The quirkiest of the British Isles is a self-governing jurisdiction between Guernsey and France just over three miles long and less than two miles wide. Sark has its own parliament, its own taxes and its own traffic laws (permitting only tractors, bikes and horse-drawn vehicles). Its central, fertile plateau is protected by cliffs on almost all sides that rise to over three hundred feet. There are no natural harbours. In 1862, the lords of the Admiralty of the world’s greatest naval power came to inspect its defences but sailed away, finding nowhere suitable to disembark. Whenever strong easterlies made it impossible to land at Creux beach, travellers had to anchor at Havre Gosselin instead, which meant mounting a precarious fifty-step ladder straight up the rocks: a proper jetty was built only in 1912. Walkers could access one of the best beaches, at Port es Saies, by means of a rope hanging over the cliff.
Victorians and Edwardians who took this sort of thing in their stride made Sark a tourist destination. Once steamers opened the Channel Islands to British travellers in the 1830s, Sark’s salubrious air and equable climate became celebrated. Visitors admired rocks rising out of the sea like titanic cathedrals. They scrambled over the cliffs, marvelling at the stupendous impact of time and tide – and the Creator – on these superficially solid forms. They waded or swam into caves accessible only at low tide, where sea urchins, sponges and anemones shimmered like jewels. When Sybil Collings inherited the island fiefdom to become Dame of Sark in 1927, she had already stamped her authority on it by climbing and swimming around the whole coastline, though one of her legs was two and a half inches shorter than the other. In the 1930s, the young Alan Turing went skinny-dipping off the rocks, photographed by an enthusiastic housemaster.
Sark’s appeal remains its rugged coastal scenery, sunshine, peacefulness, birds, butterflies, dolphins and absence of carbon monoxide. Artists have come for 150 years: the pre-Raphaelite William Toplis; Mervyn Peake and the Sark Art Group; the New Zealander Rhona Haszard. In 1815, an admirer lamented that Rousseau had died before discovering his ideal island. Swinburne wanted to be its king and drink ‘rapture of rest’. Temperatures avoid extremes; camellias bloom at Christmas. The very competitive mathematician and ocean-wave expert Sir James Lighthill swam the ten miles around Sark five times; on his sixth attempt, in 1998, he ruptured a heart valve. Sark is the world’s first Dark Sky Island, benefiting from an absence of streetlights. Its leading politician became a powerboating world champion in 2014. Another parliamentarian recently organised an Imbolc immersion weekend to celebrate the end of winter: hardy nature-worshippers foraged for greens, communed with trees, danced in the sea and made wands. Prince Charles, visiting in 1995, enthused about Sark’s uniqueness and urged the locals not to change.
What Sark has never offered is luxury. Victorian writers attributed the longevity of the residents to daily exercise, strong breezes and seaweed, as well as hard work and no fashionable amusements. They noted approvingly the lack of beggars. Nor was the island deemed to need a doctor until some Cornish miners arrived in the 1830s. Today, many visitors aim to step back in time; carriage rides are available. Tarmac would be inconceivable and so the roads remain dirt tracks. In the dry summers they can evoke the Wild West. After a rain-heavy winter, the mud is more reminiscent of Civil War Atlanta in Gone with the Wind.
For more than a hundred years, tourism has been nurtured by annual events designed to attract visitors while amusing the locals. In the 1920s, the Sark Regatta provided a day of swimming, diving, pillow fights and greasy pole competitions inside the harbour’s Victorian breakwater. The annual harbour carnival and the greasy pole survive, albeit tamed by health and safety concerns. Animal shows began in 1908, enticing wealthy Americans looking for cattle. In 1928, Dame Sibyl inaugurated a land sports day: the highlight was the chase after a greased pig. Nowadays, the dog and pet show offers prizes not just for best pedigree and best cross-breed, but for the most unsocial pet, the waggiest tail, and owners’ proficiency with egg and spoon. At the Sark Sheep Races, which celebrated their silver jubilee in 2022, you can sponsor, or bet on, likely looking champion competitors. Since 2014, an annual lawnmower race up Harbour Hill has allowed frustrated boy (and girl) racers to be petrolheads for the day.
