Democracy in Sark

How the island dubbed 'Europe's last feudal state' is moving slowly towards something called democra

In February 2006, the hardier residents of Sark paced to the polls. It was a bitterly cold, snowy day and as there are no cars on the Channel Island, people had to walk or cycle to the polling station.

Turnout was low but the outcome was unequivocal. By a margin of 6%, the islanders opted to abandon an age-old feudal system and voted instead for democracy.

Now, the little island of Sark is not part of the UK, it is a Crown Dependency with its own government but back in the mid 1500s it was unoccupied and in imminent danger of being settled by the French.

In 1563 the Seigneur of St Ouen in Jersey, Helier de Carteret, was granted the island by Elizabeth I on condition he kept it continually inhabited, by 40 men at least, who had to be loyal English subjects.

This is still true today. He divided the island into 40 farms, called tenements, and invited families from Jersey and Guernsey to settle there. He retained one tenement, the rest were required to provide one man with a musket to defend the island.

During those early years, the island was run by its inhabitants. But by 1579 the numbers had grown to such an extent that was unworkable – so the hereditary tenement owners administered the island.

The tenants formed the Chief Pleas – the island's Parliament – which administered Sark for the next 343 years.

By 1922 though, circumstances had left ownership of the tenements in the hands of a small number of individuals.

A constitutional review was held, and it was decided that 12 deputies should be elected. Tenants and deputies then worked side by side in Chief Pleas with very little difference between them; both groups felt they had a duty and an obligation to work for the good of Sark.

But by the 1990s, an increasing number of people were taking advantage of a generous tax regime by buying up tenements as investments, but not actually living on the island.

The nature of the tenants began to change, from working members of the community who inherited their tenements, to off-island owners with little or no connection to Sark life, who nonetheless had the right to sit in Chief Pleas and legislate for the island.

More profound legal issues also grew in prominence. Sark is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), and was increasingly subject to challenges on the basis of its lack of universal suffrage. With this in mind, our Chief Pleas began a constitutional review in 1999.

The composition of Chief Pleas itself was left to the last, being the most emotive issue. Sark tenants whose families had given centuries of service to the island were upset that their contribution was apparently being ignored.

Few on Sark really wanted change, and felt that the old system worked very well - but we had signed the EHCR, and that required an elected government.

A number of combinations were advanced and exhaustively discussed, as the type of tenant continued to change. With a deadlock in Chief Pleas, it was decided to hold an island-wide poll of Sark residents and take the result into account.

This initial poll showed a slim majority in favour of a universally elected Chief Pleas, but our parliament claimed that the turnout was too low and refused to accept the result.

A further plebiscite was commissioned from Electoral Reform Services later that year, which achieved a turnout of 89.5% and a 12% majority in favour of a fully-elected government. The Chief Pleas finally accepted the result, and the Reform Law was agreed.

But the traditionalists were not finished yet. At the first Meeting of Chief Pleas in 2007 a member convinced the assembly that it was still possible to have seats dedicated to tenants. The Reform Law was retracted - to the fury of the Sark inhabitants, who by now were keen for a taste of democracy.

Since then, battle has re-commenced. At the end of 2007, Chief Pleas eventually accepted a compromise agreement, with a binding referendum to finally determine its composition.

But at the turn of this year, the Lord Chancellor looked at this long-running attempt at reform and decided the changes were fundamentally undemocratic, and against the will of Sark's people.

The compromise law was withdrawn and Chief Pleas, after much discussion, agreed subject to final agreement this month, to become fully elected.

In early February, Michael Wills MP, Minister with responsibility for the Crown Dependencies visited the island to convince Chief Pleas, and the public, that the final version of the Reform Law must be passed immediately, if Sark is to fulfil its legal requirements and hold elections in December.

An Extraordinary Meeting of Chief Pleas on 21st February will make the final decision – but the march of English-style democracy into Sark now seems inevitable.

Image: Chapel Studios for Sark Tourism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times