Sunday, 14 December 2008

So near, yet so far

From the top of the lane, where I live, I can look across to the island of Sark, separated from Jersey by only a few miles of shallow sea, and yet, if one has the pleasure of visiting it, a world away in almost everything but climate and language. Jersey is a busy, impatient place, full of people frantically overworking to finance their conspicuous consumption, and losers in the rat-race comforting their disappointment with alcohol or heroin. Sark is a quiet, carless oasis of tranquility, whose inhabitants cherish their cosy peace.

The extent of the differences from Jersey has been highlighted this week, by the General Election that was held there. The General Election itself was the first contrast. In Jersey it is felt that the public could not be trusted with the power to thoroughly remove an unsatisfactory regime, and the system is designed to allow only piecemeal change. This year, as always, the inability to make any big change discouraged the overwhelming majority of entitled electors from bothering to vote. Sark, though had never had a public vote before, and the turnout was a huge proportion of its tiny population.

The second striking contrast between Sark and Jersey, is that in Sark, the supporters of democratic reform, who brought about the General Election, were also looking in the longer term to selling the island out to rampant commercialism, whereas Sark's establishment wished to retain the quaint and quiet lifestyle that made it such a delight to visit or inhabit. In Jersey, it is the democrats who are sick and tired of being sold down the river, and the establishment who rub their hands joyfully at the prospect of massive development to accommodate soaring immigration. The calculation by the establishment in both islands, that the general public are deeply sceptical of the benefits of living in a highly developed island, leads to different strategies. When Sark reluctantly bowed to mainland pressure to institute full democracy, the old guard stood on a platform of defending Sark as it has been, and were endorsed by their newly enfranchised voters. In Jersey, the establishment got back in by murky spin and shrewd avoidance of vote-splitting, and by the grace of a badly or cunningly designed electoral process most qualified by a minority of the votes cast by a minority of voters. The losers, of course, got even smaller minorities, so they cannot complain too much, but being elected in polls topped by abstentions is not much of a mandate. Not that they have to care about mandates – they are in office for the next three years and can do as they please.

A third contrast is the different attitudes of the electorates to blackmail. In Jersey's 2005 elections, much was made of a quote from a leading representative of the mighty finance industry, that it would leave at the click of a mouse if its puppets were not re-elected, wiping out a quarter of Jersey's jobs instantly, and many more in the knock-ons. So, the few who voted decided that readiness to instantly leave if it could not pull strings was a sufficient level of commitment, and backed the finance industry's men. (Note to non-Jersey readers – finance industry is a local euphemism) In Sark's 2008 election, the Barclay brothers, who had bought up a quarter of Sark's employers while promoting democracy as an avenue to their own seizure of power, likewise let it be known that they would be off, if their stooges did not win. They were comprehensively beaten, to their fury.

A hard decision is, what lesson should be learned from looking at these contrasts? Jersey long ago sold its soul, and is proudly open for business, red light shamelessly shining. Sark has refused to be bought, and can hold its head high. Yet, one cannot live and raise families on pride alone. Sark is suddenly a disaster zone, even as Jersey wallows in its customary orgy of materialism, "Christ"mas. If Jersey were to lose its finance industry, whether through our own intransigence in the face of blackmail, or, more likely, through changes elsewhere turning the money supply off at the mains, we too could be where Sark is now, and by and large, less able to cope. Is the moral, if blackmailed, give in. Or is it, if blackmailed, hold out and be damned. I favour a third option; don't let anyone get into a position of more power over you than they can be trusted with. Jersey needs some rebalancing of the economy to achieve this though. At present we are right under the thumb.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Tantrum of the Century

There have been strange goings-on in Sark. (For any random readers not from the Channel Islands, a small and beautiful island a few miles North-West of Jersey, with quaintly old-fashioned ways. Readers who found this blog through local links can skip the first three paragraphs.)

For centuries they have proudly clung to a semi-feudal local government, in which only the 40 principal landowners were eligible to vote. In the late 20th Century a pair of Scottish newspaper magnates, the Barclay twins, bought an islet just off Sark's coast, and within its jurisdiction, and built a magnificent palace for themselves upon it. However, their islet did not come with a seat in the local parliament, [correction: only one seat]so denying them the power that their wealth would have bought them in most tax havens. The magnates did not get so rich by being quitters, though, and they mounted a campaign to push the mainland government into forcing reform in Sark.

So, at long last, the first fully democratic election has been held. The contrasts with neighbouring Jersey are enough to be another article in their own right( coming soon). In the expectation of taking power in due course, the Barclays bought up many local businesses and properties, with a view to transforming the island into a hive of intensive commercialism. In the run-up to the election they let it be known that their continued commitment depended on votes for their puppets. Or blackmail, in plain English. The Sercquois, however, saw sacrificing all that currently makes Sark a lovely place to live or visit, to be ruled by a bunch of blackmailers, as a double whammy, and a massive majority of the tiny population backed the old guard instead.

And so, the true colours of those stalwart defenders of democracy, the Barclay brothers, were finally unfurled. No gracious congratulations to the victors. No reflections on their failure to convince the voters this time, nor vows to present a stronger case next time. Instead, in an enormous [in both the modern and archaic senses] tantrum, these petulant senile delinquents instantly closed all their investments on the island, thus throwing a quarter of the population out of work.

One can hardly deny the right of a businessman to close an unsatisfactory enterprise at any time and for any reason: Even if one tried to make it illegal to do so for an unapproved reason, an appearance of legitimate grounds could always be contrived with suitable economies of truth. The closure of a quarter of Sark at this time and for this reason, though, reflects nothing but shame and disgrace upon these wicked old men.

In contrast, the brave decision of the Sercquois, not to sell their communal soul, even in the face of serious blackmail, is admirably heroic. Here are people who value the exceptionally high quality life that they enjoy, and would not sacrifice it for mere greed. That the Barclays see fit to destroy them, because they could not buy them, is an immense moral crime, despite the impossibility of making it a legal one.

I hope that strenuous efforts to assist the Sercquois are made by the still-prosperous islands around them. The Barclays, though deserve nothing but ostracism from decent society. Let them fly back to their palace in the sea with their tails between their legs, and rot there forever.
( I shall follow this piece up with another on the comparisons with Jersey)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Your Home may be at Risk, if Someone Else...!

This week, there was an interesting thread on BBC Radio2's Jeremy Vine Show, about banks evicting paid-up tenants for defaults by their landlords. The initial story was on an American sheriff in Chicago, who was responsible for carrying out forcible evictions under local law. After a few cases of having to put paid-up, law abiding tenants out on the streets, to have their chattels stolen by passers-by, the sheriff had consulted his conscience and refused to enforce any further such eviction orders. This tale elicited audience responses recounting the same thing going on in Britain.

It is quite reasonable, that if a landlord defaults on the mortgage of a rental property, their lender should be able to recoup their losses by taking over, and disposing of the property. However, if a lender has funded a buy-to-let, then the intention was for it to be tenanted, and a third party's home. Therefore, if the lender should find itself needing to repossess the property, it should be repossessed as a tenanted home. The lender has no conceivable moral right to take the property with vacant possession instead, and it is deeply disappointing to learn that the present state of the law allows a court to give them a legal right to do this. It inflicts groundless hardship on an innocent party to give the lender something which was never intended to be available.

In these troubled times, when repossessions may be expected to rise, there is an urgent case for governments to act to forbid this practice, wherever there is a defective law permitting it.