Here’s a funny thing. The Crown Dependencies. Now, I know something of Manx politics, going back to the old Pan-Celtic days, but I’ve never really taken the Channel Islands all that seriously.
Maybe this is a class thing. Before the advent of cheap continental flights, and before the more recent dependence on financial services, Mannin used to be a big tourist destination for the working class. Geography dictated that the island drew in a lot of its income from the great unwashed of Belfast and Glasgow. This lent the island a pleasantly down-at-heel aspect that’s only partially been effaced by ostentatious property development. The Channel Islands, on the other hand, have at least as far back as I can remember successfully projected the image of an exclusive country club. The Whicker Island image is probably unfair on a lot of the islanders, but there you go.
And yet, rum things are going down in the Manche. Sark is currently abolishing feudalism, a mere four years after Scotland got round to it. Ordinarily, you’d think this was a good thing, but I’m not sure that it is. Remember for a moment that a tiny polity like Sark, where everybody knows everybody, probably militates against the worst aspects of the tenant system, and that the Barclay brothers seem to be subjecting the island to a hostile takeover. We just may be seeing a harmless anachronism sacrificed on the altar of right theory for the benefit of a couple of oligarchs.
On the plus side, there’s a bit of a push being given to language revivalism. There’s finally getting to be some real, as opposed to symbolic recognition given to Jèrriais and Dgèrnésiais – which, let’s not forget, were everyday spoken languages a mere hundred years ago when the islands were rural backwaters, but have since declined into the property of the very old and the dedicated hobbyist. Better late than never, I suppose. And, bearing in mind the unlikelihood of the Acht Gaeilge getting through Stormont, are these guys actually in advance of us?
And now we have this hefty report [pdf] from Jersey’s high-powered Constitutional Review Group. Much of this is made up of unexceptionably progressive ideas – a written Constitution incorporating a Bill of Rights, coupled with reform of the archaic legislative and judicial systems with a clear separation of powers. But what’s eye-catching is the serious consideration given to the question of independence, and assessing whether the island would be prepared for it.
It’s an interesting point. Remember that the Crown Dependencies are not and never have been part of the UK state. They tend to have an ornery independent streak, and put a lot more stress on their self-government institutions than Westminster, which basically sees them as Ruritanian holdovers under the authority of an obscure subsection of the Home Office. As the Jersey group point out, they’re only one or two steps away from independence as it is, and the big change would be substituting a state-to-state relationship with Britain in place of Home Office oversight.
Why now, though? Why, at this point in particular, do these micro-polities want to stress their distinctiveness from Britain? I know there’s been some dispute between the Brits and the Jèrriais about whether or not Jersey has the right to sign international treaties, but that sort of thing doesn’t come in a vacuum. Nor does the polling evidence that seems to show, maybe not exactly a nationalist upsurge, but at least a little popular support for independence. I suppose there’s a lot of this going on in different parts of Europe, with increased – or at least more visible – attachment to local identities. In this particular case, I suspect devolution, with the cracking of the once massively centralised UK state, has had an impact. Linked to that is the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council, which for the first time has allowed ministers from the Crown Dependencies to strut their stuff on a bigger stage. This may have put some ideas into the heads of local politicos. There really is nothing like a seat in the UN to make a chap look posh.