Election time in 1996 promised much change. A new chief minister was a cert after Miles Walker made clear he didn’t want another five years at the helm. And we thought we might see a step-change in how Manx politics worked.
Shortly after polling day we got the new chief – Donald Gelling – but hopes of a definitive move towards party politics were ultimately squashed.
The five years leading up to the election were a time of economic growth, which the Walker administration regarded as vital for meeting its commitment to creating a ‘prosperous and caring society’. They believed it was the prosperity that allowed them to have more generous social security benefits and increase income tax allowances; to be caring.
As politicians slowly accepted we were approaching the end of the 20th Century, capital punishment was abolished, homosexual acts were decriminalised and the Termination of Pregnancies (Medical Defences) Act came in.
Abortion reform was seen as a huge step forward back in 1995. But the debate on Alex Allinson’s Abortion Reform Act took place a couple of years ago, you did wonder whether your memory was playing tricks about the legislation from 25 years ago and why it had not quite achieved what many hoped. Could it be that some of the progressive steps expected from the 1995 law had been toned down – unnoticed – before implementation?
For all the prosperity and overdue social reform, 1991-96 was not a period without turbulence for the Council of Ministers.
The looming threat from our Westminster neighbours was heightened as prospects for a Labour government heightened. MP George Foulkes was waging a determined campaign against the island’s offshore status.
In the Department of Tourism and Leisure, there was plenty of opportunity for the wrong sorts of headlines.
Tourism Minister Allan Bell faced resignation calls following a failed bowling alley project for Noble’s Park. He survived those but was forced to resign by Walker after another row, involving the unauthorised spending of money on Jurby race circuit.
Between 1991 and 1996, the Alternative Policy Group was formed, led initially by Dr Edgar Mann and featuring fellow MHKs David Cannan, Edgar Quine, Dominic Delaney and Adrian Duggan
The 1996 election was seen as a triumph. By this point Mann had moved back up to the Legislative Council and was joined by Delaney, after the poll there were six MHKs who belonged to the APG. The three returning MHKs were joined by Leonard Singer (yes, the same one), Ray Kniveton and Brenda Cannell.
The media – me included – became excited and regarded the APG as an opposition party, waiting for progress to full-blown party politics in the Keys. It proved to be a false dawn.
That Mann and Quine accepted jobs in the new cabinet, after Donald Gelling beat the latter in the contest to be Walker’s successor, contributed. And the change of name to Alliance for Progressive Government confirmed there wasn’t really a co-ordinated opposition.
Major controversies contributed to the downfall of two government ministers in the 1996 election. Terry Groves, widely regarded as a possible future chief minister, had the misfortune to be local government and environment minister at election time, heading a department that had spent years trying to find a site for an incinerator – meeting opposition wherever they went – before finally settling on Richmond Hill, the original choice.
And health minister Bernie May went from topping the poll in 1991 to being booted out in 1996. It had been a bruising time at the DHSS. The decision to construct a new hospital in Braddan was not universally popular and his fingers were badly burned after the government came up with the hot potato idea of using money from the national insurance fund to fund the building. (An idea that supporters say has since been justified many times over.)
May had also been expelled from the Manx Labour Party for pushing through the jobseekers’ allowance, which probably didn’t help in his Douglas North constituency.
On election night itself, although the single transferable vote had been replaced by the traditional first-past-the-post system, not everything ran smoothly. It was revealed that one of three lists of eligible proxy voters in a constituency had gone astray, meaning a handful of proxies were unable to perform their task.
To give you an idea of what else was going on the island in the run-up to the election, Graham Ferguson Lacey, the millionaire resident of Bishopscourt, pledged to buy the Rushen Abbey ancient monument site and neighbouring Rushen Abbey Hotel to preserve it for the nation, with a plan to hold talks with Manx National Heritage.
The Manx Government lent its support to a legal case calling for the closure of Sellafield nuclear power plant.
Home Affairs Minister Richard Corkill committed to the government either building a brand new prison or extending on the site of the miserable monolith jail in Douglas.
Marina proposals in Port St Mary were becoming the subject of an increasingly heated debate, Isle of Man Transport announced plans to buy 25 new buses for £1.9 million and work had begun on the IRIS all-island sewage treatment master plan –with just about everyone down, to the last toilet brush, casting doubt on whether it would ever be completed.
On the upside, Ramsey was celebrating a £1 million boost to its economy thanks to movies The Brylcreem Boys and The Harpist being shot in the island. Now, whatever happened to the film industry?
One issue troubling the great Manx public, or at least one letter to the editor correspondent, was the imperilled future of Hop-tu-Naa, due to the threat of some pumpkin nonsense from distant shores. An interesting take was that it was the media’s fault, for not promoting the proper celebration of October 31.
Which brings us to a media footnote.
Manx Radio staffers may think they’ve had more than their fair share of shellackings from the outgoing government this year, but that’s nothing compared with what it went through from the Walker administration, which put forward plans to sell it off into the private sector, following an offer from VideoVision Broadcast to buy 75% of the shareholding and take over the station’s running.
The government – which was the sole shareholder, with Radio Manx Ltd operating independent directors – liked the idea but there was an inevitable political outcry,
A review was ordered and it recommended the nation’s station should remain in public ownership, with a public service output protected by a ‘promise of performance’, to be overseen by a trust. The Council of Ministers backed down and Tynwald supported the review’s recommendations.
Despite it being branded as possibly the government’s biggest embarrassment during the 1991-96, it happened early enough in the term to not appear to have a direct impact on any particular ministers.
Still, it’s probably just as well Howard Quayle wasn’t around back then.* With thanks again to the assistance of staff at the Manx Museum Library. Once again Offshore Island Politics: The Constitutional and Political Development of the Isle of Man in the Twentieth Century, by David Kermode, was a valuable source for some extra background.