive a collection of personal and political papers, including scrapbooks and poems covering the period 1974 to 1993, and had also published a booklet of verse in 1961, "The Tallest Tower".

He had not perhaps achieved all he set out to do in the States, but he represented, for a time, someone whom the voters of St Helier wanted who was not part of the political establishment. Like some of today's would be politicians, he tried and tried to get in to the States. The First Past the Post system is extremely unforgiving of the outsider, and often his vote was pitifully low. Under the kind of alternative vote suggested by former Senator Pierre Horsfall, he would undoubtedly have done a lot better.

And yet he did eventually get into the States; his persistence did pay off, and there, I would venture, is a lesson for today, when those who fail to get in try again and again to do so. Maybe they are wasting their time, but it is a freedom which is for the electorate to decide, rather than States members by putting a financial block on who can stand, especially with the current voting system.

"Why do those 'no hopers' keep on standing?" is a question that is often raised. Dick Buesnel shows that it is because, just perhaps, if the chances are there, they may someday get elected after all. I think our society would be poorer if it denied people like him the chance.



Ian Evans said...


Anonymous said...

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.