Sark through the pages
Thursday 4th October 2012, 5:00PM BST.
THE residents of Sark must be bemused by the never-ending stream of advice they receive from outsiders.
Half the time they are urged to resist becoming ‘Anywhere-on-Sea’ and instead remain the unique, quirky and charming community we all love to visit.
The rest of the time they are encouraged to embrace modernity and come into the 21st century with their laws, government and administration.
It’s hard not to sympathise with islanders who ask why they should give a fig what outsiders think when it’s none of their business. But the days are long gone when any territory could determine its own way of doing things, entirely detached from international standards of human rights, law and public administration.
As for the apparently contradictory bits of advice Sark so often receives, they’re actually not mutually exclusive at all. In fact, I’m sure both positions are held concurrently by many Sark natives, as well as those looking in from outside.
It is possible to build a democracy that respects the human and civil rights of all residents without becoming just a clone of bigger communities with a fraction of Sark’s character and charm. Indeed, the people of Sark have already gone a long way down that path in a relatively short time. They deserve credit for telescoping constitutional changes which elsewhere have taken centuries.
When the process is complete, it’s just begging for a book to be written on Sark’s constitutional and legal metamorphosis of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It shouldn’t only cover the technical changes, but also the many human stories involved in the extraordinary transformation from neo-feudalism to a modern but unique system of governance.
Whether that publication includes a chapter on the ‘Brecqhou effect’ is an open question and may require legal advice. But the three main chapters are obvious.
1. The end of primogenitor. The modernisation of Sark’s law of inheritance was not only right, but long overdue. I love the seemingly unchanging nature of Sark, but the truth is that it does change – just more slowly than the rest of the world.
A law which insisted that real property went solely to the eldest male heir may have made perfect sense when Sark was a mainly agrarian community vulnerable to attack. Farming was based around the 40 tenements that needed to be kept intact to provide efficient agricultural holdings and to furnish an armed man each for the defence of the island. But this sexist/ageist law had become absurd long before it was scrapped.
2. The Chief Pleas becoming fully democratic. Again, long overdue and simply reflecting the evolution of Sark as a community. When Helier de Carteret resettled the island and decided the heads of all 40 households who went with him should have a seat in Chief Pleas, he created one of the most democratic communities in the world. Hundreds of years on, having seats in parliament reserved for the owners of specific properties, some of which were holiday homes, was indefensible. To the surprise of many, the people of Sark agreed and voted for democratic reform in a historic referendum.
3. The modernisation of Sark’s public administration, which is under way now. Here I have considerably more reservations about the wisdom of radical reform. It’s right in principle that elected conseillers should stick to making policy and not implementing it. But whether a community the size of Sark needs so many politicians if their role is to be reduced so much is questionable. What worries me more is the suggestion that Sark establishes a professional civil service – or rather what it might eventually morph into. The law of topsy is almost as hard to resist as the law of gravity and, sometimes, tiny communities simply have to do things differently.
Even if Sark decides to totally separate the decision-making role from the administrative one, the latter could, in theory, still be voluntary. But that may be problematic, with an unpaid post proving hard to recruit quality candidates to. So a tiny, one man/woman paid public service may well be justified.
But if it doesn’t cope, perhaps because of wholly unfair and unreasonable outside pressures, what do you do? You obviously expand it. Soon a part-time post becomes a civil service, four- or five-strong, costing more than Sark could possibly afford.
Unless of course it started charging its wealthier residents far higher taxes.
But that would be a whole new chapter of my proposed book.