Aldermanic Depression

Andrew Saint

  • London: A History by Francis Sheppard
    Oxford, 442 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 19 822922 4
  • London: More by Fortune than Design by Michael Hebbert
    Wiley, 50 pp, £17.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 471 97399 8

A hundred years ago, when London ruled half the world and the snarl-up in front of the Bank of England passed for ‘the hub of the Empire’, only dedicated puffers and slummers plus a smattering of tourists had much good to say about Britain’s capital. Literary folk like James and Conrad slipped into the illusionary language of the dark sublime. London was dismal, blackened, sick, cruel and unplanned, concurred the charitable and the analytic; the sooner the authorities could draw the working population and their smokestacks out to the countryside and lance Cobbett’s ‘wen’, the better.

By the Twenties, London was becoming more orderly but remained drab, far drabber than it is today, and intellectuals still sneered at it. Look at any postcard of an interwar Islington street, and you will see why. Soon though, as the young started to heap their avant-garde disdain on suburbia, the centre embarked on a come-back, only to have its fragile renaissance crushed by bombers and planners. Since then, hopes and fears for London have yo-yoed, along with the values on its Stock Exchange and the less hedgeable policies of governments on metropolitan urbanism. When the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986, there were visions of political chaos, race riots, deskilling and the crumbling of services on a scale that would have gladdened the ruralist heart of a Richard Jefferies. Five years ago, Roy Porter still diagnosed ‘a downward spiral of infrastructural and human problems that will prove hard to halt’.

Yet now, when London has slipped way down the table of city-sizes and tours round the eerie magnificence of the Foreign Office induce a Venetian sense of pathos, boosterism is back. It is even corroborated by scholarship. ‘In comparison with other great cities of the world London has ... for centuries had a uniquely ascendant position,’ asseverates Francis Sheppard. From their respective standpoints of two millennia of ebullient trading and a century of, to put it mildly, muddled planning, Sheppard and Michael Hebbert paint their pictures in the same bright colours: of a healthy, wealthy conurbation, unfathomable, inchoate, yet liveable and boundlessly energetic. London confers prosperity on the rest of Britain rather than drains it away, they say. It is solving its social problems, and awaits the imminent return of some measure of self-government and respect.

Why then should the planet’s most consistently stable and resourceful great city have generated so jittery an image? The answer seems to lie in a hidden equilibrium of forces that London has always been less able to articulate and institutionalise than the nation, and has often been deliberately balked from getting into balance by national institutions. Freedom of trade or representation versus security; the metropolitan whole versus the fissile borough or parish (medieval London had more churches to the acre than Rome or Venice); the centre versus the outskirts; cultural elegance and symbolism versus pragmatism and profit: these are the issues that have made London’s constitutional history contentious. Crown and government always had an interest in reining in or dividing such dangerous power and wealth as the city might muster – and did muster just once, to devastating effect. The Civil War lies as deep as the Great Fire in the psyche of the capital. ‘One insurrection in London and all is lost,’ epitomised the sage Lord Liverpool.

We think now of Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone, but the pattern can be traced back to King John, when London sneaked its own municipal charter under the lee of the barons, and even before. From almost the start, the dominance of Roman London in the affairs of Britain was a surprise, and shakily defined. But the climax came in the 17th century, in episodes which Sheppard handles with the evenness, lucidity and pace that are the hallmark of a lifetime’s writing about the capital, and destine London: A History to be the exemplary politico-economic narrative of its subject for decades to come.

It is a cliché among urbanists that London developed as twin towns: the walled, commercial City downriver and the looser, semi-separate court suburb of Westminster upstream, each in need of the other for finance and security. From a metropolitan point of view, the Civil War may be simplistically explained as the moment when these tectonic plates first met and ground together. The City of London, then as now inward-looking except when under any threat to its existence, had no wish to expand its walls or boundaries – a peculiarity which marks London out from comparable European cities – because it foresaw a threat to its independence, but it did want to limit economic activity in the suburbs. In its stead, the Crown had been trying to control London’s extra-mural growth since the 1590s, and the Star Chamber was not averse to having unauthorised new houses pulled down. In the 1630s, during Charles I’s ‘personal rule’, two developments occurred. The better-known one was the building of Covent Garden, the first London square, erected under royal licence to the designs of the royal architect, Inigo Jones, and soon to set the model for the style of planning and type of house raised after the Great Fire. More important at the time must have seemed the New Incorporation of Westminster, set up by Charles I in 1636 to give the western suburbs an autonomy and status akin to that of the City Corporation. The City reacted with fury, Sheppard tells us, and with the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640 ‘the whole project sank into unlamented oblivion.’

