The protesters and the corporation

The focus now shifts to how the City of London is governed.

The doors of St Paul's Cathedral open today. Of course, they should not have been closed in the first place, at least on the purported "health and safety" grounds cited, as the New Statesman was early to point out. Even the Conservative MP for the City of London said:

I think to be brutally honest the decision to close the cathedral on the basis of health and safety grounds [was] based on spurious grounds.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has gone even further:

After their initial welcome to Occupy, the cathedral authorities then seemed to lose their nerve. In daily-changing news reports, the story see-sawed between a public debate about the merits or otherwise of the protest, the drama of internal disputes at St Paul's over lost income from tourists, and the ill-defined health, safety and fire concerns that caused it to close its doors to worshippers.

One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse 'elf 'n safety bureaucracy of urban legend. How could the dean and chapter at St Paul's have let themselves get into such a position?

Now attention as to how the "Occupy LSX" protesters should be dealt with moves on from the idiocy at the Cathedral to the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of the City of London.

This remarkable and strange entity, the last unreformed borough in the United Kingdom, has already been well described in the New Statesman by Nicholas Shaxson. And this morning it will decide whether to activate the eviction process of the "OccupyLSX" protesters. It is this process which Dr Giles Fraser has warned could end in violence and over which he resigned. The Corporation is profoundly undemocratic. Behind the quaint vocabulary of aldermen and livery companies, it is deliberately structured so that those people resident in the City of London have significantly less electoral power than City businesses. In a throwback to the time before the 1830s reforms, the larger the business, the more formal power the business has over the Corporation. To call it a plutocratic oligarchy is not to just indulge in Marxist whimsy, or even to express an opinion, it is simply a matter of deliberate and demonstrable fact. As Nicholas Shaxson explains:

Like any other local authority, the City of London is divided into wards. These elect candidates to serve on the Court of Common Council, the City's principal decision-making body. Unlike any other local authority, however, individual people are not the only voters: businesses can vote, too. Political parties are not involved - candidates stand alone as independents - and this makes organised challenge to City consensus all but impossible.

But does this matter? In some ways it does not. The Corporation governs the City of London with business-like quiet efficiency. The City is clean and its public facilities are well-resourced. Particular praise can go to its excellently funded libraries, which are now surely the envy of the nation. The Corporation also does an impressive job of protecting and promoting the interests of City institutions whilst always keeping a low media profile. The Corporation is, its supporters will maintain, a perfect example of enlightened paternalism.

One price for this is a lack of legitimacy in respect of certain decision-making. The planning and transportation committee which is today scheduled to make the decision to proceed with the eviction of the "Occupy LSX" protesters is not even going to debate the issue in public Any decision made is to be communicated only by press release. The unconvincing excuse being offered for this needless lack of transparency is "legal advice". But whilst no one disputes that the Corporation, like everyone else, is entitled to take legal advice in private, that does not explain whatsoever why the debate on whether to evict the protesters, and the decision made by the committee, also have to be in private.

The Corporation is anxiously seeking to present the eviction of the protesters as entirely a private matter. It has a vision of what the City of London should look like. And this ideal does not include the presence of protesters in their tents pointing out various perceived failures of capitalism.

The Corporation's clear intention is to frame the issue as one to do with "campers" not "protesters". But this approach is not sustainable, either legally or in terms of public relations. The Corporation is a public authority as a matter of law whether they like it or not, and the protesters are exercising their rights to free expression and assembly whether that is liked or not. Any public authority can only interfere with those rights proportionately and with good reason. It may seem to the Corporation that it is a clever idea to try to make this about mere trespassing "campers", just as those at St Paul's Cathedral thought it jolly clever to make the protests a "health and safety" issue. Thinking something does not make it so.

There is no doubt that the Corporation has the resources to seek the eviction of the protesters. It may well have the legal powers to do so, though it seems wrongly to be treating this as an entirely private law matter. But there remains the question is whether they have the appetite to commence a process which may well bring (for them) unwelcome scrutiny as to the lack of transparency and democracy of the Corporation. Just because one has the legal power to do something, it does not follow that it is sensible for that power to be exercised to the full.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and is a solicitor working in the City of London.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred