In his final column, Bram Wanrooij reflects upon his time living in Jersey, an island of contradictions and magic that he grew to love
Wow. So that’s it. My time in Jersey has come to an end — six very pleasant, instructive years, full of life lessons, joys, curiosities and exasperations.
I’ve now known this place for over thirteen years, initially visiting it as a young puppy, keen to impress the woman who was to become the love of my life. Seven years later, I moved to Jersey, having given up my job, ready for a ‘year out’ — curious to find out how people actually lived and worked in this holiday paradise. I have grown to love this island very deeply and some of the most monumental events of my life will forever be connected to it: my own marriage and the birth of my two youngest children. As a teacher, campaigner and columnist, I have fully submerged myself in Jersey’s community, and, to be perfectly honest, ten years ago, I would never have thought I would be growing vegetables, fishing, kayaking, swimming in the sea or camping out by the beach as part of my life on this earth. I have also met many wonderful people, who have enriched my life and will remain friends forever.
But to me, this island will always remain something of a contradiction; it is thrilling, exciting and beautiful, but also artificial, petty and self-involved. It is only because I love the place so much, that its shortcomings frustrate me as they do. Perhaps, as an admiring, engaged outsider, my reflections are less clouded in nostalgia or unconditional affection. Hopefully, some of my observations as part of Jersey’s community can serve to illuminate certain aspects which would otherwise remain shrouded in familiarity.
Celebration of inequality
I have never been so aware of wealth discrepancies as I have in Jersey. And that says a lot, as I have lived in places like Kenya and Sudan when I was younger. Disparity is on full display, in combination with a shameless promotion of greed and privilege. Range Rovers wizz past you, their 4x4 engines sputtering out clouds of pollution, utterly useless on a small island with a decent infrastructure and no real elevation to speak of. You even see flashy sports cars; quite amusing when you consider the speed limit is 40 at most. What are these people trying to prove?
The island caters to the very wealthy, especially reflected in everyday expenses and housing and travel costs. Getting off the island becomes ever more impossible as your family grows, with flights to England ridiculously expensive and ferries charging a small fortune for carrying you across the channel. In this way, Jersey has quickly become a financial and geographical prison for middle and low earners.
In the six years I’ve lived here, my family has had to move six times and every time we had to rent a house which was slightly beyond our budget, even though both my wife and I are hard workers with honest professions. I have seen qualified, talented people leave because of this, a phenomenon which makes no sense, neither on a social, nor an economic level.
Any society which makes simple habitation unaffordable for regular people, is slowly strangling itself.
On the longer term, would it not be better to attract people who actually contribute in terms of employment and being part of the fabric of society, rather than people who are simply seeking out a place to swell their already sizeable fortunes? Inviting so-called ‘high-value-residents’ brings in business and employment — or so it is claimed — but the costs of this scheme are obvious too. Ollie Taylor has analyzed some of the dynamics of growing inequality elsewhere in much more detail.
Everywhere in Jersey the lesson is: achievement or chances of success will eventually be measured by your financial and social position. These will decide whether you can live in a decent house, go to a decent school and eat decent food. The desire to protect these privileges is endemic and has poisoned the discussion about fair taxation (one of the great accomplishments of modern societies). How many times have I not heard the argument: ‘Well, if you’ve worked hard, you have the right to enjoy it.’ It is such a shameful argument, as it presupposes that the 95% of the world population that struggles to make ends meet, is lazy or doesn’t work hard enough.
In fact, the system of inviting so-called ‘high-value residents’ (an utterly disgusting phrase) openly ridicules the attempts to redistribute wealth fairly via progressive taxation elsewhere, whilst pro-actively encouraging greed to come and flourish here. This undermines a sense of community and actually sends out a message that wealth accumulation is an individual pursuit and has nothing to do with being part of society. Jersey’s official message is: ‘Make your money and then ‘protect’ yourself from the rest of society. We will facilitate this sabotage.’ It is so sad as it fractures a sense of community and quickly accelerates growing global inequality. Yet, on this island, it is nurtured and even celebrated.
Private education — elites cloning themselves?
Inequality is further entrenched by the division between private and public schools. Never in my life have I encountered the discussion about ‘which school to send your kids to,’ as often as here. This of course, is entirely in line with the UK, but deepened and more concentrated within the island setting. Even some of my progressive and well-informed friends happily put their children into private, single-sex schools, unknowingly endowing their own kids with a sense of entitlement by separating them from the less-privileged, whilst putting them in an environment (single-sex) far removed from the real world.
I find all this infuriating and sad, as societal inequality is entrenched from the age of 11, effectively creating two separate worlds; one of the opinion-makers and rulers and one of the voiceless. As Dutch journalist Luyendijk put it: is quite ironic that a nation that gave the world the term “fair play” sees the fact that rich children receive a better education than poor ones as a perfectly natural thing. This is how the elites clone themselves, is it not? The most entitled of them all, don’t even have to bother with the rest of us plebs. They can outsource the raising of their kids to the ivory towers of aristocratic England: boarding schools, again, unknowingly exposing them to higher risks of abuse, ensuring that our future leaders have a higher probability of being scarred people, detached from reality and clueless about the society they aspire to govern.
Is there any surprise that sometimes, the voiceless hit back when they get a chance, like in the Brexit vote, which had the sweet taste of revenge written all over it?
Where is the critical reflection on all of this? Is there anyone challenging the divide between private and public schools or healthcare? Or is it a ‘fact of life,’ which sucks in everyone? If we are ever to achieve a more meritocratic and fair society, we need to address the public-private divide.
Not that the British media would provide any self-reflection on these issues. Both owners and journalists are educated privately and belong to those who benefit from the system. I have often witnessed a perfectly lovely person casually purchasing a horrible tabloid newspaper, with the racist, sexist hate jumping off the pages in full colour. That must affect your psychic in some way.
Again, to quote Luyendijk: I noticed that not all was well with the collective psyche — the in-your-face binge drinking, the bookies stoking gambling addiction on every high street, the abject but routine neglect of public housing which went undiscussed until the Grenfell Tower fire.
Tabloids sell sex, sport, hate, celebrity culture and misinformation and call it the right to a ‘free press.’ Their billionaire owners poison the country they refuse to pay tax to. It is astonishing, but in Jersey, there is not a single decent newspaper for sale. Have we shielded and deluded ourselves about our place in the wider world?
Individualism and the public good
With this celebration of inequality, comes an infuriating lack of concern for real challenges which affect us all, like global warming or environmental pollution. Again, just have a look at the hundreds of 4x4 Land Rovers everywhere. Why??!!! Jersey roads are almost like a secondary school playground with people showing off their latest toys, marketed to them by unscrupulous multinational companies. Does anyone care that Land Rover SUV’s are the third largest CO2 emitters in Britain? The car density on this island is astonishing and amongst the highest in the world. Has anyone ever considered restricting car use and improving the public transport infrastructure? But we wouldn’t want a government to infringe on our personal privileges now, would we?
New builds are still constructed like they were twenty years ago. Solar panels are a luxury only the well-willing and (again) the well-off can afford. Other renewables, like tidal power, were studied, but discarded because subsequent administrations have no desire to touch private wealth to make it benefit the wider community. It is up to the individual to make that difference. Similarly, recycling here is laughable — plastic, organic waste and metal all end up in the same heap. Even if you wanted to make an individual difference, you’d feel kind of helpless in the face of this. We demonize taxes, but our public provisions are twenty years behind.
I never liked paying taxes in Holland, but in the last few years, I’ve found myself passionately defending them. The benefits of a progressive tax system can be felt in the cohesion of society, but also in little things, like having to purchase a green wheely bin for your garbage. In Jersey, you are all individuals, paying for your own well-being, living the Thatcherite creed that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.’
Why are there so many charities in Jersey? It’s only because our government has shedded some of its core responsibilities, making it almost inevitable that charities fill the void. I mean seriously, which society has its elderly and sick looked after by a charity, dependent on donations?
Health & Safety?
At the same time, we see this strange phenomenon of ‘health and safety,’ an Orwellian concept, if I ever did encounter one.
We pretend we care about safety and create protocols, to ensure that the right steps are taken. But they are built upon a claiming culture, inherited from the dog-eat-dog capitalism of America. We are covering our own backs. Rather than ensuring our safety, these protocols will protect us from possible lawsuits. It is part of a society, which is increasingly about competition, rather than solidarity. I suppose it makes sense in a world in which even our common sense needs to be quantified, filed and scrutinized.
Most of our pubic institutions have become top-heavy, populated with endless new layers of middle managers, who don’t necessarily make our organisations run smoother, but certainly manage to increase the amount of paperwork we have to fill out.
At the same time, the amount of time we actually get to spend on our core responsibilities is shrinking.
Teachers teach less, nurses nurse less and fire-fighters fight less fires. The only thing we don’t do, is work less.
The institutions we work in are structurally underfunded, so the pressure on us to deliver the same quality work in less time builds up. Talk about health and safety.
The Jersey Way — Don’t rock the boat
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Do we recognize that saying? In a small community like Jersey, people will do almost anything to not rock the boat. This means employers can more readily belittle their employees and bullying in certain sectors is rife. We have all read how systematic child abuse could continue for years, whilst the people raising their voices about this were ostracised. Points raised are very quickly personalized. I experienced this myself as chairman of the Jersey Cares Refugee Aid Group, but also when simply engaging in discussions, for instance about the annual air display. Is it really ethical to exhibit bomber planes and fighter jets in a show, whilst for many people around the world the mere sound of their engines signal death and destruction? ‘How dare you criticize a local tradition,’ I was told? And the silent embrace of the red poppy around remembrance day in November? I do not wear a poppy, as I resent militarism. When I wrote an article about this, a very angry man sent a letter to my employer, demanding I be fired.
There’s a lot more to address, for example the attention given to women who have just given birth and the rights of fathers to take paternity leave, but perhaps we can leave that for a next article.
I’ve worked hard to bridge some of the misgivings which inevitably creep up on you in a small community and I am proud to have been part of the magic of Jersey. Hopefully, I can come back one day, but I really wish that wouldn’t depend on finances. I do not criticise because I hate. I criticise because I care — something some will struggle to understand, but which I have explained at length in another piece.
Maybe George Orwell was correct when he stated that England is a family with the wrong members in charge. That quote leaves a lot of room for improvement. Jersey has so much to offer. Let’s keep working on it.