Thursday, 26 November 2015

Sark and the Sharks

Sark has problems, but there are ones not addressed in the letter written by Frank Walker et alia.

There is no doubt that there are divisions in Sark between the more established families, and those who have come in, mainly I suspect, as a result of the Barclay brothers boost to the economy.

The decision to close the Barclay brother’s hotels appears to have nothing to do with failing tourism, but seems to be more of a political decision. The problems with the economy partly stem from that, and the extra population which has grown as a result of them pumping money into the economy. In the past eight years, as the "New Yorker" notes, they have bought up almost a quarter of the land on Sark, and a number of its businesses.

The hotels are not the only time they have used economic forces for political ends. For it is not the first time they closed businesses on the Island – they also did so immediately after the 2008 elections on universal suffrage – after they Reforms they asked for – failed to produce any wins for their own slate of chosen candidates.

When it became apparent that only about five candidates they had supported had been elected, as the Daily Express reported, the Barclay brothers announced that they were shutting down their businesses on Sark — hotels, shops, estate agents and building firms - leaving about 100 people, or a sixth of the population, out of work.

Not one of the other hotels, guest houses or self-catering accommodation is reported as having closed – the letter only and notably only reports on the Barclay brothers hotels which were closed because they decided to close them. Was that political? It came shortly after they had lost a court case about the new constitution. Coincidence? Did the letter writers notice the pattern of events was like that of 2008?

In 2014, when the decision was taken that the hotels should close in 2015 supposedly because of a poor season, Sark's Tourism Committee chairwoman Sandra Williams told Channel Television: "Although this is unfortunate... Sark is still very much open for business." She said: "We are perplexed about the decision to close their hotels when this season has been so successful." And Conseiller Andy Cook, chairman of Sark Shipping Committee which runs the regular passenger services to the island, said passenger number had risen from 48,655 in 2013 to 50,521 in 2014. These facts seem to have been overlooked by the letter writers.

Avenue Stores & Newsagents is one of three general stores on the island and has closed. Is this a sign of declining tourism, as most of the media report, or could it be that the Barclay brothers, who are the landlords of the newsagent, might have decided to pull the plug to put extra pressure on Sark residents?

Everyone now gets to vote, and it’s an Island wide vote. The system is representation like the Island wide Senatorial elections in Jersey. Sark First want an electoral system which will give them more power. Their spokesman says: “"If you get 51% of the vote at the moment you get 100% of the seats, this is not fair to the other 49%”.

But the same could be said of Jersey's First Past the Post system, or even the multi-member Island wide Senatorial elections, or the multi-member constituencies for Deputies. Not one of the signatories seems to address the issue of voting mechanisms in their own homeland. That's surprising as Pierre Horsfall, Frank Walker and Terry Le Sueur were elected Senators on a virtually identical system.

In the 2008 election, ninety per cent of Sark’s voters turned out for the election. They rejected seven of nine candidates that the Barclay's Sark News had endorsed as the island’s “safe pairs of hands,” and elected nine of twelve candidates that the News had blacklisted.

There is certainly a problem - general elections were due to be held in Sark on 10 December 2014. However, only 16 candidates stood for the 16 seats in the Chief Pleas, meaning that all were elected unopposed without a public vote being required. But it has to be asked: why did Sark First field no candidates? Perhaps their support is not as great as their talent for media publicity?

This situation is not a problem specific to Sark – Jersey also has that problem, something the letter writers failed to note, where candidates get in unopposed. In fact, Jersey has many small electoral districts where this happens often, for both Deputy and Constable's elections. 

To ask a Royal Commission to step in, where the QC comes from a country where First Past the Post is the accepted method of election, is to stretch credulity. Why on earth would they recommend something other than what they knew, just as Cecil Clothier tried to do with his recommendations?

To say, as Sam Mezec has, that it is not democratic – something also mentioned in the Sark letter – is to overlook the substantial reforms from when it was just Sark Tenants – a special and limited category – who had a vote.

