The City of London Corporation will almost certainly vote today to revoke the trading licences of Billingsgate fish market’s porters. Billingsgate has been a feature of the City of London for hundreds of years, the porter’s particular role recognised formally since 1632. Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman have written a moving defence of the porters in today’s Guardian under the title ‘Theft in a City state’.
The destruction of the porters’ livelihood certainly looks like theft, but the City Corporation is not quite a city state. If it were it might have a bit more sense of responsibility towards its citizens for one thing. Rather, it is the last remaining municipal corporation left in the UK, the rest having been abolished at a stroke by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. It is worth remembering why these things were done away with.
Municipal Corporations existed in one form or another throughout medieval Europe and beyond as an efficient way of managing growing cities before the full regulatory powers of the state existed. Basically, power to manage a city was granted (in Britain by Royal charter) to a city corporation in return for a fee to the central state – it was an integral part of the feudal hierarchies. The city corporation effectively then had pretty much full sovereign power within the confines of the city, creating militias and police forces, raising taxes, controlling planning and building, commissioning public works and charging tolls on entry within city bounds. The traces of these entities still abound in British cities in the form of corporation halls, corporation streets, city gates, toll houses, coats of arms and so on. Municipal corporations were not democratic institutions, but run by local interests, usually a combination prominent merchants, the clergy, livery companies and the guilds representing various professions.
Municipal corporations grew rapidly with the growth of industrial and financial cities from, roughly, the 13th century onwards – their power increasing with the pace of urbanisation and the rise of the industrial revolution. By the early 19th century the big city corporations were not only powerful enough to rival the power of the state, but were horribly corrupt and oppressive. Long before 1835 the problems posed by Mucicipal Corporations were well known. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan in 1651:
“Another infirmity of a Common-wealth, is the immoderate greatnesse of a Town, when it is able to furnish out of its own Circuit, the number, and expence of a great Army: As is also the great number of Corporations; which are as it were many lesser Common-wealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a naturall man.”
The Municipal Corporations Act was an enlightened bit of national legislation designed specifically to rein in the excesses of the corporations and, in doing so, to unify the legal, social, cultural and political space of the UK – part of a long-term process of what Mary Poovey called ‘The Making of a Social Body’.
The City of London Corporation was not abolished in 1835 but remains the only extant municipal corporation in Britain. As such the City whilst still an integral part of the UK, represents a privileged space beyond the legal and political frameworks that affect the rest of the population. It is partly for this reason that the City has been able to retain it’s prominence as a global financial centre – it is an ‘offshore’ island at the centre of the British political economy. It is, in short, a xenospace.
As Cruddas and Glasman put it:
“The workforce of the City of London Corporation is being dissolved while those who represent the interests of money keep all their ancient customs, rituals, rights and assets. They remain hostile to the idea of a corporation in which there is a balance between different parts and of the ancient constitution which demands honour and the common good from its institutions.”
Unique though the City of London is, its capacity to simply ignore the rights and responsibilities of the contemporary state are not – they are precisely why governments throughout the world establish and tolerate xenospatial ‘zones’. They exist to serve a very particular set of interests – interests that could not surivive the rigours of democracy and accountability without the special protection they enjoy. “Why, ” Cruddas and Glasman ask, “is this tolerated?” Because very powerful people have always enjoyed this sort of privilege and, despite our pretentions to modernity, we (particularly the ‘we’ who live in the UK) are closer to the barbarities of the middle ages than we think. And the City Corporation are still a bunch of worms.