The triumph of Parliament and City during the Civil War cut two ways for London. It confirmed the ideologies of independence, Puritanism and trade, and presaged the stockbroking, insurance and banking techniques that London was to borrow from Amsterdam and develop spectacularly. But it also led to political stagnation, leaving the City as an island that was to become constitutionally moribund, intractable, but alas not irrelevant to the management of the gigantic urban entity that sprawled around it. How this bizarre anomaly has been allowed to continue to the present day, when New Labour can tackle the Lords and propose ‘unitary’ government for London yet still does not dare bring Britain’s last rotten borough to heel, beggars belief.

Once bitten, you might have thought the Stuarts would be twice shy. They did in fact have a little-known second go, between 1683 and 1688, when the City was governed by a Royal Commission, the Lord Mayor was nominated by the Crown and the Common Council was ‘dispensed with altogether’. This time, the reasons for the flexing of royal muscle had little to do with London itself, more with national loyalties. Ironically, it was James II, hated for his Catholicism by the paranoid City, who restored its privileges in a desperate bid for support. After that, serious government declined in the City, though not radical politics. That canny Georgian adventurer and stirrer, John Wilkes, played equally to the City’s sense of independence and to the threat of its mob. But his main platform was the hustings for national, not aldermanic, elections, and as City Chamberlain in 1780 he was noted for his firmness in suppressing the Gordon Riots, the last occasion when the London mob enjoyed a real rampage. Thereafter, the ‘old salamander’, as Michael Hebbert calls the City, fell into a seeming sleep.

The passing of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, giving Peel’s government-controlled constabulary a thirty-mile diameter of operation (excepting, of course, the City), marked the moment when the notion of a ‘Greater London’ was born. As often in history, a law forestalled an idea. From then until the Seventies, almost all studies that did not represent ‘vestry’ or party interest took it for granted that the cure for London’s accumulating ills must be some magic bond of metropolitan cement squeezed between parish pump and Parliament – and hang the City. Such was the hope that reformers invested, first in the indirectly elected Metropolitan Board of Works (1855-89), then in the directly elected London County Council (1889-1965) and its enlarged but ill-starred successor, the Greater London Council (1965-86).

But since the GLC experiment was cut short, and particularly since Londoners have got used to the limbo that succeeded ‘abolition’, no one is so sure. By any rational standard, the Thatcherite hydra of 33 boroughs plus sundry co-ordinating bodies, a special government office, and the City salamander on the side – all of which was fattened up at the time of abolition with the quaintly mixed diet of London’s traffic-lights, archives and Hampstead Heath – made a ridiculous pair of monsters. But though they have turned out ungainly, they have not been disastrous. Both these books pay lip-service to the restoration of London-wide government, but they do not depend on it for their optimism. Revisiting the Metropolitan Board of Works, Sheppard interprets it as a triumph of localism, not an anticipation of civic self-respect; it did what it was set up to do, which was to drain the wen, as petty vestries and local sewer commissions could not do alone. After that titanic work, the minimalist Board would have sat on its hands, had not governments thrown it other bones – running London’s fire brigade, licensing its theatres, and building some feeble new roads and rather better bridges.

This was the ragbag of powers that the London County Council inherited in 1889. In due course, it garnered a few more (principally, housing and elementary education) plus a frail claim to democracy. London-wide democracy is a tender plant which flowers seldom and briefly, as Lord Salisbury proved in 1900 when he deftly undercut the LCC by turning the vestries into modern boroughs, with their own town halls and direct electorates. On the whole, the LCC was able to dominate the old London boroughs until 1965, when the process was repeated and larger, amalgamated local authorities were created to balance the new GLC – or quarrel with it, as the outer boroughs did with vigour.

