Tiny English Channel Island Sark Trades Feudalism for Democracy

Friday , March 10, 2006




There are no cars, roads or dentists and the only ambulance is a converted tractor, but Sark — a tiny self-governing island in the English Channel — embraced the modern world Wednesday, when legislators voted to swap its feudal government for democracy.

After around 450 years of rule almost exclusively by landowners, the smallest independent state in the British commonwealth will allow each of the 600 residents to stand for election.

The island sits 20 miles from the coast of France and is part of the British crown dependency — technically owned by Queen Elizabeth II, but not part of the United Kingdom. It is 3 miles wide and 1.5 miles long and is famed for its dramatic coastline and gentle pace of life.

The state's legislators — known as the Chief Pleas — voted for democratic reforms that will see a legislature of 14 elected landowners and 14 elected residents take charge.

But changing the feudal model, needed to bring the island into line with the European Convention on Human Rights — the Europe-wide laws governing liberties and require states to have democratically elected governments — was not universally supported.

Only 165 islanders took part in a ballot-style opinion poll that asked which model of change the population favored.

"Feudalism is a great system and has worked very well for the island. What people wanted was an option of no change at all," resident Jennifer Cochrane said by telephone from her island home.

"It is an enormous leap, a bigger leap than we had wanted. The island was hoping to reform through evolution, not revolution."

Since around 1565, 40 heads of the island's farm owning families have raised taxes and decided on matters of law, part of an independence agreement brokered with Queen Elizabeth, after the English seized control of the island from France.

In 1920, 12 non-landowning deputies were appointed, voted for by all islanders over 18 — the last concession made to democratic government.

An extraordinary meeting of the Chief Pleas voted Wednesday by 25 votes to 15 votes to approve a bill that will reduce the size of the legislature and see the two sets of representatives elected by all voting-age islanders.

Cochrane said the outside world has had a mistaken perception of Sark, believing the Chief Pleas had an oppressive grip on the local population.

"These people are not lords of the manor but farmers, part of the working community," Cochrane said. "The problem we have had is with people from outside buying the farms and acquiring the status of Chief Pleas, but not understanding the sense of community and sense of family."

Sark is economically independent of Britain, with a budget of around $1.04 million, raising around $520,000 through direct taxes and the remainder made up from landing charges for tourist boats.

Despite the move to embrace modernity, the island retains some unusual laws. Only the head of state — the Seigneur — has the right to keep pigeons or an unspayed female dog.

The use of tractors — the only mechanized transport on the island — is also strictly regulated, with only one passenger per vehicle allowed — except up and down the 300-foot high Harbour Hill.

Elections under the new system — which must be symbolically approved by the queen — are expected to be held in December.