Last year’s sheep races raised £40,000 for a local charity that subsidises residents’ medical prescriptions to UK levels. There is no NHS on Sark: the island pays for a doctor to live there and residents are encouraged to take out private insurance, for potential hospitalisation in Guernsey and an ambulance boat to get there. The Sark government has always given discreet support to poor and elderly residents, but welfare provision is limited. Volunteers run all the emergency services, efficiently. Charitable activity fosters island community spirit and thereby guarantees its own success. New fundraising ideas keep coming: pyjama day in November 2022 was followed by a Christmas light show in December, with a procession of tractors kitted out in tinsel, festive illuminations and the occasional driver in a reindeer onesie.
Sark’s government has traditionally disliked spending money. Politics has always been dominated by a tenant farmer mentality hostile to taxes and state intrusion. Dame Sibyl, Sark’s greatest publicist, married an American and made several tours of the US, giving her radio audiences the impression that Sark was a feudal state over which she reigned supreme. This has remained a popular misconception, seriously underplaying the power of the tenants. It’s true that the dame or seigneur has held Sark as a Crown fief since Elizabeth I granted the island to Helier de Carteret in 1565, on condition that he defend it against her enemies. He divided the land into forty tenements, each with property rights in perpetuity and reciprocal duties of defence and tithe. (Until 2021, tenements could not be split up, but tenants are now able to sell parcels as freehold land.) From 1579, the tenants formed a parliament, Chief Pleas, together with the seigneur. The seigneur had a right of veto but this was rarely exercised, and was abolished in 1951. The tenants have always been stubbornly independent. The tone in Chief Pleas hardly changed after 1922, when twelve extra seats were allotted to elected deputies of the people.
Chief Pleas has consistently been suspicious of grand plans for reform. This is because tax increases would fall mainly on inhabited property, given tenants’ centuries-old opposition to a bureaucracy capable of administering an inquisitorial income tax. Tenant resistance on grounds of cost delayed all the island’s main infrastructural improvements, including the breakwaters that eventually created Creux and Maseline harbours in their modern forms, in 1866-70 and 1946-49. In 1838, the seigneur’s suggestion of a post office was rejected; letters from Guernsey were left on the beach in baskets until the tenants relented in 1857. In the 1960s, the eminent landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe was invited to produce an island development plan; Chief Pleas rejected it. Fear of incurring debt persists to this day, and Sark has a statute prohibiting it. When the dame acceded in 1927, she boasted that it was probably the only government in the empire without any. Last year the bank balance stood at £1.3 million.
Guernsey, Alderney and Sark are technically the three self-governing parts of one Crown dependency, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, but whereas Alderney, which has four times the population of Sark, has surrendered control over health, education and transport to the politicians of Guernsey, Sark manages all three itself, only ceding sovereignty over technically complex matters such as financial regulation and criminal law. Sark also deals with its own infrastructure and harbours, planning and shipping. Yet its permanent population is only somewhere between 450 and 600. (The census of April 2022 is as yet unprocessed.)
No one can make sense of Sark if they fail to grasp its historical continuities and its property structure. At least, so it seems to me as a historian and now part-time resident: I recently co-bought a house on the island. New arrivals challenge these traditions at their peril. After the First World War, several members of the English officer class retired to Sark and bought or built substantial houses. Captain Mardon donated the Island Hall, a space for concerts, billiards, skittles and shooting. Major Ingram provided a stained glass window, hoping to elevate Sark’s Low Church habits. Captain Platt initiated the Regatta. In return, the dame entertained them with bridge parties and cocktails. But Platt recognised that British retirees should not interfere in local politics. He observed that Sarkees, though scrupulously polite to wealthy interlopers, were determined to keep them out of their affairs. Many tenements have since been bought by Britons, but the advice remains generally sound. It is not that Sark is hostile to immigrants as such: since 1945, there has been constant traffic between the island and the UK, as young British people come for seasonal jobs and end up marrying locals, while adult Sarkee children leave in search of careers or excitement. What this traffic has done, in fact, is strengthen the extensive and intricate family networks which continue to dominate the island.
