Question: Where is the longest surviving civic democracy in the world?
Answer: it’s hiding inside the City of London Corporation and passing itself off as just another local authority. But this is no ordinary local authority. This one has other functions, in part derived from its anomalous history. For example this local authority acts globally as a lobby group for the UK financial services sector.
It is only by looking at the history of London as a city, home to more than 8,000,000 people, that it is possible to understand how the City, the Square Mile, with a residential population of fewer than 8,000 (and some 250,000 commuters), emerged as such a respected body with international reach and unmatched political clout.
Of course this Tale of Two Cities parallels the emergence of modern capitalism. Only the Corporation has managed simultaneously to retain its pre-modern institutions – the Livery Companies, the Ward Clubs, Guildhall itself – while at the same time voiding them of their historic role as the guarantor of product quality and the representative body for the workforce. It seems now that the City Corporation simply champions the interests of the financial markets and their sponsoring institutions, regardless of their ability to serve their customers or some putative idea of the Common Good.
What we need to remember, however, is that the history of the City of London is also the story of our birthright as free citizens – the Freeborn. It is where British citizens first learned to inhabit the promise of Liberty, to assert their rights of assembly and self-determination. It is through the City that we can locate ourselves as citizens in the Ancient Constitution of our island.
Of course, the City itself retells this history as one of defiance in the face of the “arbitrary” interventions into its life of the Crown or Parliament or the Church or the London Government Reformers. The City is as wary of the EU today as it was of Amsterdam in the 17th Century or King John in the 13th.
This ‘defiance’ is still visible to us in the person of the Lord Mayor in his role as the First Citizen of London. It is as First Citizen that still today he greets the serving Monarch at the gate to the City. It is as First Citizen that he hosts the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and visiting Heads of State at sundry banquets in Guildhall. And it is as First Citizen that he convenes the Corporation of London itself. Where the Lord Mayor of London takes up his role as First Citizen he embodies a wider story of civic self-determination. Since the City’s constitution was established “from time immemorial” (on more precisely, 1189 and the accession of Richard I), it is considered to be a Corporation by customary right rather as the creation of a statute passed in Westminster – put it another way, it has always been there.
In fact, it is Alfred the Great (arguably the first king of the “English”) who adapted the civic structures already in place – borrowing the Roman category of Freeman – and developed assemblies such as the Folkmoot. And here, for the first time, we encounter the figure of the freeborn Englishman or the “free and equal” Anglo-Saxon Citizen of London, unfettered by the oppressive weight of the “Norman yoke.” While laying waste the rest of the country, William the Conqueror left the City of London untouched, pledging himself to the defense of those citizens’ rights and privileges that had existed in King Edward’s day. Already, at the time of the Conquest, the Citizenry had personality and voice, not to mention durable practices, gathering at the Folkmoot to deliberate on matters of common concern and to discharge its duties, including the annual election of the Sheriffs and later its Chamberlain.
In 1215, the year of Magna Carta, King John granted the City a charter annually to elect its own Mayor. But by 1246, the Mayor and Aldermen are obliged to win the consent of a citizen assembly before setting the common seal on any document of importance. By the 15th century, the essential features of this democratic assembly are in place: the powerful trade associations or Livery companies as well as the Common Council representing both the commoners and the wealthy aldermen, who between them elected the Lord Mayor of London.
In the final years of the 16th Century the City could no longer accommodate the swathes of newcomers within its jurisdiction. These immigrants (many of whom have been displaced from the country by the Enclosures) began to settle in the neighbouring districts outside the Square Mile. The rich went West, whereas the poor moved out to Stepney, Spitalfields, Hoxton, Finsbury, Clerkenwell, Bermondsey and Wapping – where they continued to trade beyond the control imposed by membership of the guilds. And everyone went over the river to Southwark for the brothels.
The City Fathers faced a choice. Either they could extend their jurisdiction over these suburbs, sharing their administrative resources and regulatory practices throughout the capital, or they could turn their backs on this disorganised mob and concentrate on developing the flow of finance through the City itself. But with the establishment of companies such as the East Indian Trading Companies in 1599, the way was cleared for a whole new market in money lending: the City decided its future was going to be in merchant adventuring rather than in the messy business of governance. The recently nationalised Church, meanwhile, was co-opted to give its blessing to new missions like the Virginia Company or the Irish Society. Ultimately, in what is known as the Great Refusal of 1637, the City Fathers declined Charles I’s invitation to take any wider civic responsibility in London. The city of Capital turned its back on the capital city. And, of course, its funding was crucial to the outcome of the civil wars that soon followed. So it was hardly surprising that the final winners – William and Mary – declared in 1690
the Mayor, commonalty and citizens of London shall for ever hereafter
remain, continue and be, and prescribe to be, a body politic, in re,
facto, et nomine … and shall have and enjoy all their rights, gifts,
charters, grants, liberties, privileges, franchises, customs, usages,
constitutions, prescriptions, immunities, markets, duties, tolls, lands,
tenements, estates and hereditaments whatsoever.
By 1700 the new commercial institutions, banks, insurance companies, and exchanges were beginning to take over from the residents as the Guilds themselves were losing touch with their members, changing from trading fraternities into dining societies. This coincided with the emergence of a new coffee-drinking foreign-investing property-owning middle class, many of whom prefer to live in the newly fashionable suburbs and only visit the Square Mile to do business.
In this way, after the Fire of London, the City largely forgot its historic vocation as the guardian of Liberty and the guarantor of the Freeborn. And although this inheritance continued to be celebrated in the charters and encoded in the rituals, it was nonetheless ignored in the trajectory of the City’s economic interests. The story goes into exile. So it was in Virginia that Thomas Jefferson continued to invoke the “freeborn citizen” in his struggle against the “Norman yoke” to help him frame the new constitution for his colony.
The 19th Century saw the ‘City problem’ addressed as part of a new wave of Victorian interest in good governance and rational political organisation. And here came a new figure: the Social Reformer. A succession of crucial reports were commissioned, tabled and then shelved and ultimately ignored: finally James Beal, representing the Metropolitan Municipalities Association, asks Parliament:
‘Shall the Metropolis swallow up the City, or shall the City be wedded
to the Metropolis?’ London has no past; it is ‘an unconstituted
aggregation of disunited people’. But allied with the City, it would have
its place in English history, and be raised to its level.
Unsurprisingly, Beal’s reforming bill fell. But the reformers had organised themselves into the London Municipal Reform League and had a head of steam. The City Corporation found itself untypically on put on the back foot and hired thugs to break up Reform League meetings. And yet the Reformers’ moment never came. The Greater London Council was created in 1963 and abolished in 1986 and then reconstituted as the Greater London Authority with its own Mayor in 2000, with a new assembly hall opposite the Tower of London. And through all this, the City remained an independent jurisdiction where the Lord Mayor continued to inhabit a world little changed from its medieval past.
And so, two cities: the oldest surviving democracy in the world continues to hide, like a babushka doll, inside a modern local authority. And yet this local authority serves only a small percentage of the citizens of London, focusing instead on advancing the interests of the global market in finance. Some might call it the goose that lays golden eggs. Only, as we have seen in recent years, it turns out that some of the eggs are toxic and their quality can no longer be guaranteed.