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Pomp and circumstance

A day out with the City of London Corporation.

Pledging that I would be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth II wasn't quite my typical Friday morning, yet that is what I found myself doing on a "behind-the-scenes tour" with the City of London Corporation.

The pledge was not (thankfully) a prerequisite for the tour but part of a mock ceremony at the Chamberlain's Court inducting me into the "freedom of the City". Established in 1237, the honour was originally tied to livery companies, enabling recipients to carry out their trade and granting certain privileges (such as being drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest). Today, people are nominated or apply for it.

The City of London Corporation, the local authority for the Square Mile, abounds in such anachronisms but the pomp and circumstance remain tied
to real-life functions. You must be a freeman to qualify for any elected office in the corporation. This strange, cloistered world, which Nicholas Shaxson has described as "an offshore island inside Britain" (NS, 21 February), has been called to account in recent weeks by the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's Cathedral. The corporation wants to evict the protesters; they demand that it undertake democratic reform.

My day began with a talk from the City's planning officer, Peter Rees, in a room housing an impressive scale model of the Square Mile. Rees explained the importance of the landscape - the alleyways, the pubs - to the City's workings. The proximity of bankers to one another allows "cross-pollination", the spread of information. More residents - of whom there are only 9,000 - would get in the way of business. At the moment, certainly they are outnumbered; one of the protesters' complaints is that during local elections, 32,000 votes are given to big companies, including Goldman Sachs and the People's Bank of China.

Rules of the game

Over a sandwich lunch, Stuart Fraser, the corporation's policy chairman, tells me that people are only angry about bankers' bonuses because they don't understand the industry. The money has to go somewhere, he says, so if you take the taxpayer out of the equation, why shouldn't it go to the employee who made it, rather than the company? (I'm not sure why we're taking the taxpayer out of the equation, given the huge, taxpayer-funded bailout.) Fraser dismisses criticism of the corporation's role as a lobbyist for big business, arguing for deregulation and low-tax regimes around the world. "The only thing we can do is lobby," he says.

Yet it is precisely this role to which protesters have objected, accusing the corporation of having helped to precipitate the financial crash of 2008.
On Sunday 6 November, Fraser visited the St Paul's camp and took questions from the public. If you don't like the way we operate, he told a crowd gathered at the foot of the cathedral steps, then make your movement the majority and abolish us.

I wasn't actually granted the freedom of the City of London during my visit (you have to pay for that), but I did pick up a copy of Rules for the Conduct of Life, a little red book handed out to all freemen. Rule XXIX caught my eye: "Greediness after gain is a mischievous thing. They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare . . . for the love of money is the root of all evil." Has anyone told the bankers?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?