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