Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A prehistoric monster which has mysteriously survived into the modern world
November 2, 2011 9:23 PM   Subscribe

The City of London Corporation has been in the news lately related to Occupy London. But the deeper story of how this medieval remnant functions in 21st century England is far stranger... and more sinister.
posted by Joakim Ziegler (51 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not getting the "sinister" bit. It's effectively a local council with unusual voting laws and better access to Parliament. It is under the control of Parliament, and more importantly the businesses located within it are also under the control of Parliament. So why is this so scary?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:31 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


So why is this so scary?

I'm sure Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore can write up something about that.
posted by kmz at 9:34 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


A plutocracy isn't sinister?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:39 PM on November 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


The City basically wrecked Britain's economy. I would call that sinister.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Legalized corruption, just like here. Monied influence buying its way into advantage, at everyone else expense. Sick, and corrosive to a transparent society. We are now paying the price for driving our respective cultures from inside financial vehicles that are outfitted with translucent windshields.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:59 PM on November 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's effectively a local council with unusual voting laws and better access to Parliament.

It's a little more than unusual when businesses have three times as many votes as residents. Such unabashed plutocracy is quite unusual indeed in supposed democracies.
posted by grouse at 10:04 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


For more anachronistic English municipali weirdness, see The Liberty of Norton Folgate (not just a awesome album but a onetime actual municapal entity wthin London)
posted by KingEdRa at 10:06 PM on November 2, 2011


Nicholas Shaxson, the author of the New Statesman piece, answered a couple of questions about the Corporation at the site from his book on offshore finance Treasure Islands (previously)
posted by Abiezer at 10:29 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


/The City basically wrecked Britain's economy. I would call that sinister.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 PM on November 2 [+] [!]


just as "Wall Street" as commonly used in the US does not refer literally to Wall Street in New York City , but to the US high-end financial trading and investment banking industry in general (so a hedge fund based in Greenwich, CT is still "Wall Street), "The City" in British common usage does not refer literally to the City of London as a geographic territory and political entity but to the UK high-end financial industry in general (a major investment bank headquartered in the Docklands (not a part of the City of London and not governed by the Corporation of London) would still be considered to be part of "the City"
posted by Bwithh at 10:38 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Monbiot also did a piece on City of London.
posted by the cydonian at 11:13 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't that just the third link? Did you mean to link to something else?
posted by GeckoDundee at 11:27 PM on November 2, 2011


I can't wait to read this. Like I may have said, part of my dissertation research involves the various Weavers Guilds within England in the 16th and 17th centuries. I'm always stunned at how different the Guilds inside of the Square Mile are from those outside, and how strange the City of London is as a concept.

And to see those traces not just linger, but fundamentally affect the modern world is really fascinating. Fascinating in the same way some horrible, mutant gene lingering in our DNA can produce the worst suffering in a human body.
posted by strixus at 11:37 PM on November 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


The city of Boston has the similarly sinister Boston Corporation.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:46 AM on November 3, 2011


Wow, I'd heard there were weird eccentricities to the City of London, but I had no idea it was that bad. If you can read the New Statesman and not be a little terrified for the fate of modern liberal democracy, well, I envy you.

It's like in one tiny enclave they just decided to rip off the facade of democracy. I mean, we all know that most politicians are beholden to corporations anyways, but at least they have to go out and kiss babies and put on fake accents and pretend to care about average Joes. To have a political entity who's sole purpose is to defend the rights of financial corporations terrifies me, and I'm not even British.

I get that the City holds lots of influence over entrenched politicians which is why it's managed to stick around, but can anyone familiar with the situation explain why there hasn't been a popular movement to turn it in to a normal municipal government? Is "tradition" that strong a force?
posted by auto-correct at 12:57 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't that just the third link? Did you mean to link to something else?

Oops, so it is. I stumbled upon Monbiot's piece through linkage without realizing that I had it open all the time in another tab. My apologies.
posted by the cydonian at 12:57 AM on November 3, 2011


For more anachronistic English municipali weirdness, see The Liberty of Norton Folgate (not just a awesome album but a onetime actual municapal entity wthin London)

"This track is currently not available in the United Kingdom"

And this is why we can't have nice things...
posted by Devonian at 1:34 AM on November 3, 2011


It's a little more than unusual when businesses have three times as many votes as residents.

