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European feudalism finally ends as Sark heads for democracy

Jerome Taylor reports on an acrimonious election marred by the Barclay brothers' threat to withdraw investment from island

Europe's final feudal state became a full democracy yesterday as inhabitants of Sark headed to the polls to create the island's first wholly elected government, after months of rancorous infighting which has left the tiny Channel Island bitterly divided.

A high turnout was expected at the only polling booth, in the island's community centre, from among Sark's 474 registered voters. The landmark election will turn the island's feudal-inspired legislature into a democratically elected one.

But despite the celebratory atmosphere in Island Hall yesterday, Sark's transition to democracy has been a long and painful process, one which has pitted neighbour against neighbour, and friend against friend. The birth of democracy on the crown dependency has indeed created two bitterly opposed factions.

On one side are the island's traditionalists who support their feudal lord, Seigneur John Michael Beaumont, and fear Sark's peculiar customs and rich heritage risk being swept away by modernisers who depend on outside investment for their jobs.

On the other side are supporters of the Barclay brothers, two reclusive billionaire newspaper magnates who have long campaigned to democratise the island and believe the old guard represents a "culture of secrecy, unaccountability and cronyism". The brothers, who own The Daily Telegraph and Ritz Hotel in London, have invested millions in Sark's economy and now own some 20 per cent of the island, but their opponents have accused them of threatening to withdraw investments unless the people of Sark vote for candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Yesterday, islanders were asked to cast their votes for 28 deputies who will make up the island's legislative body known as Chief Pleas. They will replace 40 unelected landowners – known as tenants, pronounced tai-nont – who have held virtually all political power. Of the 57 candidates standing, nearly every one is either a supporter of the Barclay brothers, or vehemently opposed to them. In the world of Sarkian politics, it seems, there is no room for middle ground.

As voters made their way to the polls yesterday, there were already cries of foul play from those opposed to the brothers. The dispute centred on an interview, published in yesterday's Telegraph, in which the 73-year-old brothers said they would consider "walking away" from Sark if the former tenants were re-elected en masse. "I am very tempted to walk away from Sark," Sir David Barclay told his own newspaper. "Certainly, if the establishment gets re-elected – and some are already appointed – we will have to reconsider our investment programme. This is not being spiteful, this is being realistic."

Diane Baker, a 57-year-old former tenant and staunch critic of the Barclays who is standing for election, accused the brothers of telling islanders how to vote. "[That interview] was a very nasty message and a wholly unfair one," she said. "We have lots of young family men on the island who are reliant on the Barclay brothers for work and it's not fair that on the day they head to the polls they are told their jobs are at risk unless they vote for the right people."

Gordon Dawes, the brothers' Guernsey-based lawyer, rejects suggestions his clients' comments could be seen directing islanders to vote in a particular direction: "The Barclay brothers were not telling people how to vote, but they can make the suggestion that if you want them to continue investing millions of pounds in the island, then they would look for co-operation. It's not blackmail, it is the realities faced by any investor."

Ever since they acquired Brecqhou, an even smaller island that lies just a few metres off Sark but falls under its jurisdiction, the brothers have made no secret of their desire to replace the island's political system with a more democratic one. When they bought Brecqhou from Sark in 1993 for a reported £2.3m, the brothers were astonished to learn that under the island's archaic laws they still had to pay a 13th of the price (known as a treizième) to Mr Beaumont, an amiable former aircraft engineer who has been Sark's Seigneur since 1974 when he inherited the title.

They also discovered that under the island's primogeniture laws, which date back from when Elizabeth I gave Sark crown dependency status in 1565, Brecquou and the enormous gothic-style castle the brothers built there would have to be bequeathed to the elder Barclay's eldest son.

The brothers responded by successfully taking Sark to the European Court of Human Rights and began a sustained campaign against the ancient regime, a campaign which this year has became bitter.

Opponents have been particularly upset by a newsletter, Sark News, published by an unknown person called "Mrs S Oliver" and owned by Brecqhou Development Ltd. In the run-up to yesterday's election the 25p newsletter published a series of scathing attacks on those standing against Barclay supporters, whilst simultaneously praising candidates such as Kevin Delaney, who also happens to manage the Barclays' estates on Sark. In the latest issue of Sark News, Mrs Baker's 65-year-old husband, Edric, who heads the island's planning committee, is described as a "feudal talibanist". Earlier this year he refused a request by the Barclays to build a new helipad on the island.

"If anyone says anything against the Barclay brothers you can guarantee you'll end up in Sark News," said Mr Baker yesterday. "It is generally accepted by most islanders that constitutional reform was needed to make the island more democratic. What we oppose is political meddling and tactics which bitterly divide the community."

Sark: The facts

* The island has a population of 600, 474 of whom are registered voters.

* As a crown dependency, Britain is responsible for defence and law and order, otherwise Sark has its own legislature and judiciary.

* Cars are banned and there is no tax, or unemployment.

* Until yesterday the Chief Pleas, the legislative body, was run by 40 unelected "tenants" and 12 elected deputies. It will now consist of 28 fully-elected deputies.

* Older inhabitants of the island can still speak Sercquiais, a local Norman patios.

* The constitutional head of the island is the Seigneur, a hereditary title bequeathed by Elizabeth I in 1565 when it became a crown dependency.