– from Occupation to thriving mini-state. A biography of Pierre Horsfall CBE has been recently written by former JEP business editor Peter Body. Mr Horsfall was interviewed by Caroline Spencer
‘NO other speck of granite in the oceans of the world has had a more disproportionate and positive effect on the affairs of the world than has the Island of Jersey.’
This is something that Pierre Horsfall CBE used to say as travelled the world as an ambassador for Jersey Finance, speaking proudly of the Island of his birth.
He believes this still to be true. ‘When you think of shipbuilding, trade routes, fishing, the export of cows all over the world, the international financial services centre, and tourism… And I see no reason why, if Jersey is managed correctly, that it can’t carry on in its own independent way.’
Jersey has seen more social and economic change in the 80 years of Pierre’s life than most other places in the world, and for decades he had an inside view of the politics that helped to bring that about. A new book, based on his memoirs, has been published. A Jerseyman’s Journey – from Occupation to thriving mini-state, has been written by former JEP journalist Peter Body and is an account of the role played by Pierre in Jersey’s post-war history.
The book’s own journey began three years ago when Pierre handed over a ‘treasure trove’ of speeches, photographs, letters and documents. Many of the records are so historic and unique that they are likely to be donated to the Jersey Archive.
Pierre first entered the States as a Deputy for St Clement in 1975. The first proposition he took through the States was the restoration of St Ouen’s Bay.
‘I was vice-president of the Island Development Committee,’ he recalls. ‘It was brought to our attention that St Ouen’s Bay was in a terrible state. The committee went down there in a minibus. It was appalling, there were piles of rubbish, scrap iron, and an offal pit. Everything from the abattoir was taken to this offal pit, which stank.’
Pierre soon found himself chairman of the management committee overseeing the bay’s restoration. ‘From my second year in the States I had a serious job to get my teeth into, which is lucky, because many people took time to find their feet and find a role.’
He went on to become president of the IDC, the committee that came up with the very first Island Plan and introduced Sites of Special Interest.
His 27-year political career included presidency of major committees, Agriculture and Fisheries (11 years of negotiations with the French over fishing rights), Finance & Economics, Policy & Resources.
He admits that he had a reputation for getting things done. ‘But you see I had had really good training, from what I had been doing before as an aeronautical engineer. Having started as an apprentice, I finished up working as technical assistant to the chairman and managing director of the British Aircraft Corporation, which employed 50,000 people.’
Indeed, he was on the Anglo-French team that designed Concorde in the 1960s and he is still an ambassador for the Bristol Aerospace Museum.
As he reflects on his life’s highlights and accomplishments, he frequently refers to being lucky to fall on his feet.
‘It was often a question of being in the right place at the right time,’ he said. ‘All the international stuff that came up, of dealings with the Prime Minister and senior politicians, I happened to be the person who was there at the time and I had to deal with it. As it happens, I think I got on reasonably well and I set up some good relationships with some of these people.’
The one relationship which helped Jersey the most, he feels, was that with the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. One time, when the two had a private meeting, Pierre briefed
him on the struggle they were having negotiating with the Home Office over the EU Tax Package.
‘Effectively I told him we wanted to co-operate and we had no wish to put the UK outside of our international obligations but he couldn’t expect us to commit financial suicide either. He said he would see what he could do. About a week later, I got a handwritten letter from him saying “you may find the going easier now”. From being totally obstructive, they started suggesting solutions.’
Pierre was told that it had been ‘a hell of a coup’ getting in contact directly with the Prime Minister.
And in fact, that meeting with Mr Blair had taken place in Jersey, when leaders met for the British-Irish Council meeting.
Pierre supported the move for Jersey to become a member of the BIC because he believed it would bring useful contacts with senior people in the UK Government, but he didn’t expect to be chairing a meeting of it at Howard Davis Farm with every Prime Minister and Premier of Ireland and the British Isles round the table, including Bertie Ahern, David Trimble and Martin McGuinness.
‘I looked around this table and thought what the devil am I doing here?’ he said. ‘They’d never all met before anywhere.’
There is something that has always been very calm and measured about the former Senator Horsfall, and this continues to be the case.
‘There were some very tricky times. It could be stressful but it was also good fun,’ he laughs. ‘I remember once I was talking to Tony Blair and he suggested he might come on holiday with his family to Jersey. And I said: “Yes, Prime Minister, if you do, we’ll close one of the beaches especially for you.” He jumped and said “no, no, you can’t do that” because of course he had had a lot of bad press when he had asked for a beach in Italy to be closed for him.’
One of the biggest feathers in Pierre’s cap is that he was treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which represents a quarter of the world’s population, and which gave him experience of international politics.
‘Jersey had the opportunity to put someone on the executive committee of the CPA. It was another matter of right place, right time.’
Pierre describes how at one meeting in Cape Town he met Nelson Mandela. ‘He had a big smile on his face and a lovely soft voice, and he spoke to each one of us. When it came to me, I was introduced as a Senator from Jersey, and he said “Ah, Jersey, Frank Sinatra country.”
‘I had to quickly decide whether to correct him but I decided to keep quiet and carry on with the conversation. It was a privilege to meet him.’
What does he think was his own greatest quality as a politician?
‘On the international side, diplomacy,’ he says. ‘We had some very hard meetings but I always seemed to come out of them on the right side.’
Pierre recounts the story of when he went to Washington to sign the Tax Information Exchange Agreement, Jersey’s first international treaty in its own name.
‘I went into the US Treasury, a big imposing colonnaded building. I was greeted by Paul O’Neill, the Secretary of the Treasury, and taken to a room that had an audience and TV cameras. We sat at the table and we signed, and then he said “Senator, it is my great pleasure to present you with the pen with which I have signed this historic document” and he offered me his pen. In reply, I said: “Mr Secretary, I’m afraid this pen was given to me by my wife on our 25th wedding anniversary and you cannot have it!” ’
His wife, Thelma, has been at his side throughout his career and when asked his greatest lifetime achievement, his first thought is to say: ‘Probably the best thing I ever did was propose to Thelma 60-something years ago.’
And he added: ‘No matter where we went, she was impeccable. She was always a great asset and everybody liked her.’
As Pierre Horsfall finishes the coffee that’s gone cold, he apologises if he has spoken too long. Not at all, I reply. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.
His memory is sharp, his replies effortless in the way of a veteran politician and diplomat.
We haven’t spoken about being a hotelier, his love of horses and sailing, his work on States reform, the development of the Waterfront, his association with the Clipper race, and so much more.
Pierre, who two years ago celebrated his 80th birthday by racing around the Castle Combe circuit in Wiltshire, was disappointed that Covid caused the cancellation of some track days in 2020. He remains as busy as ever, being involved with the Gurkha Welfare Trust Jersey, Visit Jersey, the Jersey Marathon, Howard Davis Farm Trust, and he is also chairman of the Opera House.
‘There’s a skill to being in the right place at the right time,’ he jokes. ‘I haven’t been bored for 10 seconds. I can’t complain, can I?’
*A Jerseyman’s Journey – from Occupation to thriving mini-state, by Peter Body, is published by Jersey Heritage and is available only at the Jersey Museum.