It makes a lot of sense to give a voice to people who work in an area, as well as those who live there. I'd prefer the votes to be cast by workers, but giving a proportion of municipal votes to employers is surely better than ignoring the workers' interests altogether. The alternative - restricting the franchise to residents - means that the government represents a comparatively small group of people with interests very different to the hundreds of thousands of commuting workers who use the area every day.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:15 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The City basically wrecked Britain's economy. I would call that sinister.

Not to defend the greedy bastards, but without "the City" Britain would have had no basically economy at all.

The financial services sector was pretty much all that Britain had - they let it get out of hand - and now the whole sinking Island will go back to the 1970s.

I imagine Scotland will be ever more anxious to get out - while they still have some gas and oil left.
posted by three blind mice at 2:38 AM on November 3, 2011


Joe in Australia, I'm not sure what you are smoking, but it must be good.

Anyway, the voting arrangements of the City of London Corporation are not in the least aimed to give a voice to the people who work there. To start with, the votes are not allocated according to the numbers of employees working there, but to the total number of employees of each corporation headquartered in the Square Mile. In most cases, only a small fraction of those employees work in the City itself, or even within the Greater London area.
posted by Skeptic at 2:39 AM on November 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


I imagine Scotland will be ever more anxious to get out

Isn't the Royal Bank of Scotland a major part of the problem? I had the impression that on their own the Scots' ability to handle their debts resembled Iceland's.
posted by Segundus at 3:08 AM on November 3, 2011


The continuing existence of the City of London as a holdover from pre-medieval social and political arrangements is pretty fascinating. Sadly, it seems to have been co-opted by not-so-secret organizations dedicated to nothing as interesting as the return of Pre-Human Beings (but damaging nevertheless). Reality is too disappointing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:16 AM on November 3, 2011


Not to defend the greedy bastards, but without "the City" Britain would have had no basically economy at all.

The financial services sector was pretty much all that Britain had - they let it get out of hand - and now the whole sinking Island will go back to the 1970s.


The rise of the financial services sector at the expense of other parts of the economy was the result of deliberate industrial policy (this hagiographic piece in the Torygraph mentions it as a good thing), yet despite that it still contributes less to GDP today than manufacturing.
posted by Abiezer at 3:22 AM on November 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


Isn't the Royal Bank of Scotland a major part of the problem? I had the impression that on their own the Scots' ability to handle their debts resembled Iceland's.

Long & complicated story with RBS, but the "toxic" bits that led to the nationalisation / bailout were generally either bits in the City that were bought with the NatWest deal or on a much larger scale bits that were bought in the ABN AMRO deal. Now you can absolutely question the logic of either deal (many did at the time) and absolutely challenge the ambition and ego of the CEO to try and make a conservative Scottish bank the biggest company in the world (which it was, briefly) but the issues were not really domestic Scottish issues. Same with HBOS. It was primarily the deal with the UK's biggest house lender (Halifax) that brought down a fundamentally conservative Scottish bank.
posted by khites at 3:26 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I get that the City holds lots of influence over entrenched politicians which is why it's managed to stick around, but can anyone familiar with the situation explain why there hasn't been a popular movement to turn it in to a normal municipal government? Is "tradition" that strong a force?

That's a very good question indeed, and one that begs for a longer and better informed answer than I have time or ability to give.

Factors involved probably include the gradual depoliticisation of the British public over the past 50 years, at least in part because of the ubiquity of a right wing, tabloid press that keeps their attention firmly focused on celebrity culture and immigration. Therefore a lot of people don't even know about stuff like this. I read the Guardian and I'd never even heard of the Remembrancer before this article.

The fact that there is someone in the House of Parliament whose job is to plead the special case of the City is a scary thought, even though they're not short of privileged access anyway.

Quite frankly, the whole thing stinks... But we knew that already.
posted by Chairboy at 4:04 AM on November 3, 2011


khites - your story is correct, but so is the point that RBS and HBOS : Scotland were pretty much exactly the same story as the Kaupthing et al: Iceland. I.e. their failures were a result of excess risk taking outside of their historic franchises. Although even by RBOS' standards the funding risk inherent in the Icelandic banks was much greater. Its almost like you pushed RBOS' acquisitive business model onto Northern Rock's funding model.