The wealthy interlopers most determined to flout local traditions were the Barclay brothers. Sir David and Sir Frederick, owners of the Daily Telegraph, became interested in Sark affairs after they bought the small neighbouring island of Brecqhou in 1993 and spent millions on a castle and gardens there. Under Sark’s tax laws, they were liable to pay the treizième, one-thirteenth of the purchase price, directly to the seigneur, a sum estimated at £179,000. Asserting human rights principles, they began a campaign of legal action against seigneurial feudalism. First, they succeeded in overturning Sark’s male-dominated inheritance laws. Then, in 2007, their pressure forced the seigneur and Chief Pleas to abolish the treizième and replace it with a property transfer tax payable to the island. Their complaints also led to the constitutional changes of 2008, which removed the right of the forty tenants to sit in Chief Pleas. The then seigneur, Michael Beaumont (the dame’s grandson), would have preferred a reform settlement which gave tenants and elected deputies an equal number of seats. The Barclays’ lawyers opposed this; the UK Privy Council, which had to assent to the reform, also considered it unsustainable. Therefore, the tenants were removed in favour of 28 directly elected conseillers. Democracy had arrived in Sark.
The Barclays seemed unstoppable. But they were far from satisfied. Their lawyers argued that the reform settlement was a feudal sham, because the seigneur continued to sit in Chief Pleas and to appoint the seneschal, its presiding officer. In 2009, the UK Supreme Court rejected this case, pointing out that it was not easy to envisage a system more likely to represent public opinion than one which supplied one conseiller for every eighteen electors. But in late 2008, the Court of Appeal had upheld the Barclays’ complaint that the dual role of the seneschal, as chief magistrate and president of Chief Pleas, breached the ‘fair trial’ provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Eventually, in early 2013, the two roles were split: the former seneschal resigned to become president of Chief Pleas, and an Old Harrovian crane driver took over as seneschal and magistrate. However, the Barclays continued to complain. It did not escape notice that the new seneschal was the seigneur’s brother-in-law.
More alarming to many Sarkees were the Barclays’ plans for the island economy. Their other main residence was Monaco, noted for its tax haven casino culture. Did they envisage turning Sark into something similar? In 2007, the Barclays bought up several tenements. This gave them control of nearly a quarter of Sark’s arable land, and more specifically of four of the island’s six hotels, one of the two pubs and one side of the main shopping street, the Avenue. They also announced a plan to rebuild a seventh, derelict, hotel as a luxury resort with an adjoining nine-hole golf course.
By the time of the first democratic elections in 2008, the company formed to work on the Barclays’ lands was employing more than a hundred people, probably a quarter of the island’s active workforce. They were renovating hotels and improving the main street, introducing a beauty parlour and photography gallery. The head of these operations was a new resident, Kevin Delaney, a former carpenter whom the Barclays had employed to refurbish their Ritz Hotel in London. Delaney boasted of an expenditure of £200,000 a month in Sark, and talked of a fifteen-year investment programme. A pro-Barclay news sheet, soon to be edited by Delaney, listed election candidates who could be trusted to support this agenda, and twelve opponents who should at all costs be rejected. The islanders found this very helpful: two of the former group and nine of the latter were elected. Delaney declared that the voters had committed commercial suicide and shut down most operations the next day, just before Christmas.
The Barclays’ businesses reopened for the 2009 tourist season, but Delaney warned that the focus would now be on making an immediate return on their investment. The brothers made further enemies by (unsuccessfully) suing the four local residents who were trustees of the Island Hall, demanding the repayment of a £200,000 donation they had made on the grounds that the hall was selling alcohol while also containing a school. The Barclays had offered to pay for a Sark helipad; the government refused to consider one. In January 2012, the seigneur’s wife had to be taken to Guernsey by lifeboat ambulance. Delaney’s Sark Newsletter accused the island’s doctor of negligence for not using the Barclays’ helicopter on Brecqhou. The doctor resigned and left the island; one hundred residents marched to protest at his vilification.
