Britain’s banana republic

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I’ve had a certain fascination for Sark since, more years ago than I care to remember, I read Mervyn Peake’s glorious Mr Pye. I think Mervyn would have quite liked the Passport to Pimlico saga that’s been unfolding on the island – at any rate, he could have got a decent comic novel out of it.

On the one hand, you have the little island whose inhabitants are deeply attached to their traditional way of life, with no cars or electric street lights. This also involved, until last week, the maintenance of the feudal system of government established in Elizabethan times. The spin around last week’s Chief Pleas election, or at least how the London media chose to read it, was that outmoded feudalism had finally been abolished (a mere eight years after Scotland!) and democracy brought to this remote backwater.

Now here’s where I shock readers with a defence of feudalism. No, not really – the ancien regime on Sark didn’t live up to formal standards of democracy, but I was prepared to see it as basically a harmless anachronism – certainly it wasn’t clear that the masses were being oppressed by it. Your building block, as per the constitutional settlement of 1565, was the forty tenants, the hereditary landowners who sat in the Chief Pleas as of right. Now, this might have had some of the form of an aristocracy, but the tenements are quite small and the tenants, taken as heads of the landowning families, represented a fair whack of the population. Since the last major reforms in 1922, they had been supplemented by twelve popularly elected deputies, thus creating a system that, while not really representative, wasn’t grotesquely or oppressively unrepresentative either.

You also have to consider that the tiny size of the polity – a population of only 600 – was a mitigating factor. There are social pressures in communities, particularly island communities, that small, which can be stifling, but also militate against abuse of power. So things worked reasonably well for a very long time.

On the other hand you have, in the role of pantomime villains, the Barclay brothers, secretive press barons and owners of the Daily Telegraph. (Where they have just cemented their notoriety by sacking much-loved scribes AN Wilson and Craig Brown.) Back in 1993 the brothers acquired the neighbouring islet of Brecqhou, where they have built an imposing castle and where they live when they aren’t in Switzerland or Monaco. Brecqhou is a tenement in its own right, and thus the brothers could have been considered part of the Sark establishment. But they didn’t like the Sark establishment, for reasons that remain obscure. They ran a long-running campaign to have Brecqhou, a tiny and desolate rock, declared independent of Sark. When that didn’t work, they moved on to a hostile takeover of Sark itself.

This has proceeded on various levels. The Barclays acquired no less than five other tenements. They also took over or set up a number of businesses on the island, thus transferring a large proportion of the population onto the Barclay payroll. This went hand-in-hand with a campaign – including a legal challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights – to abolish the feudal system and replace Sark’s hereditary rulers with a system of government more to their liking.

And so we arrived at last week’s democratic elections to the Chief Pleas. The Barclays weren’t running themselves, but the whole contest revolved around pro- and anti-Barclay factions, namely those who liked Sark the way it was and who wanted to keep it that way, and those seduced by the glittering vista of tarmacked roads and heliports. They were helped along by the Barclays publishing lists of candidates who they wanted to be elected, or who they wanted kept out of power, and threatening to close their businesses on Sark if the broad masses voted the wrong way. Trouble is, your Sèrtchais peasantry doesn’t much like being told who to vote for. They didn’t like it coming from Hitler, and they don’t like it much more coming from these perishing outsiders:

In the run-up to the election a bitter rift opened between the Barclays and what they see as Sark’s “establishment” – people largely loyal to the feudal lord, the seigneur, and the seneschal, the island’s judge and returning officer. The results were devastating to the Barclays. Though they did not stand or vote, they published a list of nine candidates they wanted to win seats in the new parliament, but only two succeeded. They also published a list of 12 they believed would be ruinous to the island. Nine of those got in.

Mark the sequel, as the Barclays have indeed followed through on their threat of closing their businesses and ruining the island’s economy. It seems they didn’t like being thwarted in their plans to convert Sark from a traditional feudal society into the Kingdom of Barclaystan. Their spokesman has been moaning about how the peasants didn’t appreciate their benefactors’ investments, but this looks like the most enormous fit of corporate pique we’ve seen in a long time.

Personally, I hope the Sèrtchais tell these two to go sling their hook. There was a thriving Sark before the Barclays were even heard of, and there will be one long after they’re forgotten. But for the meantime, it looks very bad. In fact, in punishing the democratic electorate for making the wrong decision, it looks like nothing so much as a miniature version of the siege of Gaza. Except that the Sèrtchais haven’t even done anything so bellicose as to fire Katyusha rockets into Guernsey – all they’ve done is to annoy two rich old men. More power to them, I say.

6 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    December 17, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Do you remember when the Indian election went the wrong way not very long ago, and there was a huge tiz in the business world until the new government announced an economic policy essentially opposite to the one they’d been elected to implement?

    What I recall about it is how this attracted essentially no adverse comment at all, as if the economic policy of a government was, essentially, up to the business community to decide. (You appreciate I mean as if this were not only legitimate but commendable, as opposed to being something that we all know capital does whether we like it or not.)

    Anyway, you get the rhetorical point. I’m not sure whether you intended us to see Sark symbolically or whether you were primarily interested in the island itself…

  2. Tim said,

    December 17, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    This is the most accurate assessment of the Sark situation to date. Times journalists please read. Telegraph journalists – best not – you might get fired if you repeat any of it. I have had a strong connection with Sark for 33 years and am amazed by the audacity of the brothers.

  3. charliemarks said,

    December 17, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Yeah, the faceless “markets” (capitalist class, natch) didn’t want Sonia Gandhi – who people assumed would be PM since she led the Congress Party’s election campaign.

    Yes, the “business community” should decide economic policy – so long as the “working community” can decide industrial policy!

  4. Lobby Ludd said,

    December 17, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    I looks like Sark has passed very rapidly from feudalism and into capitalism – followed by capitalism’s quick retreat.

    Imagine the problems they now face. How to consolidate the gains of a post-capitalist society, without corresponding revolutions in Jersey and Guernsey.

    Tourism’s probably it.

  5. ejh said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Hurrah!

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 18, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    The popular demand for small print and brown backdrop wore me down in the end…

    Am I interested in Sark per se or in Sark as a symbol? Bit of both, I think.


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