The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Britain's bourgeois revolution spreads to Channel

The Channel island of Sark votes to abolish feudalism. (Via.) This brings the tiny island into line with such progressive polities as the best small country in the world, where feudalism was finally abolished all of four years ago, a mere three hundred and sixteen years after the Glorious Revolution.


Why is the United Kingdom being called to account for the political institutions of Sark? I thought the Channel Islands weren't part of the United Kingdom, but a separate and autonomous polity, the rump of the Duchy of Normandy. They have the same head of state as the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, but not in the same capacity. I wouldn't think they would even count as members of the European Union unless they joined on their own hook. And if the demand that they reform their political institutions is coming, not from a larger elected body of a larger unit to which they belong, but solely from their sharing a monarch with an EU member, that doesn't sound all that democratic to me.

Is there actual evidence that the previous governing body of Sark was abusing its powers, or exploiting the people it governed? Or is this democratic fundamentalism at work?

Seems like nowadays, when you don't like something, you just call it extremism or fundamentalism and you don't have to explain yourself further...

William, I know next to nothing about the affairs of Sark, or even whether it's formally part of the UK. You raise some interesting points, but without knowing how actual people on Sark feel about it, I can't whether this is a piece of EU (or UK) heavy-handedness against a quaint but harmless anomaly, or a long-overdue and welcome reform.

Ken, it's the former, brought in following pressure from the Barclay brothers to let them have a freer hand in Sark and now "validated" de jure after the de facto changes were imposed or made inevitable by FUD etc. tactics ring-barking the old system. It's the democratic trick of only asking the people when they have the right answer ("the people are ready"). If they don't get it right, keep asking, but stop and never ask again once they do (for EU examples see Denmark, Ireland...).

Here's some more. From "Tenement of Brecqhou" in the Barclay brothers: "In 1993, the Barclay brothers bought the tenement of the island of Brecqhou, one of the Channel Islands, located just west of Sark. Since the purchase the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark[4] and have expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark. Notwithstanding the known inheritance laws at the time of their purchase of Brecqhou, the brothers have used their great wealth and consequent ability to litigate effectively to force change of the Sark constitution towards their desired position. This included a claim of denial of their human rights that resulted in a change to the inheritance laws, but in a manner that continued to frustrate their intentions; subsequently, the brothers have continued to challenge Sark's constitution purportedly in favour of greater democracy and presumably in order to achieve the result that their litigation failed to achieve."

I also note that this "The Channel island of Sark votes..." didn't involve any actual public consultation, just the surrender of the politicians in place after changes introduced by the last round of appeasement.

By the way, the Barclay brothers used to own the Scotsman during much of the relevant period.

Mervyn Peake used to live on
Sark...which might explain
his interest in insular feudal

Peter, this sounds awfully plausible. Can you point me to any evidence that the brothers are in fact behind the change?

And you're right, 'the 'island of Sark votes' is not quite right, or in fact, um, wrong.

Mervyn Peake used to live on
Sark...which might explain
his interest in insular feudal

I think it goes back a bit further than that. He was born into a British colonial family in Shanghai, which probably had as insular and feudal an atmosphere as could be wished for.

Seems like nowadays, when you don't like something, you just call it extremism or fundamentalism and you don't have to explain yourself further...

The phrase "democratic fundamentalism" is actually an allusion to The Myth of the Rational Voter, whose author uses it in a comment on people who talk about economists as "market fundamentalists," pointing out that people who say things such as "the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy" are committing the same intellectual error they accuse economists of, by saying that the democratic process is good by definition. In this case, I had in mind the idea that a government not based on simple majority rule is inherently bad, even if the people it governs are satisfied with it and have no desire to change it.

Democratic mechanisms have their uses, to be sure. A system where a law that 50% of the people object to can't get passed is a good thing; it hold the hybris of legislators and bureaucrats in check. But a system where a law that 50% of the people want can get passed isn't necessarily a good thing; I've seen some damn fool laws passed by referenda in California, where I live. Majority vote is a good servant but a bad master.

That's why I ask if the government of Sark was actually behaving abusively in any way. If there were evils that were going uncorrected, I could see a case for establishing democratic machinery of government to fix them. But if the only "evil" was that the machinery of government was undemocratic, the demand for a change seems to rest on a circular argument.

If the Barclay brothers are behind this bourgeois revolution, this only makes it more of a miniature repeat of what happened in the rest of Western Europe some three hundred years ago. What with the forces of capitalism rebuilding the system to suit their needs and all that.

Mervyn Peake had a Shanghai background! Did J.G. Ballard's parents play bridge with Peake's?

Ken, my informed guess - based on the evidence of low key media reports over the last few years - is that the Barclay brothers kept up the pressure for long enough and strong enough that it has now taken on a life of its own and they don't have to push any more, things having come to the attention of the standard mindset of bureaucracies and politicians at different levels to whom there is no comprehension of any principle other than reflex democracy through representatives (the feudal system is actually a good basis for anarchism, if only there are enough strong enough feudalists rather than haves and have nots - read Alfred Duggan together with Francois Ganshof). It's rather like the way the USA ran with remaking liberated countries like Belgium and Italy, taking it for granted that of course they would want to normalise as republics (the USA was shocked at how near the plebiscite came in Italy, even with the help of rigging by local republicans wherever things were still destabilised enough - the result was broken down regionally according to how recently liberated and normalised areas had been - and even more shocked that Belgium stayed a monarchy).

So, what is now happening to Sark is "there's no reason for it, it's just our policy".

Did J.G. Ballard's parents play bridge with Peake's?

Peake was born in 1911 and Ballard in 1930, so I would imagine such a thing could only be possible through some violent distortion of space-time mediated by the spinal eucharist of the flying buttresses at Gormenghast...

I've played cards with people a lot more than 19 years younger than me, and I've not come across a violent distortion of space-time for weeks

There's a documentary series on Peake
and other British fantasy
writers starting tomorrow on
BBC4 called "The Worlds of Fantasy".
Should be interesting....

It turns out that Peake was born in Lushan, not Shanghai. Bloody typical if you ask me.

For a community the size of Sark, geography and population, it's arguable that representative democracy is a lot less important. People know each other.

I'm not going to even try to guess what the Barclay Brothers are like, but it almost sounds as if they're trying to set up a system where they can buy the votes, either by corrupting the ballot box, or bribing elected representatives. Those landowners would have been hard to bribe, since they couldn't lose their position in an election.

Charlie Stross has recently used the idea that democracy is a way of keeping out the worst candidates. On Sark, everyone knew who the loonies were, so did they need democracy?

You have a most interesting blog.

Stay on groovin' safari,

The relationship between the Channel Islands and the EU is spelled out in something called Protocol 3 of the UK's accession to the European Community, reprinted (among other places) on this site, which appears to be an organization of Jerseypeople who want a progressive tax system.

As for the European Convention on Human Rights, I would guess the legal argument there has more to do with the power apparently delegated by HM to HM Government to "extend to each island UK and European legislation and other international conventions." To what extent that includes the 1998 Human Rights Act I don't know.

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