• Taking Liberties

    There are moments when life takes on a bizarreness all of it's own, as if everything else had been a long slumber and this is what waking up feels like. Take St. Paul’s the other Sunday, where George Monbiot was leading a debate organised by Reclaim the City in their drive against the prerogative of the City of London Corporation. They’d been joined at the last minute by Stuart Fraser, policy chairman of the corporation and over the course of the following hour the arguments went back and forth with many people from the protest making their way to the mic to make themselves heard. But the overall feeling, despite the obvious deep convictions at play, was one of a genuine civility, where Fraser - and other like minds - were given free rein to speak and they in turn were not full of the invective you might expect from those defending an institution that was coming under such a sustained intellectual attack.

    The feeling of the surreal was not helped by an old man in some semblance of Irish traditional dress dancing round and on the spot on the stairs to the sound of an incessant tune that I knew but couldn’t quite place from a mini PA which was eventually silenced for being too loud and distracting. But it had alot more to do with the incredibly potent forces at work; being there outside the Cathedral, the crystallisation of the movement and all that the corporation appeared to represent and mean. The name of Wat Tyler was invoked and we were pointedly reminded that he’d died at the hands of a previous Lord Mayor.

    And more than that, the constitutional question of the rights of the corporation touched upon that other, wider theme, that Britain does not have a written constitution and suddenly it was like all the old faces and memories were there and the Magna Carta was more than some ageing roll of archaic text – the freedom that it meant and represented was heavy in the air, not least for the sense that such things must be renewed and it suddenly felt like one of those moments in time; charged and bizarre and profound.

    Nearly every one of the Magna Carta’s original articles has been repealed since King John put his name to it in 1215 and it is a point of no small curiosity that one of the only three remaining in law is that which upholds the corporation’s “ancient rights and liberties.” Quite how ancient these are no-one seems too sure of though they are said to predate the Norman Conquest so that this particular scrap of antiquated law are perhaps one of the few direct links to our old Anglo-Saxon past, where Aldermen were eldermen and the City was building itself up still from the departure of Rome. That in itself helps explains the strange state of affairs that allows the corporation to exist at a kind of remove from the rest of British life; its existence predates the formation of the modern state, its “rights and liberties” remain undefined because they have been carried down from a time where record keeping was patchy, where it existed at all. As such the City has never been entirely subject to the all of the laws of the rest of country as the strange ceremonies whenever the monarch enters the Square Mile serve to illustrate.

    Nonetheless, the English thrive on such stuff. It lends events like the Lord Mayor’s show a level of pageantry that almost amounts to a kind of mystique, where the past grows stranger the further back in it you go and all unbroken lines appear holy even if we do not understand them all that well. And of course this suits an organisation like the corporation very well. They become the benevolent upholders of tradition, their laws and quirks are placed beyond reproach and to the point where any criticism is almost seen as a kind of affront on all that is best about England itself.

    But even with such charity there are things which do not seem to add up. It seems curious for instance that hundreds of thousands of employees who do not live within the city walls take part in elections where their businesses have votes as if they were people themselves, outnumbering actual residents by two to one. That in itself seems at best a kind of bending of the rules. But take into account that the official role of the City’s Lord Mayor is to “expound the values of liberalization” and lend “support for innovation, proportionate (i.e. limited) taxation and regulation” and it all starts to become revealed as something far from archaic, something much more pertinent to current forces in the world. And far from affecting finance in the UK alone, the City’s unique legal position allows it act as a hub for offshore tax havens throughout the world.

    A closer look lays it all out beyond doubt: dissent against the City goes back a long way. Reform was sought at least as far back as the nineteenth century and Tony Blair’s government were actually the first Labour party in power in the twentieth century not to seek the abolition of the corporation (they actually ‘reformed’ it in a way that only added to its powers). As early as 1917 Herbert Morrison put it like this: "Is it not time London faced up to the pretentious buffoonery of the City of London Cor­poration and wipe it off the municipal map? The City is now a square mile of entrenched reaction, the home of the devilry of modern finance."

    Today, it seems only more pronounced that the financial heart of the City itself that beats so metallic and tall continues to hold such a serpent-like trance over the rest of the governing class of the country. Regulation, we are told, will drive off the traders that form such a large part of our national purse and we are relayed this with such conviction, with such a sense of weary fatalism that you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d created a kind of inescapable trap where there is nothing left for us but to trust these high priests of the markets and their voodoo of faith in current currencies and hope for a day where we all see those dismal percentages and fractions of figures of growth begin to creep up and we will tug metaphorical forelocks and be grateful for what trickles down and try not to look at the widening gaps and sense of a world that is being screwed over because there does not seem to be another way.

    We don’t seem to remember that the intense competition between international centers of finance has risen to its present pitch since the integration of global markets during and immediately after the ‘Big Bang’ as recently as 1986. We seem to choose to forget that regulation was part of the mainstream political discourse at least since the Second World War and into the Seventies and even beyond. Nobody seems to remember the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 (which remained in US law until 1999) that separated banks of investment from those of deposits precisely to prevent the return of conditions that led to that Great Depression a repeat of which now seems to stalk us all.

    That’s why what occurs with the Occupy movement – and the wider public discussion it has already inspired – is currently the best hope that we have for a better and more equitable future. That’s why we should all look a little closer at the apparently benign paternalism of institutions like the City of London Corporation. We should not believe that it is simply an anachronistic leftover charged with little more than the banalities of governing a piece of real estate – its actions and liberties lie at the very heart of the modern global finance whose pathological excesses society in general has had to bail out.

    We are told again and again that Britain needs London’s financial clout – apparently at any cost - but the resistance to the current global laissez-faire has now become as globally endemic as the need for governments worldwide to act together and begin to rein in financial centres’ unprecedented current power. What’s clear is that this argument does not stop here whatever the immediate fate of the occupation outside St. Paul’s. It will not stop until governments listen.

    It is only with a renewed recognition that greater regulation - together with other reforms - is as necessary now as ever that any kind of balance can be bought to the markets that appear to govern us. Inspiration for the kind of discourse that can inform such recognition waits for us in the records and aspirations of reformers from at least most of the twentieth century. It is the way in which we take them up and breathe them back to life that hope remains that the heart of this city can revolve around a greater sense of equanimity than the state of semi-psychosis that modern capital has come to so closely resemble.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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