In March, elections to the City of London Corporation take place. They could be used to challenge the unaccountable power wielded by this state-within-a-state. On the 21st March the City of London Corporation will hold elections for its ‘Common Council’, the democratic component in its ancient system of local government. To understand why elections to this small, historic local authority matter it is necessary to appreciate the role that the Corporation plays in the life of the United Kingdom. For, as understanding of the importance of the Corporation grows, so does the case for using the 2013 elections to campaign for its reform.
The City of London Corporation is the only local government body on mainland Britain whose activities and governance are not defined and limited by statute. It is a local authority and is bound by the legislation that prescribes the functions of a local authority. But it is many other things as well. Ask how it can be a private corporation as well as a local authority or how it came to be the self-styled ‘Voice of the City’ and the answer is simple; because it chose to be and Parliament has not legislated to prevent it. Ask why Parliament has allowed this anomalous body to flourish at the heart of the unitary state and the answer revealed by history is that the wealth and power of the Corporation has always been such that the English and then British state has found it necessary to reach accommodations with the city-state in its midst.
In the high Middle Ages the City of London’s struggles for independence from the English Crown were resolved through a compromise in which the City promised loyalty to the King who, in return, promised not to interfere in its affairs. This distance from the feudal Crown enabled the City to grow into one of Europe’s most important financial and trading centres and the Corporation that governed it developed into a dense patchwork of rival institutions and offices that was the closest that pre-industrial Britain came to possessing an open, democratic public life.
By the 17th century the Corporation’s constitution had assumed the shape that it retains today: at its heart were the guilds, the most powerful of which were the ‘livery companies’, which represented and regulated the trades that practiced in London, were responsible for selecting the Alderman and from whose number the Lord Mayor was selected. The final component in its system of government was the Common Council directly elected by the commoners as it remains today.