Yes, the step forward made by the islanders of Sark, from feudal rule to representative democracy, wasn’t to the pleasing of the billionaire brothers.
The candidates they favoured were rejected by the voters of Sark.
So now a sixth of the island’s population will face unemployment – with no welfare state, that’s some hardship coming a few weeks before Christmas.
The Barclay brother’s defenders on Sark published a list of candidates that islanders should not vote for. Some of the grounds for this are curious: tax reform, specifically an income tax directed at the wealthy; changes to the land ownership system; and employment legislation. One successful candidate, Jan Guy is described thusly:
Let’s hope those enterprises abandoned by their billionaire owners are nationalised under workers’ control, then!
Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, owners of the Telegraph newspapers and the Ritz, responded by announcing the closure of their hotels, shops, a restaurant and other businesses. Building work was suspended.
The brothers did not stand in the election, but even as a recount was continuing it appeared that not one of their favoured candidates had secured a seat on Chief Pleas, the island’s parliament, which is presided over by the hereditary Seigneur.
They had brought the end of nearly 450 years of feudalism when they challenged the island’s law of primogeniture – the right of the firstborn to inherit an estate – prompting the island to review its constitution. A majority favoured a fully elected parliament but there was strong opposition to the Barclays, who wanted to make the Seigneur a ceremonial position, to have tractors replaced by electric vehicles and to build a helipad.
On an island without cars, street lights or tarmac roads such proposals were regarded as alarmingly modern. Many accused the brothers of trying to take control. Their representatives strongly denied this.
Sir David had said before the election that they would “reconsider our investment programme” if the island Establishment was reelected, and he proved as good as his word.
Talks were held between Kevin Delaney, who runs their operations on Sark, and senior members of the Chief Pleas in an attempt to find a way in which he could be involved in the decision-making process, perhaps with a coopted place on committees. But with no offer made by 5pm a decision was made to shut down.
“There’s no point, as they see it, to continue spending £5 million per an-num investing in the economy when the electorate have plainly said that they neither want nor are interested in that investment being made,” Gordon Dawes, the Barclays’ lawyer, said.
“They have devoted a lot of time, energy, effort and money to Sark, for not only no thanks but positive insult and rebuff. Nobody in their right mind would carry on spending money on such a community.”
Mr Dawes added that if the community made a serious approach to involve the brothers’ representatives they would reconsider. “The door is open. They are not unreasonable people, but they cannot be expected to carry on doing business on an island that is so against them. Sark needs Brecqhou more than Brecqhou needs Sark.”
This was a reference to the rock islet off the coast of Sark where the Barclays live in the huge castle that they built. They own six of the forty tenements on Sark, the parcels of land into which the island was divided in Elizabethan times. The brothers have four of the island’s seven hotels, as well as a pub, shops and other businesses. They employ dozens of people out of a population of 600.
Mr Delaney, who formerly oversaw the refurbishment of the Ritz, was among the 57 candidates – 12 per cent of the electorate of 474 – but did not win one of the 28 seats in Chief Pleas. The Sark News, a pithy pamphlet published by a company owned by the Barclays, savaged those who opposed their goals and issued a list of candidates it believed could not be entrusted with the future of the island. This so enraged islanders that it appeared to have achieved the opposite of the desired effect. The Barclays were left with even less of a voice than they had under the feudal system.
Before the shut-down the Seigneur, Michael Beaumont, 80, who had faced losing his influence and possibly his annual stipend of £28,000 if the Chief Pleas had been controlled by supporters of the brothers, said he was delighted that 87 per cent of the electorate had voted, leaving “no doubt as to which way the electorate wish the island to go”.
He said: “Now that we have a fully elected, fully democratic Chief Pleas and the constitutional issues are all but settled, we can concentrate on domestic issues.”
Diana Beaumont, his wife, said: “They were the ones that started all this democracy business, now they don’t like it because they haven’t won.” She said that that the Barclays’ attempt to negotiate for a seat on committees was “like saying, ‘We’ve lost the race and we want the cup’.”
She added: “It’s very sad. Some people are going to lose their jobs. But maybe somebody else can come and run their hotels without threatening to close them.”
Road to democracy
1993 Barclay brothers purchase Brecqhou, a tiny island adjacent to Sark, for £2.33 million. They pay £179,230 tax to the Lord of Sark
1996 They send a writ to Sark’s Seigneur challenging his authority over Brecqhou
1999 Sark changes inheritance laws after threats from Barclay brothers to take the Government to the European Court of Human Rights. Previously, only the eldest son could inherit property. Now landowner decides who inherits
2000 Brothers recognise Sark’s authority over Brecqhou
2005 Legal challenge against changes that could threaten Barclay’s “tax-haven” status
2006 Islanders vote by 234 to 184 to abolish Sark’s 450-year-old feudal system of government
21 February, 2008 Chief Pleas approve a law that introduces a 30-member chamber, with 28 elected members and two unelected members
December 2008 Democratic elections held on Sark