Friday, 22 February 2008

Of Senescals and Democracy, Ceiling Wax and Kings

Guess what? An obscure island in the English channel with a population of 600 people has just decided to change the way it is administrated. I know. I can hardly stand the excitement either.

Actually, the story of Sark's transition to democracy is an interesting, instructive and rather odd one. Sark, like its bigger neighbours Guernsey and Jersey, is a bit of a legal oddity, being a Crown Dependency and hence neither part of the United Kingdom nor the European Union - yet not quite a sovereign state in its own right. (Though it does, along with Guernsey, have its own special internet domain.) It has lived an isolated and peaceful existence for centuries and its development has therefore been rather 'slow': it doesn't even have motorized transportation, for example. This extends to its government also - until the present day the island has had a feudal government, wherein forty hereditary landowners make all necessary decisions and pass laws in a parliament known as 'Chief Pleas'.

The existence of such a system worries people of a certain nature, however, and those people have in recent years been putting pressure on the people of Sark to respect 'human rights' and institute genuine democracy: the island is not subject to the European Charter on Human Rights but the UK is, and it bears responsibility for ensuring its dependencies abide by the law contained in that treaty.

The most instructive and telling remark in the new story is that made by the Seneschal, Lt. Col. Reg Guille, who commented that "In its day, Sark had a very democratic system. The settlers ran the island." That rings true, and it seems rather strange to me that the island is being forced into adopting democracy when there is apparently no pressing internal need or desire to do so. In fact the current feudal system seems to better represent democracy in the truest sense than it is on the mainland - presumably everybody on the island knows all 40 of the hereditary landowners and can communicate directly to them their needs and have them addressed in parliament, which the average Britain can only do in the most indirect and convoluted way.

Sark's story demonstrates to us two things. Firstly, there is a substantial minority of people in the human rights movement who wear the masks of campaigners against injustice but are actually little better than busybodies. (Just think: the people who worried enough about an obscure island of 600 perfectly happy people somewhere between France and England to actively campaign about its method of government could have spent that time, you know, trying to do something about human rights in Iran.) Secondly, it should serve to make people think about what democracy actually is and means, what form it should take, and what exactly it is about it that makes it the system we should use. It seems that those questions are blithely swept over in the political discourses at both domestic and international levels, when they really are some of the most important issues for people in the kinds of societies we live in to grapple with. For example, why is it that we consider general elections to be democratic when less than half the population votes in them and the ruling party is consequently usually only actually elected by around 28% of the population? And why is that better than what Sark has (or had)?

Ho hum. I doubt life in Sark will change much, in any case. I think I'll allow them anything so long as they don't stop calling their head of government "Seneschal Lt. Col."


John said...

Thanks for the information. Had somebody in the US known of the existence of such a place, they surely would've moved against it long ago. We are always trying to help somebody that doesn't want our help!

I guess people are the same on your side of the Atlantic.

Bilbo said...

This is a most interesting and perceptive post. I have often believed that democracy is not, in fact, the best form of government in all cases. True participatory democracy requires a fairly tightly-knit and well-informed population with an interest in taking part in its own governance. In the case of Sark, all these things appear to apply...but the "undemocratic" traditional system seemed to work just fine. Why change? John's right...if our government had known about this bastion of non-democracy earlier, we'd have probably figured out a pretext to invade it, wreck it, and impose democracy on the remains, thereby thoroughly angering another 600 people. Thanks for this interesting commentary!

zero_zero_one said...

Hmm... Are there any untapped natural oil or gas reserves on Sark?

Peter Cole, Sark resident. said...

You seem to think that we have a system worth saving, and are being forced to change. Not so. The majority of Sark residents have voted more than once to get rid of the feudal system. Think how it would work where you live: your MP (or Congressman) decides to retire, or dies, and whoever takes over his house, by inheritance or by real estate purchase, becomes your new MP (or Congressman), even if it's only one of their holiday homes and they are resident elsewhere. You have no say in it. Oh, and if they are unwell they can send anyone else they choose, their lawyer, say, to take their seat and make decisions on your behalf. As we are largely self-governing, these decisions cover issues such as taxation, building control, road traffic laws, liquor licencing, divorce, adoption, as well as Sark's internations relations.

Of the 40 Tenements (estates holding a government seat) just one remains in the hands of the original 16th century settler family. Just 6 of the present Tenants inherited their property and seat in government; the others all bought theirs. They could be seen advertised on real estate websites.

Are you really arguing that this is better than democracy? You would have to be a Tenant to believe that!

noisms said...

Paul's comment is a very interesting one. I should say first of all that what I know of Sark is mostly garnered from things I've read over the years, so I have to bow to the superior knowledge of a resident.

That said, Paul, while I understand your complaints, I don't necessarily believe that direct 'parliamentary' democracy in the naive sense is the best solution; what might work better would be to create laws whereby 'outsiders' (or people who just intend on buying a nice new holiday home) with no connection to the island are prevented from either becoming tenants or else from abusing their status as such. I'm sure that can be accomplished without the level of changes that are currently being implemented.

But I'm in no position to lecture Sark residents on how they should run their own affairs, so I'll leave it at that!

Bilbo said...

I think it's great that you actually heard from a resident of Sark on this. His commentary is a really good look at how things appear from the "other side."