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28 October 2011updated 26 Sep 2015 10:01pm

The protesters and the corporation

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

By David Allen Green

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.

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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?

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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.