Thursday, 3 January 2013

RIP: Dick Shenton

THE most popular politician in Jersey's history, Dick Shenton, has died at the age of 86. The former Senator, who had been ill for some time, died surrounded by his family early this morning. Dick Shenton, a powerful orator who broke the mould of Jersey politics with a unprecedented populist flair, topped the Senatorial poll an unprecedented four times in a political career that began at the tail-end of the 1960s and ended in 2005. He presided over many of the committees that ran States departments until the ministerial reforms. (1)

The former senator, who topped the island-wide senator poll several times, had cancer and died in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Mr Shenton was first elected to the States in 1969, he served as a politician for 30 years. During his time as a politician he was the president of the Agriculture and Fisheries, Island Development and Tourism Committees. Mr Shenton was born in Jersey in 1926 and lived through the German Occupation. After serving in the RAF and living in Canada for six years he returned to Jersey and ran a stevedores firm at the harbour before standing for the States. He was also known for his charity work and he was awarded the Knighthood of the Holy See for his service to the Roman Catholic church. Jersey's first Chief Minister, Frank Walker, worked as a deputy and senator alongside Mr Shenton in the States and said it was exciting working with him. He said: "Even though not entirely unexpected it still comes as a huge shock that such a huge man in every way, physically, and a political colossus, has actually passed away. "It seems difficult to believe and I'm sure the island will generally be very sad at the news." (2)

There are fulsome tributes to Dick Shenton, and I think rightly so, because he was certainly a politician who made a mark. He was not perhaps the first populist politician to beat the public drum for support; I'd argue that J.J. Le Marquand probably deserves that. But Dick Shenton's appeal was probably broader that. Especially in his later years in the States, J.J. became increasingly oppositional for the sake of it, and never contributed as positively.

And I'd also query "broke the mould" - I think that epithet should probably be reserved for Norman Le Brocq, who not only stood up for working men, but was one himself, and managed to enter the States when you usually needed a degree of wealth behind you. Also when you review Norman Le Brocq's "Jersey looks forward", it is surprising how much of the manifesto contained in that pamphlet eventually became what we now regard as the status quo. AAnd yet Norman Le Brocq also managed to become respected and President of IDC, without losing contact with the working man and woman he supported.

But as a politician who both effectively beat the populist drum, who captured the mood of the people so well, and yet who could lead as president of major committees, there is probably no equal. It is hard to say that any members of the present or previous Council of Ministers has been especially populist in that way. Sir Philip Bailhache, like him or not, probably comes close with his resounding victory, but his battles in the States have been selective. When there was a bus strike at JMT and they were at loggerheads with Public Services, Dick Shenton stepped in as an "honest broker", even though at the time he was no longer in the States, and managed to sort out a deal. It's hard to imagine Sir Philip being capable of doing that!

Equally, the more populist element now tends to be outside the positions of power, and it is hard (for me at any rate) to imagine Geoff Southern or Trevor Pitman taking on the mantle of Ministerial office. They beat the popular drum, but it is mainly a protest beat. Dick Shenton could work with those in other positions of power, and even sway the house against some Presidents. That broad appeal was perhaps also found, but to a lesser degree, with Senator John Le Marquand, whom I remember making a passionate speech against compulsory purchase on one occasion, and taking the House with him, against his more establishment peers. There was really only one occasion when Dick Shenton fell out of favour with the electorate, and that was in October 1993 when he misjudged the mood of the electorate on his record, and received 8,755 votes polling sixth. Perhaps it was his involvement in the sacking of the head of sport, leisure and recreation, Mary Alexander, that contributed to his low poll, especially as her recently married husband, Gordon Young, was a weekly columnist on the JEP and the matter was a divisive one.

In the States, he was not always successful. A few examples will suffice. A bid for free prescriptions for those on old age pensions brought by him in 1982 was defeated by 7 votes to 35. He tried to stop further consents for 1.1 (k) until a report on the effects on the local property market was submitted in 1986 and lost 17 votes against 24. What eulogies tend to do, of course, is to cite notable successes to demonstrate his "champion of the people" status, but historians should take a more measured view that while his successes were often very visible, his failures tended to be swiftly forgotten. That's not to undermine his considerable record of successes, but it is not quite as golden as the obituaries may suggest, or the narrative that he himself wrote large.

