The Wealth of Empire: The City of London in the Rain, a set on Flickr.
To describe these photos of the City of London, I used the word “empire” in the title because I believe that, in many fundamental ways, it is apt, although I realise that the British Empire is not, of course, the only source of money and power in the City of London and in its modern offshoot, Canary Wharf. In many ways, the mafia would be a better reference point for what these well-connected crooks have been getting up to as a result of the financial deregulation initiated by Margaret Thatcher (which benefitted David Cameron’s father, who made a fortune through the creation of tax havens) and Ronald Reagan, the subsequent repeal, under Bill Clinton, of the crucial Glass-Steagall Act — which was introduced after the Depression in 1933, separating “domestic” banking from its potentially fatal speculative aspects — and New Labour’s enthusiasm for filthy lucre, and whatever scum happened to have loads of it. The current shower of clowns in Downing Street and the Cabinet are only different from New Labour in the sense that most of them are already rich, millionaires out of touch with the people and thoroughly unconcerned about it.
In particular, the modern money markets are international, and much of the expertise in dodgy financial engineering — of the kind that ought to be illegal, and of the kind that nearly bankrupted the world in the global crash of 2008 — came from Wall Street as much as from the robber barons of the British establishment, although, crucially, it was the long-cherished secrecy of the City that allowed Wall Street bankers to initiate policies in London that were illegal at home.
To understand the role of the City of London in the world of colossal theft and towering arrogance that is the modern financial world — epitomised by the phallic skyscrapers of the financial elites — it is important to understand that the City of London has an ancient history of wealth, power and unaccountability, which ties the past to the present, as was made clear last autumn when Occupy London, the London offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, occupied the land outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, having been refused entry to Paternoster Square, the privatised square beside the activists’ original target, the London Stock Exchange.
The Occupy London activists soon became intensely interested in the City of London — or, more accurately, the Corporation of the City of London — and, at the end of October, 17 members of the camp put together a statement, which pointed out that “democratic reform” of the Corporation of the City Of London was “urgently needed,” and described City institutions as “unconstitutional and unfair,” as I explained in an article at the time.
The statement also called for “an end to the corporations’s own police force and judicial system which affords the square mile vast amounts of freedom to run its own affairs,” as the Guardian described it, or, in the protestors’ own words, “The risk-taking of the banks has made our lives precarious — they are accountable to no one but themselves, unduly influencing government policy across the centuries both at home and abroad. This is not democracy.”
The activists also called for “an end to business and corporate block-votes in all council elections, which can be used to outvote local residents,” the “abolition of existing ‘secrecy practices’ within the City, and total and transparent reform of its institutions to end corporate tax evasion,” the “decommissioning of the City of London police with officers being brought under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police force,” the “abolition of the offices of Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriffs and the Aldermen,” and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to examine corruption within the City and its institutions.”
For further information, I recommend Nicholas Shaxson’s book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, and an article by George Monbiot, “The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest,” published in the Guardian on October 31 last year, which describes in detail how the City operates, and how unacceptable its activities are. As Monbiot explained:
[T]he 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.
The photos in this set — the 15th in my ongoing series in which I am photographing the whole of London while travelling around it by bike — are my first of the City of London, and were taken on July 13 on a rainy afternoon and early evening, which, I thought, was somehow appropriate. In the photos, I hope to have captured something of the startling nature of the architecture that, like that of Canary Wharf, is technically at the cutting edge of what is possible, but is also the product of the kind of eye-wateringly huge amounts of money that only materialise through the dubious practices — and outright illegality — discussed by Nicholas Shaxson, George Monbiot, the activists of Occupy London, and, when I can find the time, myself — see my articles, When Will Immoral, Unprincipled Bankers Be Held Accountable for Their Crimes? and Criminal Bankers Are Not Above the Law, for example, which followed the recent Libor rate-fixing scandal, which might rein the banks unless, as in 2008, they are judged by politicians as being “too big to fail” — or, as it should be, ” too big to be held accountable for their crimes.”
I hope you enjoy the photos. There are some more intimate moments in the set, but in reflecting on my glimpses of the huge and unprecedented building projects that are ongoing in the City, I can only conclude that unless the speculative aspects of the global banking institutions are stopped by another self-inflicted global financial disaster — or by the will of the people — those of us who do not benefit from the City’s greed will need to get used to a new kind of feudalism, as we get less and less while the bankers continue to take the lion’s share of everything.
I will be returning to the City soon, with some photos I took on a recent visit at night, but before that expect some photo sets of journeys in which money is both less important and less visible.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Richard Osbourne wrote:
Excellent work as ever Andy. Your precise descriptions of this Government are particularly welcome (and accurate). It seems to me that the City of London has more in common with the Vatican than the rest of Britain – literally a state within Britain that holds immense, unseen, unaccountable power.
Thanks, Richard. Yes, and a secretive state-within-a-state that wields that power disproportionately over politicians in particular, buying up new Labour and being even more in bed with the Tories – as their most significant financiers. It really isn’t going to end well if we all sit on our hands and hope for the best …
And no offense to our Olympic stars, who worked phenomenally hard for their success, and who clearly deserve it, but any knock-on effect that blinds people further to the realities of modern Britain would be a disaster.
Rita Pal wrote:
AW – love your work.
Thank you, Rita – I love your support!
but andy ..WE ARE SITTING ON OUR HANDS..we are doing absolutly nothing wot the fuck happenened to us,why are we letting this happen any kind of protest has fizzeled away in this country and been clamped down on is it becouse we have no leaders or are we now so brainwashed like the dolts that que for 78 hours for the latest iphone,lol,look around the world there out there protesting in the streets for change we here in the uk just sit there passive while this twisted government carries out its sick and warped ideoligy with the blessings of the corperate monsters..and yet we do nothing
I don’t have an adequate answer, Damo. “Bread and circuses” is what the Romans used to keep the public diverted, and the circus is in town right now, but we’ve had two years of these clowns making it clear that they regard ordinary working people, the working poor, poorer children, students, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly with disdain, and yet no one has risen up. People were brainwashed – or fell for the lies about entrepreneurialism and the “trickle-down effect” under Thatcher and Major, although dissent was still strong then, so the biggest blame lies with New Labour, with what I describe as Tony Blair’s psychic cosh, and, it must be said, with people’s own de-politicisation – their embrace of selfishness and materialism, and their refusal to keep questioning what’s being metaphorically shovelled down their throats.
As ever, the message is … wakey wakey! They really are coming to get you!
wot the fuck will it take to wake people up,ooh yeah when theres no money comein out of the atm, theres no food on the shelves and there are bodies in the streets ..is that when people will wake up ..god help us i forgot ww3 should do the trick
Yes, Damo. What indeed? We need to start agitating when this Olympic bread and circuses show is finally over, as that’s when the future will appear bleak for all but the rich, and even they may start to work out that they can’t keep bleeding the workers, the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and the old to keep them rich when they don’t have anything left to give.
Sharing this on Facebook, Tim Chadwick wrote:
Here is the London the Military Corporation GE/NBC won’t let you see. Liars. Thanks Andy Worthington
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