In September 2012, Delaney announced that the Barclays’ investment programme, amounting to £30 million, would be truncated and 70 per cent of their workers laid off. He blamed the anti-growth bias of Sark’s one-party state, which he likened to Nazi Germany, declaring that, so long as it lasted, the island had no future. (Some older residents, who had lived through the German occupation of Sark during the Second World War, found this especially unfunny.) At the same time, Delaney implied that all was not lost: in 2010 the Barclays had turned half their acres into experimental vineyards and there were now plans to plough more land for vines. Conservationists protested; some existing vines were vandalised. The December 2012 election was fought against this backdrop, and the ‘feudal establishment’ triumphed again. Delaney complained to Sir Norman Browse, the official election observer, about a pre-election television interview in which the seneschal had spoken of the need to preserve Sark’s environment. Browse declared that the election had been scrupulously fair.
Browse’s presence was a sign that the British government had also become interested in Sark. It was incurring significant legal costs, since the Barclays’ cases were against the Privy Council, which had assented to Sark’s new constitutional arrangements. Under the Cameron coalition government, relations with the Crown dependencies were the responsibility of a Liberal Democrat, Lord McNally, at the Ministry of Justice. McNally expressed a desire to help Sark become an effective democracy. Within Chief Pleas, a reformist group of conseillers had emerged. Like McNally, they believed that Sark, which had no full-time civil servants, needed professional assistance. They asked Belinda Crowe of the MoJ to assess the island’s needs. In the summer of 2012, her report recommended a small civil service, headed by someone with experience as a chief executive. McNally travelled to Sark to back her up. As a first step, Crowe proposed importing a temporary administrator from another Crown dependency, and one from the Isle of Man was happily available. He came for four months, appointed Browse to observe the election, and wrote seven reports outlining a programme for Sark’s future. In April 2013, the reformers put forward a plan for a permanent administrator to take his work forward. True to form, Chief Pleas rejected the idea. The leader of the reformist group resigned. A month later, the decision was reversed, and Sark’s first senior administrator was appointed: Kath Jones, a former business and strategy manager for the London Borough of Redbridge.
Ten years ago , therefore, Sark was at a crossroads. Change imposed from outside the island seemed inevitable, but would it be dictated by the Barclays, or by a British-style civil service bureaucracy? In fact, neither future has materialised: nothing happens quickly on Sark. Over time, the Barclays greatly reduced their entrepreneurial activity. In May 2013, Delaney threatened that his company would sack more workers unless the Sark government set up a customs post that would bring tourists direct from France, rather than via the other Channel Islands. Just before the 2014 elections, he announced that, because of poor growth prospects, the four Barclay hotels would close for the 2015 summer season. None has operated fully since, though two have now partially reopened, which may herald a more constructive attitude following the death of Sir David in 2021. Since 2015, when the European Court of Human Rights rejected a complaint that the 2008 constitution was undemocratic, the Barclay lawyers have been silent. A few months earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Barclays should not have taken their legal campaign to the UK, since the courts of the Bailiwick of Guernsey had all along been competent to judge complaints against Sark’s constitution under its own human rights legislation.
Few were surprised when the vineyards closed in 2017. The salt-laden gales that can blow across Sark even in summer must have inflated production costs. Nor is there any sign of the luxury golf course (though two locals organised an open golf championship in some sheep fields this April). There is no helipad, while Delaney’s vision of a funicular railway taking ferry passengers up the cliffs also remains on the drawing board. All these plans required extravagant spending, which only the Barclays could afford, on projects which to most people seemed alien to Sark’s identity. Their newsletter declared that the dusty roads were off-putting, but tourists didn’t agree.
