Last week’s election on the English Channel island of Sark should have been a time of celebration for Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. Since the billionaire brothers moved onto the nearby islet of Brecqhou in 1993 and began pumping millions into the local economy, they have pushed Sark toward democracy through a series of legal challenges against its feudal powers—the hereditary seigneur who leases the island from the Crown for $3.50 a year, and the legislature, until now controlled by the holders of 40 tenements originally parcelled out during the reign of Elizabeth I.
However, the Barclays’ success in democratizing Sark wasn’t rewarded at the ballot box. Only two of their favoured candidates won places in the 28-seat legislature, known as the Chief Pleas. Among the losers was estate manager Kevin Delaney, who warned: “There’s a very real price that’s going to be paid for this.” The next day, the Barclays shut down their businesses on the island, including four hotels and a pub, and laid off 140 workers, one-quarter of Sark’s population.
The Barclays had wanted their preferred candidates to push through a modernization plan that included introducing electric vehicles and even a helipad on the quiet, rural, 545-hectare island that currently has no cars, paved roads or street lights. Instead, the electoral results are being interpreted as a rejection of the brothers’ high-handed methods, which included labelling their now-victorious traditionalist opponents as “dangerous to Sark’s future.” Though Barclay lawyer Gordon Dawes expects the businesses will eventually reopen, new investments, currently around $10 million a year, won’t be flowing into “a place where there is such an anti feeling against them.” Seigneur Michael Beaumont, still the head of the Chief Pleas, doesn’t sound worried: “We’ve managed for 400 years. Life goes on.”