The City of London Corporation is very much an anomaly in terms of local authorities. In 1965, changes brought about in Greater London saw the creation of 32 boroughs. This was a dreary reform that saw administrative logic sweep aside tradition and local identity. But just as Asterix and Obelix defended “one small village of indomitable Gauls” against the Romans, there was a small exception which resisted the bureaucratic conformity that was fashionable at the time. Such was the importance of the City of London’s status in our island story that an exemption was allowed for the square mile. It was too well-entrenched. All the legal protections granted by Royal Charter. The pledge in the Magna Carta that “the city of London shall have/enjoy its ancient liberties.”
Thus to the fury of the killjoy Lefties, all the pomp has survived. The banquets and the Lord Mayor’s Show. The sheriffs, the aldermen, the livery companies, the town clerk, the chamberlain, the beadles. The police with their special helmets. The special voting arrangements for its small electorate.
How extraordinary then, that of all local authorities, this bastion should have captured by the forces of wokeness. Last month the BBC reported:
“Statues of two politicians with links to the transatlantic slave trade are to be removed from central London.
The City of London Corporation announced it would remove statues of William Beckford and Sir John Cass from the Guildhall, in Moorgate.
The decision was made by a taskforce set up by the corporation following nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
A spokeswoman called the move “an important milestone” in moving towards an “inclusive and diverse City”.
The corporation, which looks after the Square Mile in the capital, said it was considering the future of a number of statues and road names with links to the slave trade.”
Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has written to the Lord Mayor, William Russell, and senior officials calling on them to reconsider. His letter says:
“Our stance on historic statues and sites which have become contested is to retain and explain them; to provide thoughtful, long lasting and powerful reinterpretation that responds to their contested history and tells the full story.”
“These principles similarly apply not just to statues, but other aspects of our heritage, including street names.
“As a unique local authority with unique status compared to others, I hope you will consider this national advice carefully, given you are seen as a leading authority.
“The Corporation of London is itself a product of the City’s rich history. It is in the City’s own interests that heritage and tradition are given robust protection.”
Freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Slavery has dominated in most places across the globe throughout most of history. The unique aspect of the British Empire was abolishing it, in 1833 – with the Royal Navy subsequently stamping out the slave trade by stopping slave ships, not just at British ports but elsewhere. That is a source of pride. But should we really discount the achievements of any monarchs, businessmen, or other public figures, from before that time? Those on “taskforces” set on denigrating our past would seem to think so.
Historic England has produced a checklist for local authorities concerning “contested heritage.” It defines that as “historic objects, structures, buildings or places where the associated stories or meanings have become challenged. The interest in interpretation of our past has never been greater, and when heritage becomes contested, strongly-held views tend to exist on all sides.” It opposes knocking down statues and instead suggests “educational programmes” to provide a balanced account. There would still be plenty of room for dispute about what points should, or should not, be included in any adjoining display cases. But that approach seems reasonable. It is in the spirit of Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent comments that rather then de-colonise the curriculum” the opposite is needed “to learn more about colonialism.”
We might expect an agitprop response to this issue from Lambeth Council – evidently keen to restore its “loony Left” reputation. Yet how extraordinary that the City should need to be protected from a wave of cultural vandalism instigated by the City of London Corporation.
This desperate situation led my colleague Invictus to consider if the Government should respond “by abolishing the thousand-year old Corporation itself and folding its functions into Westminster City Council. After all, the British people might reasonably ask, if you won’t respect our traditions, why should we respect yours?”
The quirky arrangements for local democracy in the City leave it vulnerable. The custom is that party politics are considered infra-dig. So mostly independents are elected. With the assumpion that they will be honoured to be the custodians of its heritage. The difficulty comes when those sneaking in with the “independent” label embark on a mission of self-destruction.
My advice to the City of London Corporation – or any other local authority contemplating an anti-heritage drive – would be instead to devote its efforts to combat modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 included a duty for councils to identify victims. There are estimated to be 10,000 in this country – trapped in domestic servitude or the sex industry. Often the perpetrators are involved in benefit fraud, arranging forced marriages, or providing substandard housing. Would not the most effective application of moral indignation about slavery be to catch the culprits and free the victims – in such districts as Tulse Hill Ward, Lambeth? Rather than fretting about it being named after Sir Henry Tulse, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1684.
How many slaves are trapped in all those awful flats in The Barbican?