Friday, 12 December 2008

12 December 2008

How often do I get the chance to write about the transition from feudalism to democracy these days? Not often, is the answer. So when the opportunity arises, I grab it.

The island of Sark is one of those places you need a powerful magnifying glass to find on the map. It’s the smallest of the Channel Islands, just off the northern coast of France – and it’s in the news today because only now is it experiencing the uncertain pleasures of a democratic political system.

In the words of the official Sark government website: “Sark holds a unique position within the Channel Islands, which themselves hold an unusual position in Her Majesty's possessions, in that they are not part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain nor are they sovereign states. Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark have their own insular legislature, judicial system and administration.”

Which means, for example, no income tax, no health service, no unemployment benefit and no old age pension. And until yesterday, no fully-elected parliament (which is called the Chief Pleas. Please don’t ask me why.)

The main investors in Sark are multi-millionaire twin brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. They’re not great fans of feudalism, and they lobbied to introduce a fully-elected parliament, which they fondly believed would be much more likely to welcome their ideas for reform and modernisation.

It seems they were wrong. The islanders have elected a parliament made up overwhelmingly of representatives who were not on the Barclays’ most-favoured list. As a result, the Barclays have started shutting down their businesses on Sark. “The islanders got what they wished for,” was the stark comment from their lawyer.

I visited Sark once, more than 20 years ago. The man in charge, then as now, was the Seigneur, Michael Beaumont – I described him at the time as “a most friendly man with a relaxed manner and a ready smile … he reminded me of the better kind of headmaster, living in semi-retirement somewhere, perhaps in East Anglia.” Not a typical feudal ruler.

He owns every inch of Sark (it’s not a vast area, about two square miles, with a total of 600 people living on it). He’s the only man allowed to keep pigeons, and the only man allowed to keep an unspayed bitch. And now he has to come to terms with democracy.

More to the point, so do the islanders. According to the Barclays’ lawyer, the brothers have been investing about £5 million a year in Sark – and that’s now going to stop, because, in effect, the islanders elected the wrong people to parliament.

Democracy can sometimes be expensive. And 12 days before Christmas, about 140 people have lost their jobs. How odd that, in 2008, they should be reflecting that they might have been better off if they’d stuck with feudalism.

I’ll be in a very different sort of democracy next week: on Thursday, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme, live from Washington, in which we’ll be discussing with a panel of experts Barack Obama’s foreign policy priorities as he prepares to take office next month. I hope it’ll provide us with a real insight into what changes to expect after George Bush’s eight years in the White House. So I hope you’ll be able to tune in, either on air or online.

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