This is the weekend, the second in November, when the Lord Mayor of the City of London Corporation, the leader of the governing body for the Square Mile, takes up office. The annual passing of the baton begins on Friday morning with the Silent Ceremony in the Guildhall and ends on Monday evening when the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with every last dark corner of the British establishment, come for an evening of great feasting.
Between these two ticketed events, there is the Lord Mayor’s Show, on Saturday, when the new incumbent travels through the City in his golden coach accompanied by his (and indeed, recently, by her) retinue. He receives a blessing from the Dean of St Paul’s on the steps of the cathedral, swears allegiance to the monarch at the Royal Courts of Justice and returns to take up residence in the Mansion House.
There will be military bands, liveried horses, pikemen, musketeers and ward beadles. There will be over a hundred motorised ‘floats’, some seven thousand participants as well as up to 500 thousand people lining the streets and 2.5 million people watching at home on the BBC. There’s a flypast courtesy of the Royal Air Force. It’s the largest unrehearsed pageant in the world according to Dominic Reid, the Show’s extremely pukka ‘pageant master’. If not exactly bread and circuses there will be artisan street food and fireworks. It’s certainly a jolly family day out.
I ask Mr Reid about the wider purpose to the Show and he says, when pushed, that it’s to demonstrate the tradition and stability of the Mayoralty. I ask him why that’s politically important. He tells me that the politics of the Show is above his pay grade. He says he’s just there to make it happen, that he’s following orders and that, besides, it’s popular and quite fun and most people seem to enjoy it.
“What would happen if the Robin Hood Tax people wanted to take a float? Would they be allowed to do this?”
“Who gets to have a float is in the gift of the Lord Mayor. I’m afraid you’d have to ask him. As I say, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a political event.”
This year is a big one. It’s not just the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta but also of the charter granting the City of London the right to elect its own mayor. In the early months of 1215 King John was still hoping to secure the City’s loyalty in the face of the restive barons and offered to allow this commune of merchants the practice of direct democracy in exchange for its support. It didn’t work. The City pocketed the franchise and then put its weight behind the barons, forcing the King to bring his seal to Runneymede after all.
This bit of expediency tells us a lot about why the City has lasted as long as it has. It can look both ways at once (supporting, for example, both Parliament and the King during the English Civil War) whilst continuing to prize its own institutional independence. Of course independence is easier when you have at your disposal the colossal resources of the City Corporation, which today are mainly generated through the rental income on its property portfolio. Think of the City Corporation as primary a landlord and developer and you wouldn’t be far off.
Indeed it’s always been business before politics in the Square Mile. And in its ambition to remain above the fray of party politics the City Corporation has, in fact, been largely successful. Of the 125 elected representatives that make up the Common Council 124 of them come mob-handed as Independents. I’m the only councillor representing a party. I was elected in a by-election last year as the Labour member for the ward of Portsoken, one of only four wards in the City where people actually live (the electorate in the other nineteen wards is made up largely of office workers).
“I suppose you want to abolish us?” I am asked by a fellow councillor as we are milling around after a meeting, “I suppose, if you had your way, you’d cancel the Show and use the money to accommodate Syrian refugees in the City or something like that.”
“On the contrary” I say, equally fantastically, “when I’m Lord Mayor I’ll restore the Show’s status as a celebration of London’s actual workforce. We’ll have junior doctors, hospital workers and care assistants leading the way. We’ll have floats for Living Wage employers together with their office cleaners. We’ll have public transport workers parading with black cab drivers as well as street cleaners, the people who actually keep the London show on the road. And I’ll personally sponsor a float to promote the introduction of the financial transaction tax.”
“I think you’ll find the City of London Cleansing Department already has a float,” he says and disappears. It occurs to me that maybe I went a bit far there with the banter.
When it arrives in the post a few days later I check the Show’s official programme. It’s true that the cleansing department is in the line up for this year, at float number 67. But so too, I notice, is a one promoting the Worshipful Company of World Traders (between those sponsored by Starbucks Coffee and the property developer that owns Canary Wharf). Where, I wonder, do these World Traders stand on the Financial Transaction Tax?
Then again, since the City eschews dirty old politics, like the pageant master they probably don’t have a view on any of this since all they want to do is to make sure that the City is clean, safe, well-caffeinated and free to represent the interests of untethered finance capital. I guess that’s what comes with 800 years of self-determination.
William Taylor is a vicar in the London Borough of Hackney and the first Labour councillor in the City of London. He tweets @hackneypreacher