Ralph Vibert (1911 - 2008) was arguably Jersey's most successful and influential politician in the second half of the 20th Century. He negotiated the island's special relationship with the European Union.
Born at First Tower in 1911, the eldest son of Thomas and Florence Vibert, who ran Martello Stores, Ralph Vibert showed early signs of the intellectual prowess which was to distinguish him in later life. He won a St Mannelier open scholarship to Victoria College, where he became head prefect in 1930, as well as captain of football. He failed the Oxford entrance examination, in his explanation because he chose to study classics rather than modern languages and began work in Hill Street as private secretary to the Attorney General of the day, Alexander Coutanche, who later became Bailiff.
He read for his Bar examinations in the evenings after work and was sworn in as an Advocate in 1934 to begin a career which was soon to be interrupted by the Second World War.
World War 2
During the war he served as an army major, as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive in England and then in Calcutta for four years. This involved training SOE field agents in the use of codes, how to live in occupied countries undetected, and how to withstand interrogation. His training was so tough that some said they would rather be interrogated by the enemy than by him.
On returning to Jersey he was appointed Solicitor General in 1948 and continued work in the administration until 1955 when he resigned after disagreements with the then Attorney General and returned to private law practice.
His distinguished political career started with his election as Deputy for his home district of St Brelade in 1957. He became a Senator in 1959 – a post he held until his retirement in 1987. At one point he was leading three important committees simultaneously. In 1980, following the sudden death in office of Senator Cyrle Le Marquand, president of the Finance and Economics Committee for 23 years, Senator Vibert, by then Father of the House, was elected unopposed to the position. Senator Le Marquand had built Jersey’s financial well-being and reputation, and there was a clear need for stability and continuity.
Senator Vibert had already been made an OBE in 1977 for his services to Jersey politics and had served successfully as president of Defence, Legislation, Constitution and Common Market, Industrial Relations, and Establishment. It was also fitting that he eventually became president of the Policy and Resources Committee – a post that was once the most powerful in Island government.
In the aftermath of the Falklands War in 1982 he successfully proposed that Jersey should donate £5 million to help in the regeneration of the Falklands, arguing that the South Atlantic community had much in common with Jersey, both places having suffered enemy occupation. He was, however, less successful in saying that the Island’s defence contribution, requested by the UK Home Secretary in 1984, should be funding for a minesweeper, the States ultimately opting for the creation of the Jersey Field Squadron.
He travelled extensively under the auspices of the Moral Rearmament movement, and was actively involved in trying to solve the problems of Southern Africa. He played a part in the processes leading to the creation of Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.
In the words of the then Bailiff Sir Philip Bailhache, he was “the greatest man” to have served the island in the half century following Jersey’s liberation from Nazi occupation during World War 2. Most significantly, he negotiated, in 1967, the island’s special relationship with the European Union, after the Home Office in Westminster informed the island that year that the UK was seeking entry to the European Economic Community. And he laid the foundations of Jersey’s economic prosperity after his appointment as the President of the Finance and Economics committee in 1980.
“He could be, and usually was, very affable, but he could, when he deemed it necessary, also bite,” Sir Philip told the States of Jersey Assembly in his tribute. “But the bite was always political and never personal.”
In 1939 Ralph Vibert married Muriel Le Gros, the daughter of a leading Jersey lawyer. They eventually made their home at La Fontaine in Route du Francfief, the house in which his wife had been brought up. After her death in 1996 he married Christine Heslop, a teacher originally from Yorkshire. She survived him along with his son and four daughters from his first marriage.