13 April 2017
Fading Icons: The Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Councilmen of the Corporation of the City of London
All around the world populism is sweeping the established politics aside, the old order and ancient ways give place to the new. We perhaps saw it first in the Middle East and North Africa with the Arab Spring – though that has faded rapidly to a pretty bleak winter – and then we marvelled at a progression of dominos as the EU Referendum result swept away Mr Cameron and much of his cabinet. Across the water, while Bernie Saunders threatened the Clinton coronation, Mr Trump prevented a Bush one and then seized the White House.
In the peace loving Netherlands, the remarkable coiffure of Geert Wilders pushed the ruling moderate right coalition further from the centre as Dutch politics suddenly stopped being consensual and started to offer clear choices – with the left and right fringes giving haircuts to the moderate middle. Austria only just failed to elect a far right president (choosing the Green candidate instead) on a simple majority. We have a French Presidential contest looming where it seems quite possible that the traditional political parties will not feature among the top three nominees from the first round. And there are Italian elections yet to come. There the traditional party structures have almost vanished.
Is there nowhere that political tradition and serenity rules? In our edition of the 16th March we looked at the elections then approaching in the City of London, when all one hundred seats in the Corporation were coming up for the judgement of the electorate. The shock waves from that have spread – well, it is probably true to say that the shock waves have not spread very far, but certainly in the City there has been a sense that barricades may be beginning to be pushed into place among the glass and steel. The Labour Party won five seats, having previously won one at a by-election. All of these were in City wards with a high residential population, in the north-west corner of the Square Mile, around the Barbican and Golden Lane estates, part of the great post-war rebuilding of the heavily bombed City which in this corner was reinvented through the medium of Brutalist architecture. The rebuilding was not just designed to show that the City read and admired Le Corbusier along with the rest of 1950’s hip Britain; its residential focus was to help the City survive as a self-governing area, there then being a severe threat of abolition of the business vote and the incorporation of the City into a neighbouring borough. Hackney, anybody?
It is not just having a Labour bloc on the Common Council, or the prospect one day of a Labour Lord mayor of London replacing the mayoral finery and waving a Mao hat in the Lord Mayor’s Procession, that is causing the City grandees alarm. It is also the concept of party politics entering the Guildhall, the great City tradition being that candidates are “independent”. One does not have to scratch very far to find that most members of the Common Council are only independent when it comes to the City but it is a good line to sell to local electors (and to any future reforming Westminster government) that the City is run in a spirit of pure pragmatism.
But this approach is showing signs of disintegration; not only is there the major shock of a lurch to the left; there is another grouping which is causing consternation. This is a strange alliance called “Temple and Farringdon Together”, not the most catchy of names but certainly clear enough as to its geographic origins. TAFT, as it does not call itself, is an alliance of Barristers and Butchers, the Inns of Court and the Burghers (or at least burger makers) of Smithfield. This swept the board in Farringdon Without – the Without meaning that it is outside the ancient City wall (For those curious about these things there is indeed a ward of Farringdon Within). TAFT seems an innocuous enough grouping, wanting to improve public transport and reduce pollution in the City, but it has swept the old independent representatives aside and set a trend which may spread – that of special interest groups in different wards. It is, in City terms, revolutionary indeed.
Does this matter? In some ways no, not at all. The City is more or less that literal Square Mile and just runs itself. It has done that task historically quite well, though there are constant mutterings about the amount of money spent on prettifying the City whilst the neighbouring boroughs – especially Hackney and Tower Hamlets- have great financial difficulty providing even basic services. The City got a very nasty shock in the early 1990’s with the success of Canary Wharf, the major development on the Isle of Dogs, which set off to become – and to the Corporation’s horror did become – a City in the East. A large number of City banks migrated east – including Barclays, formerly resident in the City for three hundred years, and HSBC, a cuckoo which had invaded the City and then departed to the Wharf with Midland Bank under its arm. Where bankers go, lawyers tend to follow, and the net effect of this was almost a collapse of the City office market. The City fought back – led by Michael Cassidy, Chairman of the City’s planning committee and effectively the City’s Prime Minister, and the Chief Planning Officer Peter Wynne Rees who changed much of the City’s planning codes to allow the construction of the towers which now define the financial district – to a large extent, now back in the City.
With the towers came an explosion in City employment – over four hundred thousand work there now – many of whom, a careful eavesdrop on a walk down Lombard Street will reveal, were not born or educated in the UK. These offshore bankers, working for offshore banks, are not interested in City government or practices but just want the place to provide an efficient working environment. Largely it does, but the amount, disruption, and volume of building works – and the City’s own endless tinkering with traffic management and landscape – has caused muttering about the mess in the streets, especially in the residential wards. It is probably that which, coupled with some less than competent management of the two big residential estates, Golden Lane in particular, and noise from the burgeoning night life, has triggered that swing to Labour and to TAFT.
But there is something deeper than that. The City, surprisingly to a modern generation, has been for centuries a centre of radicalism. This was where new fortunes were made, where the new money lived and multiplied, where new ideas were fomented and turned into cash machines. It was the centre of immigration – at least just outside its boundaries to the east, not always from overseas; Dick Whittington was almost an immigrant, coming down from Durham to London. It was the centre of religious dissent – Wesley’s Chapel in the City Road is still a centre of Methodism – and revolution, with much of the direction (and financing) of the English Civil War centred in the City.
As late as the 1950’s the City Corporation was one of the most dynamic local authorities in the land; the Barbican and Golden Lane being a concrete (very concrete) demonstration of that, part of a one hundred year plan to rebuild the City two levels up, with people above and traffic and servicing below (Hence the odd walkways and staircases that go nowhere in strange places). But the present corporation seems to have lost that verve, that edge of radical solutions. Maybe the electors feel in their bones, if not populism, an urge for something a bit more lively and creative. Maybe we will yet see further upsets in City politics and the Lord Mayor in a Nissan Leaf.
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