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Tiny Channel island wins democracy, loses jobs

After 450 years of rule by feudalism, residents on the tiny Channel island of Sark knew their first democratic election would bring changes — but no one expected that 100 people would be immediately tossed out of work.
In a Oct. 31, 2000, photo, Sir David Barclay, left, and his twin brother, Sir Frederick, are pictured at London's Buckingham Palace after receiving their knighthoods from the Queen. Michael Stephens / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After 450 years of rule by feudalism, residents on the tiny Channel island of Sark knew their first democratic election would bring changes — but no one expected that 100 people would be immediately tossed out of work.

Two wealthy brothers abruptly closed their businesses on the island after their candidates for its first elected parliament were largely rejected by voters — job losses that hit Sark's 600 residents hard.

Sir David Barclay had warned that he and his twin brother, Sir Frederick Barclay, would be tempted to walk away from their investment in Sark, a 1,350-acre island 25 miles off the French coast, after their opponents prospered in Wednesday's election.

Candidates backed by the brothers had proposed sweeping development of the island to create the first paved roads and to allow cars and helicopters for the first time. Their opponents advocated retaining the island's sleepy charms and making only gradual reforms.

"They've taken their ball and taken it to another playing field," Paul Armorgie, who won a seat in the new legislature, told BBC radio. "(The Barclays) wanted democracy at their own pace, rather than at the pace of the island."

'Life goes on'
The Barclays, whose assets include London's Ritz Hotel and Britain's Telegraph newspapers, have agitated for change since establishing a castle home on Brecqhou, an 87-acre islet just 80 yards west of Sark, in 1993. They already have won a change in the law of primogeniture — inheritance to the first-born son — to allow land to pass to a female heir or a younger child.

Most of their 140 employees at two hotels, a cafe, shops and other ventures were laid off Thursday, but Gordon Dawes, a lawyer for the Barclays, said Friday he expected the businesses to reopen in the spring.

"The difference is that there will be no new investment, which had been running at 5 million pounds ($7.5 million) per annum," he said.

Sark's hereditary owner, 80-year-old Michael Beaumont, didn't seem worried by the layoffs. "We've managed for 400 years," Beaumont said in a telephone interview. "Life goes on."

But some who lost their jobs were not so confident.

Amandine Boquet, a 23-year-old from France who had been working in Web site design and marketing for the Barclays, said she and her boyfriend were both fired Friday.

"We are in a bad situation," she said. "It's the winter, and there aren't any jobs here, and with the economy the way it is we don't know if we can find a job anywhere."

Boquet said many of her friends, including some parents with toddlers, found themselves suddenly out of a job in the election aftermath.

Life after the Barclays
The first elected parliament marked a significant break with the island's feudal system. The legislature, known as the Chief Pleas, had been controlled by leaseholders on the 40 tenements — the parcels of land granted to the original settlers in the 16th century.

Only two of the nine candidates backed by the brothers won seats in the legislature. Nine of the 12 candidates they had denounced as "dangerous to Sark's future" were elected.

Dawes said the final straw was the defeat of Kevin Delaney, manager of the Barclays' estate, who finished 36th in a field of 56.

Two of the Barclays' investments, the Aval du Creux Hotel and the Dixcart Bay Hotel — two of the island's five hotels — were closed on Friday, along with a cafe.

"I don't see it as a problem," said Beaumont, the seigneur or chief executive of the island. "It will take us back to a year and half before the Barclays came, and we were managing perfectly well then."

Beaumont is the latest in a line of hereditary owners of Sark dating back to Helier de Carteret, who was granted a fief by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565.

The seigneur of Sark each year pays one-20th of a knight's fee — now about 1.72 pounds ($2.55) — to Queen Elizabeth II, and has the sole right to keep pigeons and unspayed female dogs on the island.