The Big Question: Is Sark an idyllic remnant of the past or a feudal anachronism?

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The Independent Online

Why the fuss now?

Stuck out in the English Channel, 20 miles off the coast of Normandy and boasting a population of only 600 souls, to its admirers the Isle of Sark represents a redoubt against the modern world.

There is no divorce, cars are banned - the preferred mode of transport is tractor - and even the playing of a radio in a public place is outlawed.

Yet Sark continues to attract wealthy outsiders to its tranquil shores, not just because of this enviably laid-back way of life; there is no income tax and personal property taxes are pegged at paltry levels for the very richest.

The "fief" includes the rugged neighbouring island of Brecqhou, bought by the Barclay brothers, owners of The Telegraph, in 1993 for the sum of £2.33m, where they have erected a fairy-tale castle for the benefit of themselves and family.

So who is complaining?

Sir David Barclay, who, along with his twin brother, Sir Frederick, argues that behind Sark's bucolic façade resides a political system rotten to the core.

Yesterday in his third "open letter to the Bailiwick of Guernsey" (the legal domain in which the Isle of Sark resides) he took out a full-page advertisement describing the island's ruler, known as the Seigneur, as "the unacceptable face of feudalism".

Sir David railed against him as a "liability to Sark and an embarrassment to the Crown and the Bailiwick of Guernsey".

What's the beef?

As a Crown Dependency of Great Britain - it is not part of the United Kingdom - Sark has employed a feudal system largely unchanged since the times of William, Duke of Normandy. The 22nd Seigneur, is Michael Beaumont, now approaching his 80th birthday. Mr Beaumont assumed the title from his celebrated grandmother Cybil in 1974.

As well as enjoying exclusive rights to keep an unspeyed bitch and a monopoly on breeding pigeons, the Seigneur holds more tangible benefits - namely holding all land on the island in "perpetual tenure to the Crown".

Sark is divided into 40 landholdings, to which the purchaser must pay a treizieme or thirteenth of the total price directly to the Seigneur. With each patch of land comes the right to sit on the island's legislature, known as the Chief Pleas where the Seigneur enjoys limited rights of veto.

Last night an extraordinary meeting of the Chief Pleas was held to map out the future democratic constitution of the island.

What is at stake?

Two options are being put to the islanders: reducing the power of the unelected tenants and implementing the principle of universal suffrage. The present Seneschal, Lt Col Reginald Guille, known locally as Reg, who chairs Pleas' meetings, believes the reforms will hold the island's constitution in good stead for another half-century at least.

However, critics claim removal of the tenants' rights to sit on the legislature amounts to a breach of contract and dramatically undermines the value of the 40 landholdings.

It also, argues Sir David, does nothing to significantly limit the powers of the unelected Seigneur, who would continue to appoint the island's only judge, claim a treizieme on newly sold properties, and operate a veto over new laws.

Is it only the Barclays trying to change the laws?

Observers of Sark's battle over reform say there is little popular groundswell of support for democratic reform on the island.

Of the 468 entitled voters, only 50 per cent turn out at elections. There are no political parties. The last time the public was polled on democratic change only 165 took part.

The British Government has only limited sway over domestic decision-making policy, although it remains responsible for "good government".

The most recent investigation into its constitutional relationship with Westminster, a 1973 Royal Commission known as the Kilbrandon Report, ducked the issue.

Will changes in Sark affect the tax haven status ofthe Channel Islands

No. Officials are extremely touchy about talk of the "Sark Lark" which they see as a banished age when the outside world frowned on the island as a refuge for money-launderers and criminals. Some on the island undoubtedly benefited during the 1980s from the arrangement whereby locals earned fees as "sleeping" directors of thousands of nominal offshore companies happy to benefit from the generous tax arrangement.

But for six years the territory has been a regulated fiduciary under Guernsey financial services law. That is not to say that the rich have moved on. There is still no income tax, death duties or capital transfer tax as recognisable in the UK. A local levy, set by the Chief Pleas and comparable to the Council Tax paid on the mainland, is enforced.

A personal capital tax payable by anyone who spends or has property available to them on the island for more than 90 nights of the year, must pay up 0.25 per cent of their net worth, although this is limited to a maximum of £4,000. Sark's financial arrangements are entirely separate from the other Crown Dependencies - Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Is Sark a Ruritanian idyll or a refuge for the super-rich?

Those who live on the island do not understand outsiders' suspicions about them. Sark can be bleak in the winter, they admit. But in summer tourists flock to take in its old-world atmosphere .

There is little employment on the island and most make their living off the land, without the help of EU subsidies. There is no unemployment benefit or old-age pension and Sark is entirely self-sufficient, relying on the UK only for its defence. Many of the public roles - such as police or fire services - are provided on a voluntary basis.

There are of course rich outsiders who have made it their home. As well as the Barclays, the former England cricket captain Ian Botham is a resident. Then there are a smattering of retirees, often ex-military types who come to enjoy the peace and quiet. While its political system is eccentric, those who have made Sark their home seem to like it as it is.

Should Sark end its independence and become part of the United Kingdom?

Yes...

* Westminster must take its responsibility for good government on the island seriously and put an end to feudalism once and for all.

* It is unfair on other countries for Sark to pick and choose which laws it chooses to follow.

* The rich must not be compelled to pay their fair share of taxes wherever they live.

No...

* The island's status predates the Norman conquest. It has never been part of the English Crown administratively or legally.

* Sark has worked hard at financial reform and to end the notorious "Sark Lark". It is now regulated under Guernsey law.

* It is a unique island with a distinctive and colourful heritage. Most of its inhabitants want to keep it that way.

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