In fact, sometimes, he played the public drum in rather devious and unscrupulous ways. For example, in 1990, the President of the Housing Committee made a statement in the following terms -

"I wish to advise the House of the background to an issue which received press coverage last week. On Monday, 19th February, a letter from Senator Shenton was received in my Department, asking for an `investigation' and `full report' on  the events surrounding the sale of a flat at Maison d'Azette. A copy of Senator Shenton's letter was forwarded to my home address and arrived on Tuesday, 20th February, when I was able to see  it for the first time. My Chief Officer had already commenced researching the issue and preparing a report for the Senator. On Thursday, 22nd February, Senator Shenton contacted a Jersey Evening Post reporter and, I am advised, complained that he had written to me seeking a report, but had not yet received one. The issue was front page headlines that evening, three days following receipt of his letter in me following receipt of his letter in my Department and two days after my having received a copy in my home. I do not consider that Senator Shenton has behaved fairly and reasonably in the way he has handled this matter to date. If the matter justified writing to me and calling for an investigation and full report in the first place, it surely justified giving me reasonable time to provide him with such a report."(4)

There is no record on any apology forthcoming from Senator Shenton on this occasion!

Naturally, there were mistakes on the way. His dealings with Whitehall invariably led to failure. He would lead a heroic delegation across to put across what he thought were popular views, and while he was a force to be reckoned with in the small pond of Jersey politics, he was a minnow lost in the ocean of the UK Parliament. He failed to get Deputy Bailiff Vernon Tomes reinstated. And his attempt to block Jersey legalising homosexuality was crushed by the UK Home Affairs Minister; it is recounted amusingly in Peter Crills A Little Brief Authority - the Jersey delegation troops in, Dick Shenton at head, ready to be belligerent. Minister - "Well, gentlemen, are you going to pass the legislation, or are we going to have to do it for you". Crill's comment: "collapse of stout party!".

In more recent times, he also took a petition regarding Le Pas Holdings and the claim of Advocate Richard Falle for control of vast areas of valuable waterfront since reclaimed from the sea by way of his purchased title of  Seigneur of the Fief de la Fosse.

Almost 8,000 people signed a petition, organised by 77-year old former politician Dick Shenton, urging the Queen to intervene. His petition says: "We are all aware of how times have changed and how materialism has eroded some of our historic and illustrious heritage, but there comes a time when one must make a stand for what is considered to be in the present public interest."(3)

That petition, as well, came to nothing. The ability to deal effectively with the UK, perhaps because of the belief that they should listen to him as a "man of the people", representing Jersey, was almost always the cause of failure in these undertakings, and something he never seemed to learn from. The modern strategy of the Council of Ministers members attending Party conferences, building relationships and alliances in Parliament slowly, learning to negotiate the wheels of power,  is a less showy affair, but I suspect will eventually give rise to more solid results, although there will be setbacks there too.

I'll finish with a note of irony. In 1990, long, long before Ministerial government, he said: "I am disturbed by the amount of wasted time that this House indulges in". That's something worth remembering by those who hark back to a "golden age". It's only golden because there is less of it recorded in the minutes! And he was probably right - way back then - for what he criticised - the delays on reports, prevarications, and replies which said nothing! Nothing much changes there, but we shall not see his like again.

(3) The Independent, 2003
(4) States Minutes, 27 February 1990


Anonymous said...

There is a certain irony in Dick's death occurring the same day as the new bus contract started: it was him who helped get agreement to protect bus workers terms and conditions so that the workers would drop their opposition to the States tendering the buses out in 2001.

In hindsight that was the wrong thing to do as the workers were put in a position of considerable strength at Connex once the contract was awarded to them. The man of the people perhaps unwittingly ended up costing the people a fortune.

Anonymous said...

Let the truth be said; Dick Shenton was a populist and Jersey loves its populists, especially the more Right wing they come. J.J. Le Marquand comes from the same mold and there is evidence that he was just a Fascist thug.

Shenton was no friend of the ordinary man any more than TLM ever was. These mavericks of the Bourgeoisie serve to make a link between sections of the lower middle class and the interests of the elite. There is a lot of rhetoric and little change.

Ultimately Shenton was a defender of the status quo. This was none more evident at a meeting back in the 80's when he sparred against George Foulkes MP and provided a robust apology of Jersey's criminal finance industry. In those days it was easy to achieve. The JEP Editorial on the following day accused the organisers of the event as having criminal records for pedophilia (ironic now in the light of Haut de la Garenne government complicity).

No fair assessment of Dick Shenton will be possible in the face of the hagiography and Establishment accolades. Expect a state funeral. That in itself will tell you he was not on the side of the “working man”.

Oh, I also recall he led the campaign against the legalisation of abortion, good Catholic that he was. No friend of Women either!