Sark: Jersey created the mess in the first place by colonising part of Guernsey’s back yard
By Richard Digard
WOULD you like Sark back? Seriously. Guernsey may have prevented the island from establishing its own Bailiff 450 years ago, but that desire to keep it within our own bailiwick may be about to change – whether anyone likes it or not.
And since Helier de Carteret colonised the place in 1565 with 40 families from Jersey (yes, there were five Guernseymen there as well, but let that pass), you seem to have a reasonable claim on the place.
Plus, who becomes responsible for Sark is an increasingly fraught topic, not least because unless someone rescues Chief Pleas, the lights there will go out at the end of the month.
Having driven Sark Electricity Ltd to the point of bankruptcy and triggering its decision to stop generating on the 30th is just the start of the island’s woes.
Sark’s economic decline is, I guess, well known, as is its depopulation, ageing demographic and shrinking number of schoolchildren and businesses.
Less obvious is that it probably can’t be called a democracy, let alone a functioning one. That’s pretty serious because its status as the last feudal state in Europe was supposed to end in 2008 when Chief Pleas, as Sark’s legislative body, became a wholly elected chamber for the first time in its history.
Before that, you will remember, the island was run by the tenants (pronounced the French way), successors to the original 40 colonists who arrived there to keep the place secure and brigand-free for Elizabeth I.
Well, that was the theory behind the electoral changes but the island has struggled to attract enough candidates for recent elections to be called free or fair and now the Ministry of Justice has lost patience with it.
As Lord Keen, the responsible MoJ minister, pointed out to Chief Pleas at the end of last month: ‘It has been six years since a properly contested election in Sark.’
Actually, that’s the least of the island’s concerns. Members voted down the last Budget, the committee behind it resigned and the island’s senior administrator (a proper civil servant) has also called it a day.
Things are potentially so bad that the MoJ has invoked the nuclear option: the Crown stepping in as being ultimately responsible for the good government of the Crown Dependencies.
To be satisfied that Sark passes that governance test, the MoJ needs to see that the island has sufficient capacity and access to the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to govern effectively.
Decisions had to be made in a transparent way, based on objective advice; and democratic accountability of the government to the people of the island had to be restored, primarily through periodic contested elections.
Anyone interested in Sark will be well aware of its slide into crisis. While opinions differ on why that is, what may have caused it and who’s responsible, the buck for dealing with the situation self-evidently rests with Chief Pleas as government.
All I’ll say is that it has a mountain to climb to pass the MoJ’s three governance tests – and that’s if the lights remain on.
Sadly, Chief Pleas is solely responsible for the breakdown in relations with Sark Electricity, having imposed (via its own appointed commissioner instead of using, say, the Channel Islands Competition and Regulatory Authorities) a price cap, which the power provider says is costing it £20,000 a week. Hence threatening to close.
Best guess is that Guernsey Electricity will be asked to help to prevent that particular catastrophe and possible evacuation of the island, but that’s just the start of Sark’s rehabilitation.
Elections are scheduled for next month, yet the other two governance tests are formidable for Sark, which is allegedly run by a cabal of individuals more interested in seeing off allcomers in a test of strength to show who’s really in charge.
That attitude has brought the island to the point of collapse and raises the very real question of whether a minimum community size is needed for democracy to work properly.
In effect, is a population now below 500 able to muster sufficient individuals with the skills, time, resilience and integrity to govern their fellow islanders in a selfless, transparent and accountable manner?
Voters in Jersey and Guernsey have no idea the extent to which their impartial civil services head off some of the more unacceptable behaviours of politicians were they left to their own devices. Sark has no such backstop, which is why the Ministry of Justice is threatening to step in.
Which neatly brings me back to asking if it should be returned to Jersey. Why? Simply because of what happens next, if or when Chief Pleas fails the three governance tests.
Guernsey will not accept responsibility for the island. Quite apart from the cost – which one former Lt-Governor claimed was around £2 million a year in hidden subsidies – and difficulty of doing so, that duty rests squarely with the Crown.
In turn, that holds out the possibility of Sark being administered from the UK and, presumably, becoming an offshore fragment of Hampshire.
I’m not sure that’s what anyone really wants, perhaps least of all the Crown itself, so a solution is needed. And pretty smartish at that.
So, since Jersey created this mess in the first place by colonising part of Guernsey’s backyard, it’s only right you make amends now it’s all gone wrong. We won’t even charge you for it.