I'm too lazy to look at RBoS/HBOS as a % of GDP relative Kaupthing et al as a % of Icelandic GDP. I suspect the latter was more extreme than the former, but not by as big a margin as you think.
posted by JPD at 4:10 AM on November 3, 2011


90% of RBS's operations are in England - more: Scotland and the banking bailout
posted by titus-g at 4:39 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


yes and probably 99% of Kaupthing's operations were outside Iceland. That link proves the point.
posted by JPD at 4:48 AM on November 3, 2011


So bear in mind that this is the first time ever that I've heard about the City of London; I mean, while I've heard the City of London being used as a metronym for UK's financial services industry, I did not realize that there's an actual governmental body named as such. I've also heard of a Lord Mayor of London, but somehow presumed it was a ceremonial title, not dissimilar to Sheriff of Mumbai, for instance.

It makes a lot of sense to give a voice to people who work in an area, as well as those who live there. I'd prefer the votes to be cast by workers, but giving a proportion of municipal votes to employers is surely better than ignoring the workers' interests altogether. The alternative - restricting the franchise to residents - means that the government represents a comparatively small group of people with interests very different to the hundreds of thousands of commuting workers who use the area every day.

If that's the case, the real question ultimately becomes why the City of London needs (or has) a separate local government in the first place. That's the reason why I found Monbiot's piece interesting; the answer seems to be, nobody really knows. It just exists, separate from the rest of UK and still, somehow controlling it.

The other argument against it being a democratic body is the fact that none of the actual residents or workers there can actually run for the post of Lord Mayor; there's this insidious set of conditions you need to pass before you get to be one of the governing elders.

One final point, unrelated to voting rights there, but on whether it is a tax-haven or not: seems like the most common refrain deriding the piece (on New Statesman and Guardian's comments sections) is that the City of London is still subject to British banking laws. That may be so, but I think the truer perspective is from the outside: to a random tax regulatory authority elsewhere, this is a governmental body which absolutely will not co-operate in ensuring tax compliance for them.

Or at least, that's the gist I'm getting from all of this.

Therefore a lot of people don't even know about stuff like this. I read the Guardian and I'd never even heard of the Remembrancer before this article.

Again to reference Monbiot's point, a bigger reason could be that, because the UK has an unwritten constitution, all kinds of special cases get swept in with the other, shall we say more legitimate, values-based institutions.
--
On a completely different note, seems to me the situation between Greater London and the City of London is the exact inverse of the relationship between Old Delhi town and the Red Fort just before the Sepoy Mutiny, in that a legitimate (at least in the eyes of the local populace) ruler ruled in a small enclave (the Red Fort) surrounded fully by a vast realm ruled by a corporation, the East India Company.

Both sets of enclaves also ridiculous ceremonies involving the projection of power, but again as the exact opposite; while the sovereign of the British Realm dramatically steps into the City at a gate that no longer exists and has a ridiculous ceremony involving symbolically positioning swords and maces to symbolize her overlordship over the City, the sovereign of the Mughal Empire had to ask for permission from the Company representative to step out of the Red Fort into greater Delhi, as it were, presumably involving his mace-bearers and The Official Bearer of the Mahi Maaratib.

Not making any real point on any contemporary relevance admittedly, but given that the City's traditions seem to have persisted unbroken from the late Cretaceous period or something, it's an interesting contrast between Delhi and London in early to mid 19th century.
posted by the cydonian at 4:53 AM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Very interesting articles: thanks, JZ. I'd never even heard of the term remembrancer before. I see there's also a Queen's Remembrancer who also has some dealings with the Corporation, notably the 'Quit Rents ceremony' which originated in 1211 and includes a presentation from the City to the Court of Exchequer of two knives 'one blunt and one sharp', their qualities apparently 'tested by the City's Comptroller trying to cut through a hazel rod one cubit in length (19 inches) and the thickness of the Remembrancer's forefinger'. It's like something out of Gormenghast...
posted by misteraitch at 4:56 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


No need for apologies, the cydonian. I was hoping you'd found another Monibot piece on the topic and just stuffed up the link. Oh well.
posted by GeckoDundee at 5:18 AM on November 3, 2011


Can we mention lizard people at this point?

Because, you know, if we ever decided to go hunting, I have a suggestion for a lair...
posted by mediareport at 6:06 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Um, no offense, GeckoDundee
posted by mediareport at 6:08 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Have you ever observed them showing unusual interest in shiny objects or spaceships?

This net, it is both wide and specific.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:10 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


grouse: "It's effectively a local council with unusual voting laws and better access to Parliament.

