The Barclay brothers and democracy in Sark


Depuis que les frères Barclay, les richissimes propriétaires du Daily Telegraph et du Ritz, sont arrivés sur l’île de Sercq, le petit rocher de la Manche est devenu le théâtre d’une lutte de pouvoir sans fin entre les villageois fidèles au Seigneur de la région et les frères jumeaux, partisan de la modernité. Les frères sont déterminés à apporter la démocratie sur l’île de Sercq, mais pourquoi mettre tant d’ardeur dans cette entreprise ?


The Barclay twins, the owners of the Daily Telegraph media group and the famous Ritz hotel, have fled London’s tax system to settle in Brecqhou, «a small impressive private island with a tax free status». Since their arrival in 1993 on the island of Brecqhou, one of the Channel Islands located west of Sark, the once peaceful island became the scene of an endless battle of power between the Barclays and the villagers of Sark.

A brief recap of Sark’s political history 

Sark became a feudal state in 1565 and after centuries of feudalism, the Chiefs Pleas-the local parliament of Sark- were democratically elected for the first time. The Chiefs Pleas actually officially approved of a reform of the island’s feudal system in February 2008 by introducing 28 elected members under the pressure of the Barclay brothers who accused the system of not being in keeping with European Human Rights laws and other international obligations. They believed that the Seigneur and the Seneschal still have too much power. And they were disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the position of these unelected members. Furthermore, to the dismay of the Barclays, who took part in the general election, the villagers didn’t vote for the pro-democracy factions, which was a bitter defeat for them.

Defeudalisation is still an ongoing process. The twin brothers aspire to abolish the hereditary powers of the current Seigneur of Sark, John Michael Beaumont, as they believe that the Island should not be dominated by one interest, so they will continue to seek the defeudalisation of Sark and create a genuine democracy, by using their influence and wealth. But their aspiration to democracy have led to endless rows with the villagers who are more and more hostile to them. Kevin Delaney, the brothers’ representative on Sark, has been cautious as he never goes anywhere without his personal security detail even though the island is not a dangerous place. This further illustrates the deterioration of the relations between the Barclays and the villagers.

The current situation

Some villagers are afraid that the Barclays will take over Sark and transform it into a company town. In fact, since the twins’ arrival, they’ve brought jobs and investment, and modernized the island. Even though Gordon Dawes, who is the Barclays’ lawyer, insisted : «There is no evidence that the Barclays have used any economic, legal or political power to skew the operation of democracy on Sark. […] There is no question of buying up the island», the Barclay brothers have snapped up almost a quarter of land, along with many of Sark’s key businesses: four of the six hotels on the island and the local paper -the Sark Newsletter- belong to them. After suffering a humiliating defeat during the election, which clearly shows that the islanders are against the investment and jobs brought by the billionaire, the Barclay Brothers didn’t hesitate to take drastic steps by shutting down all their interests on the island in order to show how indispensable they are. Moreover, the Sark Newsletter became an instrument of power as it carries many adverts fot Barclays’ interests and targets whoever seems to put the Barclay’s interests in jeopardy.

However, it didn’t stop the islanders from keeping on protesting. They have been mobilizing through petition or by striking, which is a first. More significantly, in 2012, the Barclays’ Sark vines were vandalised. The wires, that supported the vines, were cut.

The Barclay brothers, Sir Frederick (left) and Sir David

The truth behind their aspiration to democracy 

Brecqhou being an island with tax free status is appealing. But then the brothers were quickly confronted with the then Chief Pleas and were obliged to abide by Sark’s laws. They tried to negociate with the Chief Pleas. Sark’s tax legislation only imposes property tax for all the landowners and there is no income tax. But to prevent them from paying any possibly future taxes, they used a legal challenge to force the island’s first democratic elections in 2008, whose results weren’t in favor of the Barclays. In 2010, another attempt was to bribe Seigneur Michael Beaumont, who still has the power to veto any legislation and appoint the island’s judge, which failed. Worse for them, the United Kingdom government favored Sark’s feudal system and didn’t back the brothers’ venture.

In spite of a series of failures in Sark, the economic expansion of the Barclay brothers is still growing, as the Telegraph Media Group is increasingly profitable despite declining revenues. And the Barclays are the richest media figures in the UK with a fortune of £2.3 billion, according to the Sunday Times in 2013.

Sabrina HUANG


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