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Occupy London Protestors Seize Moral High Ground, As Church Declares An End To Hostilities – OpEd

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The events of the last few days — in and around St. Paul’s, where the Church of England and the Corporation of the City of London have been working out how to deal with the “Occupy London” campaigners in their midst — have been genuinely extraordinary. First, Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s, resigned, stating openly that he feared that violence would be used to evict the camp, which was something that he could not countenance, and then a chaplain, Fraser Dyer, also resigned.

The alarming presumption was that, obliged to choose between God and Mammon — or, more seriously, between the business of the City of London, and the demands of the protestors engaged in a novel form of political dissent and asking serious questions about whether the profiteering, tax evasion and unaccountability of banks and corporations is acceptable — St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the hierarchy of the Church of England, had chosen to endorse its establishment role, and to ignore its roots in the teaching of Christ, who, of course, spoke regularly about the poor, and also criticised those who conducted financial transactions in the house of God, as described in the Gospel of St. Matthew, where it is stated that Jesus “went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers.”

Standing up for the City against campaigners seeking an end to its excesses and it amoral — or immoral — behaviour would be an indefensible position for the Church at the best of times, but it is thoroughly unacceptable right now, when such profound questions are being asked about the greed and recklessness of the capitalist model that has dominated Western politics for the last 30 years, and these issues were highlighted on Friday when it was announced that, as the Guardian put it:

Total earnings for directors of FTSE 100 companies increased by 49% last year, far outpacing pay claims for workers outside the boardroom. A FTSE 100 executive typically received an average of £2.7m in 2010, according to the research by Incomes Data Services, which analysed payouts of salaries, bonuses and long-term incentive plans the last financial year.

For chief executives, the average total pay deal was £3.8m — an average rise of 43.5% — while IDS calculated that finance directors received an average increase of 34.1%,to take their average to £2m, while all other directors received an average increase of 66.5%, to take their average to £2.2m.

Caught in the crossfire, after the departure of Giles Fraser, was the Dean of St. Paul’s, the Right Rev. Graham Knowles, who, to his credit, had engaged with the campaigners during open mic sessions on Sunday, and had been visibly rattled when he was booed regarding his claim that the City had not put pressure on him, or on the management of St. Paul’s in general.

On Monday, he resigned, with the Guardian noting that his resignation was partly a result of the “perceived dithering and divisions of church officials over the protest camp.” Announcing his resignation, the Right Rev. Knowles stated that the criticism regarding the Church’s handling of the situation had made his position “untenable.”

In a statement read out on his behalf, he said, “In recent days, since the arrival of the protesters’ camp outside the cathedral, we have all been put under a great deal of strain and have faced what would appear to be some insurmountable issues. I hope and pray that under new leadership these issues might continue to be addressed and that there might be a swift and peaceful resolution.”

If the issues that had so troubled the Right Rev. Knowles had led to his departure, they also led to the Church’s rediscovery of where its sympathies should lie. In a Guardian interview with editor Alan Rusbridger, the Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, spoke openly about the Church’s position after “overseeing a meeting of the St. Paul’s Cathedral chapter at which his colleagues had unanimously agreed to overturn virtually every single decision they had reached over the past two weeks.” Under the Bishop’s leadership, the Chapter “decided to suspend legal action against the protesters” camped out just across the road from his home, and “to disregard the legal and health and safety advice which had previously led to the closure of the cathedral.”

The Rt. Rev. Chartres told the Guardian, “The symbolism of the closed door was the wrong symbol,” which was a huge concession.

He also noted, “St Paul’s in the 20th century was a symbol of freedom. It was defiance [against] Nazi tyranny, it was the pall of smoke surrounding the Dome. The cathedral means a very great deal to huge numbers of people.” Moving on to the circumstances surrounding the closure of the cathedral for a week, on health and safety grounds that were widely perceived as political, he said, “I think it’s easy to be wise after the event — hindsight is a marvellous thing — and I think that what the dean has done is given us a chance to actually start again. I think that’s very honourable behaviour.”

After he chaired the Chapter meeting that led to the Church’s agreement not to evict the protestors — which had a knock-on effect, persuading the Corporation of the City of London, the other owner of the land occupied by the camp, to pause its own plans to evict the protestors (without, presumably, any of the Church’s quibbles about the use of force) — the Rt. Rev. Chartres said that he “led clerical colleagues down to meet the campaigners.”

