The year 2012 has seen a rising tide of attention in the media to the capital city of the United Kingdom, which reached its inevitable climax with the Olympics. Not all of it was pap. The BBC produced a splendid series of documentaries about London’s history and people; the political weekly the New Statesman brought out a thoughtful special London edition. Strangely missing, however, from most of this coverage was consideration of the famous square mile in the centre, the City of London, where banks, brokers, insurers and other money-makers enjoy their unimpeded ascendancy — at least, until a new banking crisis broke out in June, and a sprinkling of columnists and bloggers brought up questions about the role of the City’s governing body, the Corporation of London.
They were the same questions that arose in October 2011, when Occupy LSX, intending to set up camp in front of the Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, were ejected from the square and parked themselves instead in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. The result was one of the starting points for this film: a highly public debate about capitalism and the responsibilities of the Church, or what a Vicar in the neighbouring borough of Bethnal Green, Rev. Alan Green, calls ‘a holy mess’, with the Corporation playing its role in the shadows.
The history of London since its foundation by the Romans is recounted by Maurice Glasman, with contributions from London historians Clive Bloom, Lindsay German and John Rees. Robin Blackburn explains key aspects of the City’s economic history. We are taken on a tour of key City locations by an Occupy activist, Liam Taylor. David Joel of Kings Court Galleries presents the growth of London through historic maps. Doreen Massey considers the relationship of the City to the metropolis.
The Corporation nowadays hides behind a suitably swish website where you can read on the ‘City Vote 2013’ page, that ‘Unlike elsewhere in the UK, businesses, as well as residents, can register to vote in local elections’. The film examines this peculiar distortion of democracy through which the Corporation governs the City, by which it sustains its ancient autonomy and privileges dating back before William the Conqueror, in other words before there was a Parliament in Westminster.
Clement Attlee called the City ‘another power than that which has its seat at Westminster’, where ‘those who control money can pursue a policy at home and abroad contrary to that which has been decided by the people’. John McDonnell, MP, reminds us that it was Labour Party policy to abolish the Corporation as an anachronistic anomaly until Tony Blair took charge and changed it to reform. The reform, passed in 2002, gave voting rights to businesses based in the square mile in proportion to the size of their workforce, even though, like Goldman Sachs and the People’s Bank of China, they might be foreign owned. Crucial personal testimony is provided by a businessman, Malcolm Matson, elected as an Alderman on a reform platform and then blackballed, and a local vicar, Rev. William Taylor, who stood as a Common Councillor to stop the redevelopment of the City’s only primary school, and was then reprimanded for asking awkward questions.
The image of the City is prismatic. One face shows off its tourist appeal, another displays the colours of the ancient pageantry paraded annually at the Lord Mayor’s Show, designed to assert the fixity of the ‘natural’ order of society. A third face is the City’s skyline–the towers of the new corporate architecture of neoliberal deregulation which have risen since the 1980s, and together with the satellite settlement at Canary Wharf, dwarf the rest of London, thus unambiguously declaring who’s boss around here. The film engages with the different ‘narratives’ that attach to the City through a range of London imagery, including rarely seen archive footage, and extracts from two films about London by independent filmmakers: Anthony Simmons’ ‘Bow Bells’ (1954) and William Raban’s ‘About Now MMX’ (2010).
The music is taken from the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, heard in numerous different versions, including an original score by Simon Zagorski-Thomas.