It's a little more than unusual when businesses have three times as many votes as residents. Such unabashed plutocracy is quite unusual indeed in supposed democracies.
"

"It's not a democracy, it's a republic plutocracy."
posted by symbioid at 6:23 AM on November 3, 2011


Can we scale this issue a bit here people. The City of London only has 11k residents. Yes its crazy, yes its a relic of another era, yes it ought to be modernized. But it just isn't that big of deal in the grand scheme of things.
posted by JPD at 6:46 AM on November 3, 2011


JPD, it's a much bigger deal than you appear to think:

London is the world's greatest foreign exchange market, with much of the trade conducted in the City of London. Of the $3.98 trillion daily global turnover, as measured in 2007, trading in London accounted for around $1.36 trillion, or 34.1% of the total.

[...]

Many major global companies have their headquarters in the City, including Aviva,[50] BT Group,[51] Lloyds Banking Group,[52] Old Mutual,[53] Prudential,[54] Standard Chartered,[55] and Unilever.[56]

A number of the world's largest law firms are headquartered in the City, including Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Eversheds and Slaughter and May.

posted by Skeptic at 6:58 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you miss the point. The issues with the City are mostly about the disenfranchisement of its residents. The companies that are located there is pretty much besides the point. Its not like they operate outside of national law. Arguments surrounding the ineffective regulation by the FSA or the BoE tacit support of tax havens are arguments to have with those institutions. The fact that they are located in a jurisdiction with an incredibly strange concept of democracy might be a symptom, but its not the cause.

also isn't the FSA out in Canary Wharf anyway?

Or put another way there are two "City of Londons"
The first is the synonym for the financial services industry in London
the second is this weird little quirk of history that has a very odd concept of democracy. Reforming the later is the right thing to do, but blaming it for anything to do with the excess of the GFC seems misguided.
posted by JPD at 7:14 AM on November 3, 2011


It's more the disproportionate lobbying influence the Corporation gains, facilitated in large part due to the rococo historical legacy. Times have certainly moved on and it's not the only advocate for the financial sector, and I'm sure they'd continue to get access if it was dissolved, but the institutions of the Corporation privilege it in various ways (can demand meetings with ministers, the Remembrancer, etc.) that members have certainly seen fit to defend down the years.
posted by Abiezer at 7:36 AM on November 3, 2011


JPD the issue is not the disenfranchisement of the 11,000 residents of the City of London (who, in any case, considering the housing prices within the Square Mile, are unlikely to be an oppressed bunch). The issue is that, through their direct representation in the Corporation of the City of London, large corporations and other financial interests wield a surprising amount of power in the government of the United Kingdom.

You must consider that individual London boroughs (of which the City is one) are quite powerful. When politicians talk of "devolving power towards local authorities", they mean authorities such as the Corporation of the City of London. Margaret Thatcher infamously abolished the Greater London Council when it threatened the Corporation's power. Labour subsequently recreated it as the Greater London Authority, but it has been far less bolshy since.
posted by Skeptic at 7:42 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems naive to think that the disproportionate influence of an industry that is 25% of Greater London's GDP is a result of some arcane laws as opposed to the fact that its. ya'know, 25% of GDP, and that it produces lots of rich people who like to give other people money.
posted by JPD at 7:55 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Has anyone tried a crucifix, or a stake through the heart at midnight?
posted by Twang at 7:59 AM on November 3, 2011


It seems naive to think that the disproportionate influence of an industry that is 25% of Greater London's GDP is a result of some arcane laws as opposed to the fact that its. ya'know, 25% of GDP, and that it produces lots of rich people who like to give other people money.

I don't believe anybody is arguing that. But the survival of those arcane laws is itself a clear symptom of the actual problem which you point out, which is the power of money.
posted by Skeptic at 8:17 AM on November 3, 2011


And dismantling the arcane laws would be a nice symbolic start to addressing the deeper problem.
posted by mediareport at 9:03 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't believe anybody is arguing that

If that's the case then I think we're arguing past one another. The persistance of the Corporation is a symptom not a cause. And surely dismantling it would be a fine symbolic start.
posted by JPD at 9:34 AM on November 3, 2011


Also worth mentioning are the City of London Police's links to Scientology. The 'sinister' politics of the City of London do have real world implications.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd prefer the votes to be cast by workers, but giving a proportion of municipal votes to employers is surely better than ignoring the workers' interests altogether.