There is constant debate about where the loyalties of Londoners lie – with city, borough or wishy-washy ‘community’, the refuge of the apolitical. The answer is of course fluid. Only two metropolitan politicians this century, both ‘masters of spin’, have had much claim to democratic plausibility. One was Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, now best remembered for the Festival of Britain. Well before then he ran the LCC in the Thirties, presiding over a coalition of trades-unionists and educated Hampstead women with Blairite discipline and Tammany-Hall ruthlessness, yet building a great deal of housing and schools and getting the Green Belt going. The other was Ken Livingstone, whose main achievement was to talk the GLC into abolition. The cart-before-horse decision to opt for a democratically elected mayor for London before it is agreed what powers he or she shall have shows that the present Government can stomach only the lightweight, Livingstonian version of London-wide democracy. That is unlikely to last longer than the GLC. A competitive organism like London has needed efficiency more of the time than democracy. Maybe that is why neither Sheppard nor Hebbert has much enthusiasm for the issue.

Sheppard’s relish is for commercial and economic history, since trade has been London’s consistent raison d’être and glory, of a sort. He is up to speed on the reanalysis of the Roman heritage by urban archaeologists, who in uncanny league with money-men used the spate of City redevelopment in the Eighties to investigate a forum comparable in scope with any modern trading floor, stumble on an ancient Wembley Stadium in Guildhall Yard, and diagnose the deposits of ‘dark earth’ long recognised in City strata as evidence of a spectacular boom after Boadicea’s revolt up to about AD 120, and mysterious bust thereafter. Archaeologists are as prone to fashion as others, so in default of documents we can expect the history of Roman London to go on fluctuating. Where they have most altered the picture is in locating London’s major centre of trading activity during the ‘missing centuries’ (after about 400) upriver around the Aldwych and Covent Garden. Here the economic dynamism of the suburbs originated. How the City was used at this time they do not know; it might have been a ‘sub-Roman slum’, as Mortimer Wheeler thought, or it might have been market garden, or perhaps both.

Next come the demographers. For want of reliable figures they bicker, but they do agree that from its revival around the time of Alfred, London burgeoned into the biggest city north of the Alps, bigger than Paris up to about 1200 and then again after 1700. Paris: the perpetual rivalry begins, with aesthetes from Evelyn onwards pouring scorn on the one, and money-minded commentators discounting the other; ‘as a centre of long-distance commerce Paris [c.1400] was merely an annexe of Bruges,’ Sheppard snipes.

Internally, he is at pains to point out the consistent and utter dominance of London in the nation’s trade and manufactures. In this respect the 19th century, when London appears on the face of things to be at its most rampant, turns out to be an atypical interlude, when cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool rise on the tide of industrialisation to challenge its manufacturing primacy and develop strong civic élites and cultures of their own. Then history rights itself, geography reasserts itself, and industries come pouring down into Outer London in the Thirties as the rest of the country stagnates, to the dismay of the planners. And all this time, ‘despite the enormous manufacturing output of the new industrial towns of the North, the value of the national imports always throughout the whole of the 19th century (when Britain was “the workshop of the world”) exceeded that of exports; and it was only through invisible earnings, substantially generated through the City, that a favourable national balance of payments was ever achieved at all.’ That in a nutshell is why nobody dare touch the City. Yet not only has this immense power warped and latterly defaced London; it has eroded England’s provincial culture and added to the current debility of the Union.

Michael Hebbert’s lively book is as panoptic as Sheppard’s but his true frame is space, not time. Sheppard is an Inner London man. Hebbert is that, too, but he is also at home in Tilbury, Heathrow Croydon, Wembley and beyond, in realms outside the range of the taxi-driver whose ‘knowledge’ he takes as a neat point of departure. He is a passionate admirer and defender of the Green Belt, which the Thatcher Government came close to getting rid of along with the GLC. But he knows that the snobbery of boundaries is fatal for a true understanding of the metropolis. City, borough, County of London and Greater London limits have all crumbled before the logic of new patterns in business and living, and turned into mere expedients for grappling with the muddle.