It would also mean that the UK is not a democracy, Jersey is not a democracy, but the EU Parliament (hardly a model for good government, and dominated by powerful voting blocks) is a democracy - because it has Proportional Representation. Just to have a vote does not make a democracy, but Sark conforms to accepted voting parameters that other democracies have accepted.

The Barclay brothers did well to change the old Feudal system, but it would be a mistake to see it as an act of pure altruism – in my opinion, and that of other commentators, they basically have wanted to take over the running of Sark as their own pocket fiefdom. Remember that as the New Yorker reported, "David Barclay wrote to Michael Beaumont, offering to buy his title for two million pounds and to relinquish all the privileges associated with it to Chief Pleas"

And are the letter writers acting out of altruism? Whose interests are the signatories to the letter supporting? Is it the people of Sark, or the Barclay brothers? Or are Guernsey and Jersey after a power sharing arrangement where Sark is demoted to a vassal state, rather like Alderney?

On the radio, one or two of the letter writers have voiced points raised in a serious and concerned tone of voice. Sounding convincing  is, however, one of the dark arts that politicians learn when speaking in public, as long as they know when the microphone is turned on. It is something they share in common with advertisers and double-glazing salesmen.

But as it turns out, as Peter Roffey observes, they have not met with Chief Pleas, the government of Sark, at all, to discuss the contents of the letter, much of which, in any case, are rather sweeping generalisations hiding complex changes in Sark's economy.

The population has been falling, and the survey by Sark Electricity shows there are now 492 residents, down from 542 last year. But part of that is certainly due to the Barclay's decision to close hotels. In Sark, the unemployed who have come to the Island in more recent years tend to emigrate. In Jersey, they claim Income Support.

Peter Roffey, writing in the Guernsey Press, has a number of solid points to make against the writers of the letter, especially the former politicians of Jersey, and I reprint it below.

Peter Roffey's Comments on Sark

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the call from 22 individual Channel Islanders for a Royal Commission-type inquiry into the future of Sark.

Even taking into account the no doubt well-meaning intentions of these self-appointed guardians of Sark’s fortunes, I can only come to one conclusion.

That they’ve got a lot of barefaced cheek.

What on earth gives their calls any legitimacy at all? As far as I can tell, not one of them is a Sark resident. They say they have the right to speak out because they are Channel Islanders and ‘we are all in this together’. What bunkum.

The ‘Channel Islands’ is a geographical term, not a political one, and each island is independent, with its own elected political administration. The only exception is the fiscal and partial political union between Alderney and Guernsey, which was instigated to help the northern isle recover from the ravages of the Second World War.

That was entered into freely by both parties and could be terminated on the same basis.

If just living in the same archipelago gives us the right to call for inquiries into the way the other islands are being run, then why stop at Sark? Personally, I’ve got a few questions about the way the States of Jersey are running their island. Should I get a few kindred spirits together and call for an external inquiry? To be fair, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, so perhaps a few nosy parkers from Jersey could lobby HMG to set up an inquiry into the way Guernsey is governed and its economic prospects?

Of course, to be consistent with the actions of ‘the magnificent 22’ such calls will need to be made public without any prior consultation with the democratically elected governments concerned. Rather, the people’s representatives in the respective jurisdictions should learn about these unofficial attempts to subvert their legitimacy by reading about them in the newspaper.

One of the 22, Rupert Dorey, tried to justify the fact that this self-appointed quango of the righteous had wholly failed to engage with Chief Pleas before calling for outside intervention in Sark’s affairs. In fact he made a virtue of it. ‘Of course we were careful not to engage with anybody in Sark before going public in case it was seen as taking sides.’

Unbelievable. Since when has talking to the legitimate, democratically elected, government of a territory been taking sides?

I accept that there are some in Sark, just like in Guernsey, who have no time for their government or its policies. As an outsider I am certainly not going to opine on how well or otherwise Sark is being run. What I do know, though, is that every two years the Sarkees have the opportunity to change their politicians through the ballot box if they are unhappy with the way their island is being run. It wasn’t always thus but it is now, and the people of Sark have taken to full democracy like a duck to water, with turn-outs which make Guernsey’s electoral participation look very lame indeed.