No. Historically, employers have often been the last people to advocate for and uphold the best interests of workers (interests like the 80, 60, 50, or 40-hour work week, safe working conditions, lack of child labor, sick days, paid vacations and holidays, just plain old pay, safe and affordable housing, rights to free speech and association, etc.). Which is not to say there aren't good employers out there currently, but the way most economies around the world are currently structured, there's a fundamental conflict of interest between employers and workers. Healthy democracies actively oppose conflicts of interest, rather than actively promoting them.
posted by eviemath at 3:41 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eviemath: we're talking about the local government of a tiny municipality. It doesn't determine child labor laws or, realistically, have much to do with safe and affordable housing. There are hundreds of thousands of workers who want to be able to come into work, buy their lunch, and leave. In this regard the interests of the employers and workers are pretty well aligned - why wouldn't they be? In contrast, the residents would probably like quieter streets and shops that primarily cater to their needs.

In an ideal world there would be some way to balance workers' and residents' representation directly. I imagine that the increased use of smartphones with GPS might one day do that - your vote would be based on the time you spend in an area. Until that day, it seems to me that workers get at least some benefit when their employers are represented in local government. It's nothing like a real representation of the workers' views, but it's a better outcome than limiting representation to around 3% of the people who actually use the area.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:53 PM on November 3, 2011


Wow, Coobeastie, your 2nd Scientology link is especially ridiculous. Calling a secretive religious group a "cult" was considered a City Police-worthy "insult" or "abuse"? Clearly all that wooing in your first link yielded some results. Bravo to that 15-year-old kid for refusing to put down his sign.
posted by mediareport at 6:30 PM on November 3, 2011


The local governments in most places in the U.S. and Canada are the primary level of government responsible for enforcing housing quality standards; determining where, when, and how people can legally congregate and exercise their free speech; local policing (in any municipality small town sized or larger in the U.S. and in cities in Canada, at least) and how tolerant or antagonistic the police are toward, say, striking and picketing workers; setting local ordinances and zoning that affect stuff like shelters, food banks and soup kitchens, and where, when, and how people can be homeless or attempt to earn some money (from panhandling, squeegeeing, prostitution, or the more legal standing around a street corner known for being a pick-up spot for day laborers (eg. construction or farm labor)); and just serving as a primary conduit or voice between the people who live, work, and do business in their municipality and state or provincial levels of government.

Local councilors' offices also do a lot of work helping constituents access government services at all levels, such as income assistance, unemployment benefits, other employment issues, citizenship and immigration issues, and smaller issues like community development, recreation programs, public safety initiatives, issues around local schools - all sorts of stuff. Services such as women's shelters, though non-governmental, are often operated at the local level with some support from local government (and certainly some protection agreement with local law enforcement).

With the trend toward weakening the scope of federal government involvement in social programs of all sorts in both the U.S. and Canada, state and provincial governments have been offloading more duties onto local municipalities, too. Local governments don't set major labor laws, but many do an awful lot that affects workers, either directly or indirectly. Certainly the sort of influence that the City of London Corporation has had at the federal level in the UK, according to the article, has had quite significant impacts on workers (eg. the security of their pensions, unemployment benefits, etc.).
posted by eviemath at 9:22 PM on November 3, 2011


Eviemath: it's not all that different in the UK and Australia (except for the police bit, mostly). But a lot of these issues are people issues, not ones restricted to residents, and I stand by my view that there has to be some mechanism to give workers representation when they outnumber residents by more than 10:1.

Incidentally, it's a bit funny that we're arguing about how democracy is best served in the UK, given the extent of hereditary privilege there.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:05 PM on November 3, 2011


But a lot of these issues are people issues, not ones restricted to residents, and I stand by my view that there has to be some mechanism to give workers representation when they outnumber residents by more than 10:1.

Sure. I can see some reasons for and some reasons against including representation of non-residents in local government, but on the whole find your argument here not unreasonable. What I'm disputing is that employers (in general) will adequately represent the interests of the workers in their employ, even at the local government level. I was trying to provide a list of local government functions that tend to affect workers, but where employers would often have diverging interests.
posted by eviemath at 4:45 AM on November 4, 2011


« Older What would happen if a monarchy ruled in part of A...  |  The Shadow Superpower: a surve... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments