There’s been a lot in the news this week about the Occupy London protest around St Paul’s. The Cathedral has closed for the first time since the Second World War, and there is talk of legal action to move the protestors on. There is talk of health and safety, highway regulations, and the definitions of protest, but fundamentally the protest needs to be moved is that it is ‘disruptive to the City’ as a spokesman said on the radio this morning. I should hope so. The City is in desperate need of disruption.
In fact, I doubt that even the Occupy London protestors are aware of all the reasons why. The protest focuses on the banks and the stock exchange, on the economy and inequality. There is little about the City itself, but the protest is an opportune moment to investigate a strange anachronism that almost nobody is aware of. I only became aware of it myself through reading Nicholas Shaxson’s book Treasure Islands, from which most of the following is drawn.
Also known as the Square Mile (it’s actually 1.22 miles square), The City of London is mysteriously exempt from the rest of Britain’s democracy. It operates as a small independent unit within the rest of the capital, a bit like the Vatican in Rome, albeit without the statehood. It doesn’t have a local council – it’s run by the City of London Corporation. Boris Johnson is the elected Mayor of London, but he has no jurisdiction over the City – it has it’s own Lord Mayor, based out of Mansion House.
The Corporation pre-dates Parliament, and so doesn’t really see itself as answerable to the British government. Technically, it has a similar status to Britain’s offshore territories like Jersey or Guernsey, and it has a long history of exempting itself from UK law. As long ago as 1086 it could be found declining to take part in the Domesday Book survey, and every attempt to integrate it or reform it, over centuries, has been thwarted.
The City operates according to its own political code. It has a full-time representative in the House of Commons, and has done since 1571. He’s called ‘the remembrancer‘, who is tasked with “maintaining and enhancing the City’s status and ensuring that its established rights are safeguarded.” The remembrancer, currently Paul Double, is the only non-MP who gets to sit in Parliament.
A full time seat in parliament isn’t the City’s only privilege. It retains the right to meetings on demand with the Queen. The Prime Minister must meet with the corporation within ten days if they request a meeting. It is extremely wealthy, and does not declare its earnings. And it has the right to entertain foreign dignitaries and run international trade delegations.
Perhaps most bizarrely of all, it’s the only place in Britain where corporations get to vote. Most of the area is commercial, so the local authority has extended votes to those that work in the area as well as those that live there. Only 9,000 people actually live within the district, but there are 23,000 corporate votes. When it comes to local elections, corporations outnumber citizens. As Nicholas Shaxson points out, “Goldman Sachs, the Bank of China, Moscow Narodny Bank and KPMG have been voting in British elections.”
This arcane little mini-empire is the world’s biggest financial hub, with half of the world’s trade in equities, 45% of derivatives trading and 35% of global currency trading. The fact that it is essentially independent from the rest of the economy is key to its success, as it operates as a quasi-tax haven at the heart of the economy.
So yes, occupy the City, not just the Stock Exchange. Call out the Corporation, and run the Lord Mayor out of town in his golden carriage. This old seat of wealth and privilege has no place in a 21st century democracy.
Looks like this is beginning to get the attention it needs. George Monbiot writes about it here, and there’s an alternative Lord Mayor’s Parade being planned on the 12th of November – just the campaign piece that was missing.