The Barclays’ vision was ahistorical – though they were not Sark’s first dreamers. If rumours that they were planning an island casino were true, they were following in the footsteps of the populist journalist and swindler Horatio Bottomley, who in the early 1900s offered the seigneur (William Collings, father of Dame Sybil) £30,000 for the island in the hope of establishing one. Indeed, the Collings family had won the island in 1852 because the then seigneur had mortgaged the fief to them, having lost all his money pursuing ‘Sark’s Hope’, an elusive silver-mining enterprise. The Barclays’ opponents interpreted the closures of the four hotels as a final attempt to bring the island to heel – but also noted that 23 per cent more ferry tickets from Guernsey to Sark were sold in 2019 than when all the hotels were open in 2007, and 15 per cent more than in 2012. Since the closures, more islanders have taken the chance to provide self-catering, bed and breakfast, or glamping. The tourist information leaflet for 2023 lists 246 places available in houses, plus four campsites, in addition to two non-Barclay and two Barclay hotels.
It is certainly the case, however, that Sark’s economy would benefit from attracting more businesses and taxpayers. Environmentally friendly startups might do well: one local entrepreneur recently proposed a seaweed farm, another a sea salt business. Meanwhile a financier, Swen Lorenz, has been wooing digital businesses on the Continent, promising them the chance to operate on an idyllic island without bureaucracy or income tax. Some of these immigrants have settled and become enthusiasts for island life, though others have found the winter climate uncongenial or the educational facilities too basic.
If the Barclays’ interest in Sark has waned, the same cannot be said of the Ministry of Justice, which periodically signals its dissatisfaction with the way that Sark governs itself. This is understandable. The removal of the tenants from Chief Pleas has made the assembly less rather than more vigorous. Since 2013, there have been thirteen elections and by-elections for individual seats, but only one has been contested. There are often fewer candidates than vacancies (two currently), and this is despite a reduction in the total number of conseillers from 28 to 18. In recent years, any qualified resident who wishes to be a conseiller has been elected unopposed – including Delaney in 2021. For years, he compared himself with the radical scourges of the corrupt British establishment in the days before the Reform Acts. Yet he has seemingly found governing less easy. The assembly’s chief characteristic remains its inability to make timely decisions. As there is no executive, policy is in the hands of committees overwhelmed by immediate tasks (currently the problem of electricity supply). Proposals can easily be obstructed by worries about cost or demands for more consultation. Sark’s age-old hostility to spending money continues.
In 2018 and again in 2021, McNally’s respective successors at the MoJ, Lord Keen and Lord Wolfson, wrote to express their concern at the lack of contested elections. It did not trouble these ermined ministers that they had not been elected themselves. Wolfson claimed that Chief Pleas was unsustainable without reform, and criticised the failure to fund an expanded civil service able to provide ‘strategic, evidence-based policy advice’. Yet this idea seems somewhat unrealistic when even teachers and doctors rarely stay for more than a couple of years. The implication of his comments was that Sark should be incorporated as far as possible into Guernsey’s political structure. Most people on both islands would resent that quite a bit.
In April 2023, another body from outside made an appearance on Sark. The Prince’s Foundation was invited by the current seigneur, Christopher Beaumont, to collect information towards a possible island development plan. The Foundation, established by the Prince of Wales in 1986, intends to suggest options for economic growth that are in harmony with the island’s distinctive natural and built environment. This could be a big moment: after all, Sark has an unusual freedom to set its own environmental and business agenda, and control its fishing rights. But skill will be needed if the fate of all previous reform plans is to be avoided. Beaumont is not operating through Chief Pleas in launching his initiative, so he needs to work hard to get island opinion behind whatever proposals emerge. He has also joined forces with Lorenz to form a Sark Property Company, which as part of its ‘investments in infrastructure’ stands ready to buy up houses and land. The risk is that islanders may see the new company as another Barclay-style invasion, and extend their suspicion to the Prince’s Foundation too. Any successful plan for change needs to acknowledge that, on Sark, property still matters.
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