He explained, “It was the first time they’d met. It was liberating for them,” and he added, “I think the relationship will grow.” He also described the protesters he met as “people with admirable passion as well as people in some distress,” and said that they were sounding “alarm bells ringing around the world about the connection between finance and ethics and human flourishing,” which was, perhaps, a reminder that the “Occupy” movement, which started on Wall Street in New York, has spread around the world, and has particularly become a huge movement in the US.

After conceding that the Church had ended up in the wrong place, and that Graeme Knowles recognised that this situation could only be healed with his departure — the Bishop said that the Dean told him that “the only way I can see we can make a fresh start is by my going” — he announced that the dialogue with the protesters was “only the beginning,” and added, “There are some very basic things to discuss, like ‘how are we going to manage 2,000 people coming into the cathedral this Christmas?’”

Crucially, he also, as the Guardian put it, “announced an initiative, led by a former investment banker, with the aim of ‘reconnecting the financial with the ethical.’”

He explained that he “wanted to air issues around the ethics of finance,” and that the group put together to pursue an investigation would be headed by the former investment banker Ken Costa, and would also involve Giles Fraser. The Bishop also insisted that he would publish a report on the City by the St Paul’s Institute, which, according to its mission statement, “exists to engage the financial world with questions of morality and ethics.” The report had been delayed when the “Occupy London” protest began — rather too conveniently, it seemed, as far as some of the protestors were concerned.

After noting that being ordained does not necessarily provide “a tremendously privileged insight into how to solve the eurozone problems,” the Bishop responded to mention of the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had just written an article “making very encouraging noises about the ‘Robin Hood’ Tobin tax on financial transactions” (following up on the Vatican’s endorsement of the tax) by saying, “Well, he’s an intellectual of European standing and I’ll certainly read what he says with great attention,” and although he refused to make a pronouncement on it himself (which was the only slippery part of the entire interview), pointed out that he knows about poverty from his time as the Bishop of Stepney.

He also criticised the current attitudes in the City. “I think back to people I knew of a previous generation in the City of London who exercised enormous restraint,” he said, adding, “There is now an atmosphere of inordinate ambition to boost the bottom line and forget the consequences,” and he deplored how banking “became a merry-go-round of instruments which were not properly understood or properly priced,” explaining, “that’s obviously a moral problem.” He also said, “People look in a very straightforward way, which I share, at the banks which were bailed out. They bear a measure of responsibility for the state we’re in yet they don’t seem to have shared the pain.”

However, while the Bishop signalled a new way forward, which I wholeheartedly commend, the Corporation of the City of London was not speaking of engagement.

In a statement, officials said they had just “pressed the pause button” on the eviction of the protestors. Stuart Fraser, the head of policy, explained, “We’re hoping to use a pause — probably of days not weeks — to work out a measured solution.”

For the protestors, this fails to correspond with their own hopes and plans, for a camp that will last into the New Year, and their intended negotiations with the Church regarding “possibly reducing the size of the camp” and limiting “their impact on the cathedral” during key events so that they can remain without conflict.

Will they prevail? I certainly hope so, and I believe that, with the support of the Church, it is now very possible. The City should be careful, as all eyes are focused on its response to the critics gathered outside St. Paul’s, who, as the Guardian also noted on Monday, are now hoping to shift the focus back onto their intended target, “the injustices and inequalities of global finance and banking.”

As the Guardian also explained, “While the camp shares the general aims of many counterpart protests around the world, most famously on Wall Street in New York, by being based in the heart of the capital’s financial district campaigners aim to focus also on the particular mysteries of the City, and the sometimes anomalous, anachronistic body which runs it, the Corporation of London,” which George Monbiot covered well in another article on Monday, and which the campaigners also focused on in their statement of intent last week, discussed here.

And just to keep the focus on the dubious activities of the Corporation of the City of London, and its historic and current unaccountabilitiy, I’m cross-posting George Monbiot’s article below.

The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest
By George Monbiot, The Guardian, October 31, 2011

It’s the dark heart of Britain, the place where democracy goes to die, immensely powerful, equally unaccountable. But I doubt that one in 10 British people has any idea of what the Corporation of the City of London is and how it works. This could be about to change. Alongside the Church of England, the Corporation is seeking to evict the protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The protesters, in turn, have demanded that it submit to national oversight and control.

What is this thing? Ostensibly it’s the equivalent of a local council, responsible for a small area of London known as the Square Mile. But, as its website boasts, “among local authorities the City of London is unique.” You bet it is. There are 25 electoral wards in the Square Mile. In four of them, the 9,000 people who live within its boundaries are permitted to vote. In the remaining 21, the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with 10 workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79. It’s not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who “appoint” the voters. Plutocracy, pure and simple.