Chief Pleas might be a super government or an awful government or somewhere in-between, but it is the government chosen by the people being governed in fair and free elections. For them to learn through the media that a bunch of self-appointed arbiters of Sark’s best interests is calling for outside investigations into the way their community is run is outrageous.

Sark is being plagued by some internal ructions that have resulted in rather sad personal tensions and blighted the island’s economy. This needs to be worked through. But it’s shameful that when the island has been (rightly) pushed into democratic reform, outsiders should then try to undermine its autonomy and the legitimacy of its government.

Just think about it. How would we feel if a bunch of bigwigs from Jersey suddenly popped up out of the blue and called for an external review of the way Guernsey is being run?

The answer would be a short one and would involve going forth and multiplying. What’s different? In the circumstances I think the reaction of Chief Pleas has been very restrained and polite.

The reality is that Sark does have difficulties and tensions.

It is clearly for that community alone to work through those problems, however long or difficult that process may be.

I only hope this latest ill-advised intervention hasn’t done anything to make that even harder to achieve.

Referenced News Stories


Deputy Sam Mézec said...

More bizarre arguments Tony.

Sark has a parliament in which the largest minority has 100% of the seats. I really can't understand how any one could defend that.

How democratic or undemocratic the UK, Jersey or the EU are is totally irrelevant.

TonyTheProf said...

In 2008, in St Helier No 2, JDA candidates Geoff Southern, Shona Pitman and Debbie de Sousa took all three seats in the St Helier No. 2 constituency.

The largest minority taking 100% of the seats, representing 10% of the electorate.

I think you'll find that Sark fares better.

Sark candidates are all independent, and in 2008, pretty well all those elected had supported reform. They just weren't the Barclays candidates.

The County Councils in England have parties, and also has election in the same way. Most are multi-member constituencies. In the election, the candidates to receive the most votes win, in a system known as the multi-member plurality system. That's exactly the same as St Helier No 2, as the Senatorials, and as Sark.

I have no objection to you wanting to reform both Jersey, Sark, and the County Councils in England. But don't present Sark's electoral system as some kind of weird and therefore unfair anomaly: it isn't.

The Labour party in the UK doesn't seem to have had much of a liking for any kind of proportional representation, as can be seen by their lacklustre support for the Alternative Vote. Ed Milliband did not included PR in the 2015 manifesto, despite a campaign to do so.

Even if they are changing their position, I have yet to hear widespread condemnation of the County Council elections with multi-member plurality as undemocratic.

How democratic the UK and Jersey are is totally relevant insoffar as you are trying to suggest Sark is a contrived system which has been designed to exclude voters, and which is somehow unique to Sark. The same issues arise in Jersey and the UK, with the same degree of systemic problems - more so, because there are clear cut parties in the UK, and voter brand loyalty.

Someone should put a proposition to make St Helier No 1 or No 2 a pilot case for PR and set the ball rolling. The current system just can't be defended.

TonyTheProf said...

2007 Local Elections:

In Birmingham, Bury, Bradford, Wirral, Bolton, Darlington and Portsmouth a majority voted for one party but woke to find another party with fewer votes had seized control, thanks to the distortions of our first-past-the-post system.
In yet more councils results and votes were wildly out of kilter: in Brentwood the Tories won 11 of 13 seats on 37% of the vote. In Sunderland Labour won 75% of the seats on 43% of the vote. In Eastbourne the Lib Dems got fewer than half the votes but 20 of 27 seats.

I think the case for PR is proven by results like these, but the fact is that no one seems to want it.

A better of way of supporting change in Sark would be to demonstrate it back home first, otherwise they could justifiably point a finger at Jersey and ask why we haven't done it, if it is so wonderful. Put our own house in order, then ask them to follow suit.

Incidentally Guernsey has large electoral districts and multi-member plurality system of voting.