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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 13:22 GMT
Shedding tears for Sark
The Magazine's review of blogs
By Alan Connor

Sark's about to jump from 16th Century feudal law to 21st Century democracy. Meet the bloggers who are shedding a tear for the treasured island.

Sark. It doesn't get talked about much. An island overseen by the Queen, but not part of the UK. Instead of cars, battery-powered buggies and helicopters. And very few bloggers among the company directors who make up most of the population.

Mainland bloggers, though, are following the news on Sark. And they've got reason to be interested, if you call the overthrow of five centuries of tradition interesting.

Sark is Europe's last feudal state

Sark is, in fact, Europe's last feudal state, but not for much longer. Since Elizabeth I's time, the island has been ruled by 22 "Seigneurs" - Elizabeth thought this a good way of keeping pirates at bay - under whom the 16th Century remains alive and well.

Bloggers, being either an inquisitive bunch or easily amused, are not without their fans of Sark's idiosyncratic ways, a case in point being the custom of Clameur De Haro, whereby a man who feels his rights infringed has only to recite the Lord's prayer (in French) and cry out "Haro, Haro, Haro!" in order to secure legal protection.

As Alex at Ornois muses:

    "I almost want to go there just so I can do this. How great would it be if this were the law here? Memo to self: learn Lord's Prayer in French."

What's changing, though, is less quaint: the Constitutional Steering Committee has come up with proposals for a new system of government based on election by universal suffrage. If it is approved by Chief Pleas, another poll will be held in December 2006 under the new rules.

Revolutionary billionaires

Universal suffrage? South Africa and Iraq have beaten Sark to it, then, but this vote has come not on the back of military intervention, nor of a popular movement, but because of some new neighbours who just happen to be billionaires.

As Lewis Baston dryly remarks at Make My Vote Count:

    "Yes, from 2006 one person one vote may be coming to the island, although - we don't want to be hasty - it hasn't been finalised.
    The challenge to the existing rules, that include Droit de Seigneur (relax, only over property sales), comes not so much from the forces of democracy as the forces of plutocracy, as the Barclay brothers challenged the current system before the Privy Council.
    The judicial role of the Privy Council is hardly more defensible, but there we are."

It's fair to say this is probably the first revolution initiated by a pair of identical twins in their 70s. In 1993, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, owners of the Ritz, Littlewoods and The Scotsman, bought Brecqhou - one of the islands off Sark - and built a 60m gothic-style fortress there.

Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly review of blogs
Usually the reason people move to the Channel Islands is to avoid the UK's tax system, but the Barclays weren't enamoured of the equivalent on Sark: having to pay the Seigneur a "treizième" on their purchase - that's 179,000 in the new money.

Ever since, the twins have been fighting various parts of Sark's constitution, and claim to have spent 1.75m researching "Norman, feudal, constitutional and human rights law" and pushing to modernise the rules on tax, inheritance, and now, through their reference to the European Convention on Human Rights, the very nature of government.

Throughout the process, it hasn't just been blogs like Barclay Watch that have been paying attention; nor has there been universal approval of the changes.

Democracy can wait

Among conservative bloggers, both big C and small, some feel that a feudal system without serfs isn't such a terrible state of affairs, and not everyone is clamouring for democracy. Over in California, Daniel Uribe of The Mechanical Eye wipes away a tear:

    "What a weird anachronism this place is! It's a pity faraway bureaucrats ended this - politically, this island is a museum piece, and I doubt the 'human rights' of this island's 40 tenants was much in dispute before this change.
    While the island is ready for this, it's filled with the melancholy typical of those sympathetic to Albion's past."

And back in Northamptonshire, those words "human rights" are always going to be a red rag to some blogging bulls. At Samizdata, Paul Marks finds that most of his bugbears are present and correct in the story:

    "Finally consider the off the cuff remarks of the Seigneur (Michael Beaumont) 'nothing much is human rights compliant here' and 'of course we will have to have a lot of civil servants now'.
    I think this tells us what we need to know about a lot of modern conceptions of 'human rights' and 'democracy'."

Some value idiosyncrasy for its own sake; some consider Clameur De Haro to be all the human rights one needs; some are fond of Sark as a symbol of a resistance to tax.

Despite the best efforts of the conservative blogs, though, it seems unlikely that the Seigneur will risk displeasing his "supreme feudal overlord" (Elizabeth II), and the Early Modern period may be about to come to a end.

Haro, Haro, Haro? Goodbye.

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