Dec 16, 2008

Columnists - Hasan Suroor;It’s curtains for Europe’s last feudal outpost

In a day and age when even hick towns have gone hep, you wouldn’t think there could be a place right in the heart of Europe which has set its face against modernity. It has no pucca roads, no street lights, no cars, no airstrip, no tap water, and no modern drainage system. And what’s more, until last week it had feudal rule which gave it the dubious distinction of being Europe’s last remaining outpost of feudalism.

Sark, the smallest of the four main Channel Islands (about 130 kilometres off the south coast of England) has a population of barely 600 people who have deliberately chosen to shun the trappings of modern life. They have been only reluctantly dragged out of their self-imposed feudalism after Britain, which has overall responsibility for Sark, pushed for constitutional reforms to bring its governing body (a mix of landowners and elected deputies) in line with the European human rights regime.

Except for tourists, who are the mainstay of its economy, and tax-haven hunters not many even in Britain were perhaps aware of Sark’s existence until the world’s media descended on the island to cover its first fully democratic elections held on December 10 ending 450 years of feudal rule. Not everyone in Sark was pleased with all that attention which, apart from disrupting the island’s quiet life, seemed rather patronising to many Sarkis.

“At the moment the island is besieged by press from all over the world, the hotels are busy and there is a camera on every corner. Some are making comprehensive features of the island, including the election, some are just covering the elections, acting as though Sark has never had an election before, although the island has been electing deputies for the last 80 years,” the island’s official newsletter commented in an acerbic tone. And, then with a touch of impatience, expressed the hope that “by the time this newsletter is published, Sark will have chosen its 28 Conseillers, and with any luck we can get on with winter life.”

Well, the elections are over and the media have left but the business about getting “on with winter” is proving a bit tricky. For, alas, things in a democracy don’t always turn out according to the script as Sarkis discovered on the morning after the elections. They are having to pay a heavy price for their tryst with democracy with the island suddenly plunged into an economic crisis and nearly one-quarter of its citizens facing the prospect of a long, gloomy winter without jobs. And this is why:

The neighbouring island of Brecqhou is home to a British family of billionaires — the Barclay brothers (Sir David and Sir Frederick) who, among other things, own The Telegraph group of newspapers and London’s glitzy Ritz hotel. The brothers, who bought Brecqhou in 1993, have over the years invested millions of pounds in Sark, and own nearly one-fifth of the island and most of its small businesses, including hotels and shops. They tried to use the elections to convert their economic muscle into political clout by fielding nine candidates on a platform of modernisation. Their victory would have given the brothers remote control over Sark’s new parliament. But, in a crushing blow to their ambitions, Sark’s notoriously anti-modernisation voters rejected most of the Barclays’ nominees: only two won.

The brothers retaliated by closing down all their businesses in Sark, laying off some 140 workers, and stopping work on all their ongoing projects.

“As they see it, there’s no point in continuing to invest £5 million per annum when the electorate has said very clearly that it does not want their representatives involved with Sark. The Sark people were fully aware of this when they voted and cannot now complain and still less accuse the Barclays of ‘bully boy tactics’, “ a statement on behalf of the Barclay brothers said pointing out they had made clear before the elections that if their “vision” did not win the endorsement of the electorate they would have to reconsider their investment in the island. However, islanders have called their action undemocratic.

“It is ironical that all these years they had been pressing for democratic reforms and now that the verdict hasn’t gone their way they are throwing a tantrum,” one newly-elected politician said.

Meanwhile, even as both sides traded accusations in public there was speculation that behind-the-scenes efforts were being made to resolve the crisis with the Barclay brothers reportedly willing to review their decision if a way was found to involve them in decision-making. It is believed that there is simply too much at stake for them to walk away from the island.

For now, however, the mood is bitter and as one hotel worker who lost his job said: “It is devastating for us. Everyone thought this election was going to be a bit of fun — and good for the island. But it’s turning out to be a nightmare for us.”

Democracy anyone?

“Woolies” bows out

Anyone who has ever visited Britain would be familiar with Woolworths, the ubiquitous supermarket chain, fondly referred to as “Woolies” and especially popular with children who loved its pic ‘n’ mix sweets. Well, last week, this nearly 100-year-old icon of British High Street, with more than 800-branches across the country, closed down. It is the latest casualty of recession which is getting worse by the day with the once-mighty pound teetering on the brink of collapse prompting fears of a 1970s-type crisis that forced Britain to go, cap-in-hand, to the International Monetary Fund for help.

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