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Occupy London: At It Again

Protesters target the murky, secretive world of the City of London Corporation

Written by . Published on January 23rd 2012.


Occupy London: At It Again

A TRADEMARK weekend dawn raid saw the Occupy London movement take over another large disused office building in the City. This time it was Roman House, at the Barbican, an abandoned nine storey office building that is thought to have housed a number of financial companies.

After the latest court decision to evict the Occupy St Pauls protesters, instigated by the City of London Corporation, Occupy are fighting back. The current occupation is to try to make the Corporation more transparent and accountable.

The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority.

Most Londoners are probably only dimly aware of what the Corporation is or what it does. Guessing maybe a cuddly harmless old school organisation harking back to Freemasons, artisan guilds, market traders and eccentric ceremonial old Mayors who operate as more upmarket Cockney Pearly Kings.

Occupy2 

In reality the Corporation operates as an autonomous entity responsible for considerable power, influence and money of the Square Mile. It has built up its lofty position over centuries. When sovereigns and governments needed loans they went to the City and in return the City gained freedom from laws and rules that applied for the rest of Britain and which it still benefits from today.

The Guardian’s George Monbiot, a vocal campaigner for greater public transparency, has shed some light into the shadows. Here’s the nuts and bolts:

Elected representatives of the Corporation are known as common councilmen, aldermen, sheriffs and the Lord Mayor. To qualify for any of these offices, you must be a freeman of the City of London. To become a freeman you must be approved by the aldermen. It helps if you belong to one of the wonderfully archaic and disconcertingly sounding City ‘livery’ companies such as the worshipful company of costermongers, cutpurses and safecrackers.

According to the Corporation’s website, the Lord Mayor’s role is to "open doors at the highest levels." So he is definitely not just ringing a bell and shouting olde English gibberish. The Lord Mayor is the head of the Corporation, elected by members of the Corporation, which is drawn from city law, accountancy and stockbroking firms.

He even has the power to refuse the queen and parliament from entering the city. With a war chest built up over eight centuries and a humungous property portfolio, that’s some serious muscle to flex on behalf of banks and big business. The ‘City’s Cash’ and influence is not known as the majority of its assets are beyond democratic or public scrutiny. What information is available is only to do with its function as a local authority and police authority.

Occupy3 

The most worrying aspect of the Corporation’s reach, highlighted by Nicholas Shaxson in his book Treasure Island, is how it functions outside many of the laws and democratic controls, which govern the rest of the United Kingdom. The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority. It even has an enforcer in the House of Commons that sits near the Speaker’s Chair called the Remembrancer lobbying for the City’s interest in a chamber full of democratically elected MPs. 

Over the years many governments have tried and failed to democratise the City of London faced with immense financial clout.

Given its Mafia-like powers, the City has become a kind of offshore state where its secretive jurisdiction is ideal for a network of tax havens for the rich and for laundering money from oligarchs, gangsters and drug cartels. Worst of all it provided the loopholes that caused so much dodgy chicanery of financial markets. The woeful regulation in London allowed American banks to evade rules imposed by their own government. For example, AIG may have traded dubiously and recklessly in the US but the unit was regulated in the City. Likewise Lehman Brothers couldn't get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead.

For centuries the Corporation has functioned on a need to know basis. Is it not time that Londoners had a right to know and that elected politicians had the power and balls to intervene and safeguard the interests of the many over the few? After all we did hand over a small matter of £600 billion to the City the last time they screwed up.

 

Images courtesy of @HeardinLondon

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