There are four layers of elected representatives in the Corporation: common councilmen, aldermen, sheriffs and the Lord Mayor. To qualify for any of these offices, you must be a freeman of the City of London. To become a freeman you must be approved by the aldermen. You’re most likely to qualify if you belong to one of the City livery companies: medieval guilds such as the worshipful company of costermongers, cutpurses and safecrackers. To become a sheriff, you must be elected from among the aldermen by the Livery. How do you join a livery company? Don’t even ask.

To become Lord Mayor you must first have served as an alderman and sheriff, and you “must command the support of, and have the endorsement of, the Court of Aldermen and the Livery.” You should also be stinking rich, as the Lord Mayor is expected to make a “contribution from his/her private resources towards the costs of the mayoral year.” This is, in other words, an official old boys’ network. Think of all that Tory huffing and puffing about democratic failings within the trade unions. Then think of their resounding silence about democracy within the City of London.

The current Lord Mayor, Michael Bear, came to prominence within the City as chief executive of the Spitalfields development group, which oversaw a controversial business venture in which the Corporation had a major stake, even though the project lies outside the boundaries of its authority. This illustrates another of the Corporation’s unique features. It possesses a vast pool of cash, which it can spend as it wishes, without democratic oversight. As well as expanding its enormous property portfolio, it uses this money to lobby on behalf of the banks.

The Lord Mayor’s role, the Corporation’s website tells us, is to “open doors at the highest levels” for business, in the course of which he ”expounds the values of liberalisation.” Liberalisation is what bankers call deregulation: the process that caused the financial crash. The Corporation boasts that it “handle[s] issues in Parliament of specific interest to the City,” such as banking reform and financial services regulation. It also conducts “extensive partnership work with think tanks … vigorously promoting the views and needs of financial services.” But this isn’t the half of it.

As Nicholas Shaxson explains in his fascinating book Treasure Islands, the Corporation exists outside many of the laws and democratic controls which govern the rest of the United Kingdom. The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority. In one respect at least the Corporation acts as the superior body: it imposes on the House of Commons a figure called the remembrancer: an official lobbyist who sits behind the Speaker’s chair and ensures that, whatever our elected representatives might think, the City’s rights and privileges are protected. The mayor of London’s mandate stops at the boundaries of the Square Mile. There are, as if in a novel by China Miéville, two cities, one of which must unsee the other.

Several governments have tried to democratise the City of London but all, threatened by its financial might, have failed. As Clement Attlee lamented, “over and over again we have seen that there is in this country another power than that which has its seat at Westminster.” The City has exploited this remarkable position to establish itself as a kind of offshore state, a secrecy jurisdiction which controls the network of tax havens housed in the UK’s crown dependencies and overseas territories. This autonomous state within our borders is in a position to launder the ill-gotten cash of oligarchs, kleptocrats, gangsters and drug barons. As the French investigating magistrate Eva Joly remarked, it “has never transmitted even the smallest piece of usable evidence to a foreign magistrate.” It deprives the United Kingdom and other nations of their rightful tax receipts.

It has also made the effective regulation of global finance almost impossible. Shaxson shows how the absence of proper regulation in London allowed American banks to evade the rules set by their own government. AIG’s wild trading might have taken place in the US, but the unit responsible was regulated in the City. Lehman Brothers couldn’t get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead. No wonder priests are resigning over the plans to evict the campers. The Church of England is not just working with Mammon; it’s colluding with Babylon.

If you’ve ever dithered over the question of whether the UK needs a written constitution, dither no longer. Imagine the clauses required to preserve the status of the Corporation. “The City of London will remain outside the authority of parliament. Domestic and foreign banks will be permitted to vote as if they were human beings, and their votes will outnumber those cast by real people. Its elected officials will be chosen from people deemed acceptable by a group of medieval guilds.”

The Corporation’s privileges could not withstand such public scrutiny. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why a written constitution in the United Kingdom remains a distant dream. Its power also helps to explain why regulation of the banks is scarcely better than it was before the crash, why there are no effective curbs on executive pay and bonuses and why successive governments fail to act against the UK’s dependent tax havens.

But now at last we begin to see it. It happens that the Lord Mayor’s Show, in which the Corporation flaunts its ancient wealth and power, takes place on 12 November. If ever there were a pageant that cries out for peaceful protest and dissent, here it is. Expect fireworks — and not just those laid on by the Lord Mayor.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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