While cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was in Swindolena in May 2012, telling Saints about their island’s bright opportunities, Andrew Gurr was just 30 miles away in Oxford, sharing insights from his four years as governor (2007-2011). The two men were speaking at exactly the same time.
A recording of Mr Gurr’s talk has now been passed to St Helena Online, with some parts removed to avoid offending individuals. Here are some of the insights he offered, as he delivered them at the annual meeting of the Friends of St Helena. More will follow in coming days.
On the Foreign Office
It is a fascinating place to visit. I got a bit fed up with it but there’s some interesting rooms there. One of the most fascinating is a small oval room. During most of my time as governor it was the room in which the junior ministers with specific responsibility for British overseas territories had their office. In prior times the whole of India had been run from that room, so quite an amazing place.
On Mrs Gurr
It’s a great privilege being a governor. I must pay tribute to my wife right at the beginning. Being a governor’s wife is, believe me, quite difficult. A governor’s wife does all sorts of interesting things. She feeds another stream of information into one’s reserves of information about the government that you would not otherwise get, and I felt sorry for my predecessor, who wasn’t accompanied by his wife, for that reason. Being a governor’s wife is a full time job, absolutely unpaid.
On the islands
Being governor seems to me to be different, depending on the territory. The whole role changes. We were in the Falklands for five years, where I was chief executive. When the governor was away I acted as governor. That added up to over 12 months, so I had a rough idea of what being a governor was about.
I believe when I went to St Helena the governor had considerably more power and influence than they had when I left the Falklands. There are a number of reasons for that. Having three islands made life more complicated: three very different islands economically. St Helena was broke financially and needed a lot of help.
Ascension kind of covered its own costs because it was a dignified and souped-up labour camp, because you can’t really live there unless you are working there.
And Tristan da Cunha is absolutely unique. My conclusion, having been there, is that it is probably one of the few truly communist societies in the world that actually works. They really do work for each other and it is part of their whole psyche, and that’s terribly interesting.
Saints dominate St Helena and Ascension too, and increasingly they have a big influence on things in the Falklands, but the Falklands economically dominate the other islands because of the conflict of ’82 and the military and the squid money that flows, up to £30 million a year. And they have just had a very good year in the Falklands.
So there is a lot of inter-relationship between four very different islands, and as governor of three of them one has quite a complicated time.
By power I mean influence, really, and trying to make things happen and indeed having the levers to pull to do that.
My predecessor Mike Clancy had been a chief secretary in a previous existence and I think it led him quite naturally to cover both roles.
There was a kind of vacuum where there wasn’t the duality that you would get, say, in a corporate organisation with a chairman – the governor – and the chief executive as main operating officer. That really didn’t exist, so I went into a situation on St Helena where the governor actually just jumped into a power vacuum.
Isolation of course helped that – or didn’t help it, depending on your point of view – but when your boss is 4,000 miles away and can’t get at you for at least three weeks, however he does it, you are on to a winner.
I have to say that democracy was less developed that it had become on the Falklands. The councillors, although they had democratic power, were more reticent to wield it. They had no control of real happenings; not in total, anyway. There was big area of the civil service over which they had very little influence indeed.
On the law
There are quite a few laws that are wildly out of date, and some that are quite different to UK laws and tailored to the island.
The governor is in the unviable position of presiding over a legal system that does not have equality of arms in the court room, and there’s very little one can do about that because there is no private sector solicitor on the island, so who is going to defend those who are being prosecuted by the government?
The answer is the lay advocates, and the lay advocates are trained and managed by the public solicitor. The public solicitor is a government appointment; the public solicitor reports to the governor and so does the Attorney General.
So you have this rather unequal combat in a courtroom with lay people defending, professional QCs [barristers] prosecuting and the governor somehow in the middle if there is a problem with that; but not directly in the middle because a lot of the reporting from the legal side is done informallyand certainly very effectively.
I praise all the public solicitors I dealt with. Neil Davidson and the new one, Debbie, are both tremendous and do a great job with the lay advocates.
(Mr Gurr told St Helena Online: “I would be full of praise for those who acted as lay advocates, but the fact remains that you have a QC prosecuting and an amateur defending, and under anybody’s judgment that is not a fair position. I don’t know how you solve it: you can’t spend money.”
There’s a recruitment problem. The governor is responsible for individual appointments and sackings – not many – on the civil service.
Imagine trying to recruit doctors and nurses from that distance. Believe me, interviewing over a jumpy video link is really not a good thing. On meeting them on island, you don’t recognise them at all – they look nothing like they do on the screen.
On the missing population
One of the big problems, thinking about the people in the civil service and the private sector, is a lack of middle managemen; indeed, the lack of middle, because demographically, half of the population who should be there between the ages of 20 and 40 are somewhere else – they are here [in the UK], on the Falklands, or on Ascension.
Tose are years when you generate wealth, when you breed children and they are mising and that core of the population of St Helena not being there puts it out of balance.
That’s one of the big things about the airport, sucking people back in, to get back to a demographically balanced picture on the island.
On advisory group
When I got [to St Helena] there had been a lot of criticism about a group called the management team, because it was accused of making decisions, which was unconstitutional, so we disbanded it.
A clamour of public opinion was reacted to and I formed what I called the governor’s advisory group, which was more flexible.
One of the things that astonished me… I looked round my advisers and nearly all of them were female, and it really says a great deal about the island and the ability of the ladies to get through the work. They are very competent.
I have to say it, that the men aren’t as competent generally. I hate to say it. I wish they were. There was something of the same on the Falklands – not as much as on St Helena.
It’s partly to do with schooling and culture and all sorts of things but it’s an interesting observation.
(In a separate conversation, Mr Gurr said: “I think it makes a nonsense of the Commonwealth people coming and talking about how we have to help girls. They are in charge.”)