A long career spent leading from the front

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IF Frank Walker, who retires this week from his position as the Island’s first Chief Minister, ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he paid more attention to the chapters on influence than those on winning friends.

This is not to say that he is either friendless or unfriendly – anything but. However, in public life he always chose the course that he believed to be right rather than the one which would win him instant acclaim among the public or his fellow States Members.

This determination to avoid populism in favour of realism was one of the defining characteristics of his term in the top job in Jersey politics. Another was his insistence that a leader should always lead and, in his particular case, be prepared to take ultimate responsibility for policies framed by the Council of Ministers.

Throughout a distinguished 18 years in Island politics, Frank Walker was always prepared to stand up and be counted. At a time when politicians generally are not held in high esteem, he has consistently displayed the strength of character to withstand sometimes bitter criticism and turn policy into action, illustrated not least by the way in which he met the hugely complex challenge of introducing an entirely new form of government.

That former Senator Walker was prepared to be a front runner and accept the pains as well as the pleasures of power first became apparent during the course of a business career which began when he left school at 16, took him from a printing apprenticeship in his family firm to the managing directorship of this newspaper at the age of 29, and then led on to the creation of the Guiton Group and its development into one of the biggest employers in the Channel Islands.

Although he severed all business connections with this newspaper before becoming Chief Minister, in attempting to comment on his life’s work as he heads into retirement we therefore have to declare an interest. It was Frank Walker’s mixture of boldness, acumen, drive and Island pride which created the modern JEP (as well as the insulting myth that he abused his position by exerting editorial control), and those who have worked with him will testify to a great deal more humanity than is suggested by the one-dimensional caricature presented by his critics and political enemies.

It was no surprise, either, when he chose to enter politics in 1990 or when he rose rapidly to progressively more senior positions, ending with his appointment as Jersey’s first Chief Minister in 2005. The lessons he learned in commerce have undoubtedly shaped, in some ways problematically, the initial nature and style of ministerial government. The converse is also true, however, and it may also be said that with political experience came a growing understanding that a community is not a business and this is not the once-touted ‘Jersey plc’.

In terms of achievement, the Walker years – during which he influenced policy as president of both Finance and Policy and Resources before becoming Chief Minister – have been a period of plenty. There have been economic downturns, but never any suggestion that the economy or public finances were in danger, even though he has shown a surprising reluctance to get to grips with reducing States spending.

The major criticism he has faced, though, has been of a tendency to favour the finance industry disproportionately and to be ready to foster expansion, development, immigration and encroachment on the countryside if those were the prices to be paid for a vibrant core sector. Although this view would be strongly contested, it will be the lasting perception of the nature of his approach and contribution.

However, if there are two conflicting versions of Frank Walker’s basic political philosophy, the man himself would be willing to concede that this year, his last in office, has not been the unsullied crowning glory that he might have hoped. The drama – and ultimately black farce – of Haut de la Garenne and the wider child abuse inquiry set the backdrop for a disastrous Newsnight interview that shook an otherwise deserved reputation for cool and professional handling of awkward questions.

But in spite of this last-minute blot on a highly effective political career, statesmanship was Frank Walker’s strong suit. He was able to represent Jersey at the highest levels nationally and in many challenging environments internationally.

In that area in particular, he can take credit for a major contribution to the development of Jersey’s international identity and ability to represent itself and its own interests in a changing world. For this – and his able stewardship in economic matters – he deserves to take his place alongside the other major figures of the modern era in any full account of Jersey politics.

He also richly deserves the Island’s thanks for piloting a prudent course through good times and bad, and for having the courage of his convictions, often in the face of brutal and, more often than not, unfair criticism inside and outside the States.

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