Hebbert himself is still partial to the formulation invented by the Danish planning historian Steen Eiler Rasmussen in the Thirties and ratled out in corny guidebooks ever since, that London is just a collection of overgrown villages. This is repeated to prevent people looking into the urban abyss and seeing Los Angeles. What it really means is that London’s mechanisms of growth have been unusually merciful and adaptive, allowing developers to respect existing centres of population as they passed and absorbed them. If one reason for this were singled out it would have to be the scale and modesty of the small English house, not least in the revised version of it promulgated after 1918 by Raymond Unwin, most humane of metropolitan planners. Patrick Abercrombie, Unwin’s spiritual successor and author of the two famous plans for London issued in 1943-44, also did well, under harder circumstances and greater pressure. Sheppard is wrong to condemn London’s high-rise housing without also acknowledging how many excellent ordinary houses and flats were inserted in the Fifties and Sixties under Abercrombie’s ‘mixed development’ policy. If he wants to see real disaster, let him look at the mangling of the old villages beyond the Parisian périphérique. Not that either Unwin or Abercrombie got it right in trying to decant so much of the population from the centre.

Hebbert transcends most books about structure and planning with a strong feeling for humanity; his is more of a social analysis than Sheppard’s, as regards present-day London at least. If William Morris found Londoners a century ago ‘joyless, hopeless, shameless, angerless, set in their stare’, Hebbert now finds the opposite, and can back his sentiment with statistics. Illuminating on sport (East London has 37 golf courses against West London’s 35), he is even better on immigration, which has always been London’s life-blood (and one reason metropolitan education is shaky; when clever people keep arriving, why teach skills?). The Jews have mostly gone from the East End and the Welsh have abandoned their drapery shops and milk rounds, but Asians bring talent and panache to dull suburbs, while Caribbeans are farmore integrated than people think (one in two men and one in three women are thought to have white partners). Bangladeshis, the last sizeable community to come, still cause worries but do their bit by bolstering Inner London’s fertility, as net outward movement goes on despite all the chatter about gentrification. Soon enough, they, too, will assimilate. Where communities are concerned, urbanists no longer struggle to separate, divide and purify but to amalgamate and condense. Furthermore: The standardised mortality ratio has been falling since 1980 and is ... well below the national average. Studies of morbidity ... find that Londoners on the whole experience less illness and better health, mental and physical, than the rest of urban Britain ... London’s suicide rate, once significantly higher than the rest of the country, has fallen steadily at a time when the national rate is rising.’ In other words, London is good for you.

It cannot all be so rosy. Hebbert completes his picture of London with a fair-minded survey of the ‘new geography’ of Docklands, which we do not have to admire but must learn to respect because, like the City, it brings home the bacon. Does the new financial district have to be so damnably coarse and ugly to do so? The short answer may be yes. The City fathers have spent much of the postwar period arguing that they needed to build as they pleased for the national good and inducing false panics (Hebbert has the figures to prove it) about Frankfurt, while paying lip-service to the shade of Wren and ‘the patina of centuries’. The upshot has been an ever grosser environment east of Blackfriars, which the architecturally excitable now wish to crown with wholly superfluous mega-skyscrapers. Bigness and rawness are a concomitant of commercial success, as the glum old riverside warehouses of London’s port, renascent now as ‘lofts’, remind us. Does it matter that a city is ugly, or even ill-governed, so long as it is prosperous? Some think no: look at Tokyo. Let us hope that London can develop a broader self-respect on both counts.

For the City it may at last be too late, however; Sheppard’s plea for its retention is already out of date. To offices behind the glistening granite cladding of Canary Wharf, or further out in the business parks beside the M25, is increasingly shifting the vital, fragile responsibility of earning the ‘invisibles’ which alone keep Britain from bankruptcy. Sooner rather than later, the City Corporation must be reduced to heritage management or face amalgamation with its infinitely more vibrant neighbours. The day may not be far hence when one of Hebbert’s immigrants from an Inner London borough parades in state through London, in rightful and triumphant possession of the Lord Mayor’s coach.