On 28 April, all Sark residents received a questionnaire from the Reform Law (Good Governance) Policy Development Team of Chief Pleas. “Since 2008 fewer qualified Sark residents have stood at each successive election,” the form writes. How can we get more people to stand in elections? How can we make Sark government work? is the purpose of this consultation.
How can one make a 600 (or 400) person society work with a functioning government? Perhaps it just isn’t possible. Perhaps this is just too small a scale for a society to be able to be self-governing. Perhaps Sark will have to give up its independence and be absorbed into a larger entity. Maybe Guernsey. Maybe the UK. Perhaps 28 is just too many people to get to sit in a parliament in such a small jurisdiction. Perhaps we’ll just have to reduce the number of seats in Chief Pleas. Concentrate even more power in even fewer hands who crave it, with even fewer checks on that power. Perhaps we’ll then have to employ professional civil servants because the workload will be too much for these same ruling hands to do themselves – what with their ever increasing desire to regulate and legislate. Perhaps we’ll just have to raise taxes yet more to pay for these civil servants.
Soul searching questions! Such unsolvable problems! Perhaps it just can’t be done. Having a functioning government in such a small place can never work. It has never been tried; it has never worked.
Or has it?
All these questions would be entirely legitimate but for the white elephant in the room that everybody studiously avoids talking about.
Until 2008, Sark had a parliament that not only was fully functioning, consisted of 54 (40+12+1+1) volunteers, whose seats were never impossible to fill. This parliament thrived. Its membership was coveted. It successfully ran the island for nearly 450 years. It built up a positive cash balance, running a budget surplus every year, despite collecting a great deal less in taxes (from many more residents) than Chief Pleas does today. Elections were always contested. Everyone was happy with this parliament.
But we were told we had to throw it all away and change to this shiny new system which was going to be so much better.
And now that the shiny new system doesn’t work, the answer is what? Soul searching and public consultation. What to do? We search our soul and ask the public for answers, because we don’t have any ourselves.
I argued in 2009 in the House of Lords that in a small place, the problem is not being able to choose who you want to volunteer working for you in public office, the problem is being able to find anyone capable of doing the job willing to do it at all. In the end, I was proven wrong – the problem has turned out not to be finding anyone capable of doing the job, the problem has turned out to be finding anyone at all. The Tenants – largely experienced, capable, successful people – provided this valuable, vital service, for free. They were unceremoniously thrown out, without thanks, and now we can’t find enough volunteers to fill the void.
Of course, those who are already in Chief Pleas are not helping. Many people just don’t want to work with those already there. The work they do is such that many don’t want to be associated with it. Before 2008, any resident British, Irish or Commonwealth national could stand for Chief Pleas. Since then, qualifications for standing have been tightened – 2 years’ ordinary residence is now required, where ordinary residence now means spending less than 3 months a year off island. A qualification too restrictive for many people who are capable of doing the job but are too busy traveling the world on business. A qualification its main proponent himself did not meet when he was first elected to Chief Pleas and straight onto Chairmanship of the GP&A (the closest Sark has to a “Prime Minister”, for our international readers). Being cynical, perhaps this was the point of introducing this restriction, to make sure those most able to add value were barred from standing. Either way, Chief Pleas has dug its own grave and now wants us to dig them out – while deliberately ignoring the obvious exit.