Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The City of London Corporation: where democracy goes to die

As the tide goes out, all sorts of things are being exposed. The City of London Corporation is one of those ancient and venerable institutions which hold vast power but are accountable to a tiny elite. It has survived for over a millennium with scarcely a challenge, hiding its activities behind an annual parade - the Lord Mayor's show - and discreetly bending ears in the corridors of power. Now it hogs the limelight, targetted by Occupy LSX activists and portrayed by the Guardian's George Monbiot as "the dark heart of Britain, the place where democracy goes to die, immensely powerful, equally unaccountable."

We have previously blogged on the appalling governance structure of this throwback to 'time immemorial'. Monbiot captures the problems in just a few sentences:
"There are 25 electoral wards in the Square Mile. In four of them, the 9,000 people who live within its boundaries are permitted to vote. In the remaining 21, the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with 10 workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79. It's not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who "appoint" the voters. Plutocracy, pure and simple."
And to what purposes do the plutocrats exercise their powers? Undermining democracies elsewhere, supporting tax havens, promoting tax competition (see Mark Field's comments cited in The Telegraph), and pushing for financial deregulation:
"The Lord Mayor's role, the Corporation's website tells us, is to "open doors at the highest levels" for business, in the course of which he "expounds the values of liberalisation". Liberalisation is what bankers call deregulation: the process that caused the financial crash. The Corporation boasts that it "handle[s] issues in Parliament of specific interest to the City", such as banking reform and financial services regulation."
Handles issues in Parliament: how many local authorities can do that? Very few people have ever heard about the Remembrancer, a City of London appointee, who sits in the House of Commons (Britain's Lower House) and serves as a permanent lobbyist for City of London interests. As Monbiot notes:
"In one respect at least the Corporation acts as the superior body: it imposes on the House of Commons a figure called the remembrancer: an official lobbyist who sits behind the Speaker's chair and ensures that, whatever our elected representatives might think, the City's rights and privileges are protected. . . . There are, as if in a novel by China Miéville, two cities, one of which must unsee the other."
The City of London Corporation exercises its powers with such dexterity that scarcely anyone beyond the Square Mile even registers its existence. Monbiot wonders whether one in ten British people has any idea of what it is and how it works. He's being generous. While working with Nick Shaxson on his exposé of tax havens, this blogger asked dozens and dozens of people about the Corporation: none, not one, had the faintest idea about it, beyond the smiling bloke with the fancy horse and carriage. Unchallenged hegemony in its purest form.

Unused to political dissent, the Corporation has come unstuck over its clumsy handling of the Occupy LSX camp at Saint Pauls Cathedral. Its instinct was to use its legal firepower to evict the campers and retreat from the limelight. That strategy has failed and the occupiers are challenging the Corporation: submit to democratic oversight and control. Brilliant. And as Monbiot points out when rounding off his article:
"But now at last we begin to see it. It happens that the Lord Mayor's Show, in which the Corporation flaunts its ancient wealth and power, takes place on 12 November. If ever there were a pageant that cries out for peaceful protest and dissent, here it is. Expect fireworks – and not just those laid on by the Lord Mayor."
Read the entire article here. And read about the plans for protest on 12 November here.


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