The other 1215 Charter: 800 years of elected mayors

Chris Game

The LGA’s Magna Carta web pages have recently featured a delightful homophone – sounds the same as another word, but different spelling and meaning.  Among this summer’s many MC commemorative events will reportedly be “a programme of inciteful lectures and talks” (my emphasis).

Excellent, I thought. Insight’s for wimps. Rousing incitement is what’s needed if, like the LGA, we’re to model today’s struggle for devolution on that of the 13th Century rebel barons with their tyrannical but cash-strapped King, and what better rouser than the Association’s aptly named Chair, David Sparks.

Given the countless products already being promoted by June’s 800th anniversary – from Jay Z’s free-to-smartphone album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to the British Library’s ginger fudge – cynics might accuse the LGA of bandwagon jumping. But they’d be unfair.

There is much more local government stuff in Magna Carta than I for one first appreciated. I knew the main local government clause (13), about the City of London and “all other cities, boroughs, vills [towns] and ports” being assured all their “ancient liberties and free customs, by both land and water”. But I’d no clear idea what the liberties and customs were, and also assumed that was about all there was.

In fact, most of clauses 23 to 31, ostensibly about such things as county farms and commandeering of timber, actually referred to malpractices of the King’s local agents – sheriffs, bailiffs, and so on – with clause 25, perhaps most relevantly to modern-day concerns, limiting the financial burdens placed by the King on the counties.

Then there’s clause 48, empowering 12 knights elected in each county to investigate and abolish those malpractices, which can be seen as part of a wider local self-government campaign around the turn of the 13th Century.

Even so, there’s a still better instance of early local self-government in a contemporaneous charter which, though less known, was important in itself and also played a key part in shaping the Runnymede agenda: the King’s Charter for London of May 9th 1215.

The London here, of course, is the famous Square Mile – today’s City of London Corporation – some of whose ‘ancient liberties’ predated the Norman Conquest. From 1067, in exchange for London’s supporting the King with cash or troops, these liberties were extended in successive royal charters, and included exemptions from certain taxes and tolls, right of trial by the City’s own courts, and the right to appoint civic officials.

Richard I (1189-99) was particularly indebted to Londoners, as funders of his crusades overseas and defenders against his baronial opponents at home, and it earned them in the early years of his reign both a recognized body of self-government, in the form of a Norman-style ‘commune’ – precursor of the City Corporation – and their own mayor, in place of the King’s Portreeve or sheriff.

Historians dispute precise dates, but the City claims 1189 as the year Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone was appointed its first Mayor – the addition of ‘Lord’ took another 200 years – and proceeded to serve a never remotely repeated 24 terms.

This circumstantial evidence alone suggests Fitzy was not only entirely acceptable to the King, but probably a financial backer and appointed by him.  And explicit reinforcement comes in the May 2015 Charter, King John’s last desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to detach London from the baronial insurgency that would culminate in the following month’s Magna Carta.

Charter for London

In a key concession and, it seems, the first documented reference in this country to a popularly elected mayor, the Charter grants “to our barons of the City of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor …”.

The full translation, from the second line of the illustrated extract, runs:

“Know ye that we have granted … to our barons of our city of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our Justice if we shall not be present… and he shall swear to be faithful to us; and that it shall be lawful to them, to amove him and substitute another, if they will, or the same to retain …”

The King’s climb down could not be clearer. The tables are turned: You now choose your own Mayor, and I get to approve his faithfulness, rather than the reverse.  It wasn’t his biggest surrender of that 1215 summer, but it was significant then and, whatever you happen to think of even the idea of directly elected mayors, it obviously still has its relevance today.

The story, and this blog, could obviously end here, but that would have involved omitting quite an interesting postscript, which links these events directly to the one Lord Mayor of London that even most non-Londoners can name: Richard Whittington.

We need to set aside much of the pantomime tale: the Gloucestershire lad, Dick, and his fictional cat who, returning home up Highgate Hill after failing to find his fortune in London, heard the distant Bow Bells preternaturally telling him to fulfil his destiny and “Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London”.

Never mind what he was doing returning to Gloucestershire via Highgate Hill, or whether he could conceivably have heard the Bow Bells chiming five miles away. The interesting bit is the ‘thrice’ – because, by the time this bit of nonsense was written, centuries later, Whittington had in fact served four mayoral terms: 1397-98, 1406 and 1419. So why the confusion?

No Lord Mayor since Whittington has served as many terms, so there can be no doubting his renown and popularity during his own lifetime. His money helped.  A successful import-export merchant, he’d have easily made the Sunday Times Rich List, and he spread it around judiciously. Plenty was ‘borrowed’ by the King of the day, but plenty also went to good causes and public works – including an unmarried mothers’ ward at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding the Guildhall, and a 128-seat public toilet.

The one big irony in all this is that the early public affection for Whittington’s mayoralty owed much to his initially NOT having been popularly elected – despite it having become the established practice by then for London citizens ‘at large’ to choose their mayor, with the King formally ratifying their choice.

However, when the incumbent mayor died in June 1397, Richard II, in one of his absolutist moods, decided he’d do the electing and simply imposed Whittington, one of his long-term creditors, on the City. The new mayor responded by negotiating a costly but popular deal, buying back for London its own usurped privileges for £10,000 (around £6 million today), and in October was triumphantly elected by a grateful citizenry – the two separate assumptions of office in the same year apparently accounting for the doggerel-writer’s ‘thrice’, unless of course it was the difficulty of scanning ‘quadruple’.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Core Activities: notes from the Core Cities Summit, February 2015

On the 11th February over 300 people from across the public sector met for the Core Cities Summit in Glasgow. This post summarises the point reached so far and some of the conference’s live issues, and suggests three areas for further consideration: how to involve MPs and MSPs more fully, engaging communities in the debate and considering what kind of country the UK should become.

Core Cities at the forefront of innovation

The Core Cities buzz continued in Glasgow on 11th February at its well attended summit which launched the next stages in cities-based devolution discussions. The Core Cities’ approach to innovation through collaboration has challenged the government by setting the pace. It was a cross-border event which included a look at how the next round of devolution proposals will affect Glasgow, as an indication of the next stages of the development of the Core Cities campaign.

The event pages are online and the Twitter hashtag #devosummit is searchable for reactions. The summit launched both the Core Cities charter for devolution ‘A Modern Charter for Local Freedom’ and the Respublica report Restoring Britain’s City States.

A charter for devolution and recommendations for action

The Charter sets itself in the context of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the waves of change emanating from the 2014 Scottish Referendum vote. It calls for action to consider what a ‘modern, mature state for the UK’ would look like, one which enables prosperity, equality and democracy. It sees itself as being applicable to the whole of the UK and not just to the Core Cities.

Devolution to local places is at the heart of its proposals with local freedom to make strategic decisions, to tax and invest, and to determine the shape of strategic planning and service delivery at the sub-regional level. To enable this, it calls on the Government to establish an independent body to facilitate devolution and oversee change, while ensuring that communities are strengthened, key investments are made, services are transformed and decision making devolved further to the appropriate level in communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

Respublica’s report, Restoring City States, focuses on city devolution. It seeks to build on the recent city deals with Manchester and the Sheffield City Region in order to forge a ‘rebalancing of the relationship between central government and cities. Many of the issues set out in the Charter for Devolution are explored in more depth and underpin the report’s eight recommendations.

Core Cities’ case for change

Opening the Summit, Cllr Sir Richard Leese stressed that the summit was about a constitutional settlement, not just the devolution of powers. Ben Page highlighted the fact that whilst people are dubious about whether devolution is of relevance, they are concerned about inequality and there is potentially the space to try something new and to engage them in debate, as shown in the Scottish Referendum. In the Scottish context, Jim Murphy MP sought greater devolution by the Scottish Government to its cities. However Keith Brown MSP wondered whether local government could make more of its existing powers and was uncertain whether legislative change was really needed to achieve the Core Cities’ aims, a rehearsal of some of the debate nationally.

Considering reform to powers and fiscal matters, Danny Alexander MP wanted to see the government look at the devolution of stamp duty, amongst other measures, with a clear fiscal base to municipal re-empowerment. Philip Blond, Respublica, considered that the post 1945 model of the state was no longer fit for purpose and sought a new model to deal with a much more complex public service challenge. He considered that there might need to be some intervention in some ‘trailing’ cities to jump-start change, but considered cities to be the only agents nationally capable of bringing equality in an age of globalisation. Cllr Nick Forbes called for the next Comprehensive Spending Review to be based on place, rather than the individual spending limits of departments.

On the future form of devolution, Cllr Nick Forbes also stressed the need for cities not to be ‘walled cities’ but ones open to their surrounding partners, rooted in their local hinterland, pulling together to develop infrastructure, and linked into ideas about social justice. Pat Ritchie highlighted the need for devolution to be capable of adaptation to the different needs of different places. And Mayor Jules Pipe, speaking for London Councils, highlighted a need for devolution thinking to extend nationally, with further change needed in London, for example, to meet the extent of empowerment sought by the Core Cities.

Gaps and challenges

The focus of the day focused more on the growth agenda that it was on the social development of cities, although they are of course entwined, there were also some interesting gaps and unresolved issues.

The first gap relates to national politicians, the devolution debate has made much of devolving from government to city or place, but little has been said about the role of MPs (or MSPs). All of the cities involved in the discussion have numerous national representatives who are currently not part of the picture. There was talk on the day about the development of local Public Accounts Committees but as yet no sign of the development of a shadow version to see if it might work and help to hold a core city to account.

The second gap points out there has been little discussion of the quality of community in cities and aspirations for their development. Perhaps understandably much of the discussion has been aimed at central government, but the relationship of local people to each other and to the local state needs to be as much a part of the desired debate about the modern form of the state as a whole as any of the issues highlighted at the summit.

The third gap relates to the fundamental question of the kind of state the UK wants to be in the future (and here it is worth pointing out that this has been almost solely a local government led debate which of necessity does not yet include key local players in national services such as the NHS). This is a debate which perhaps should be at the core of the general election campaign, but is currently not on the agenda.

Next steps for everyone?

In its submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s consultation on the constitution, INLOGOV said (amongst other things):

English devolution to a system based around London and the core cities would carry considerable risks if it becomes an exercise which bolts-on powers without thinking through the systemic change that is needed. We need to resolve the question of responsibilities, of citizens, communities, cities and regions, before the reallocation of powers.

… The UK’s greatest potential is contained in its networked nature, and the same can be said of the best cities and counties. What is needed is therefore constitution which does not just chunk up centralised power and devolve it.

… There should be a clear agreement about how power is shared (rather than devolved) between different legitimate and competent parts of the UK state, including local, regional and national governments.

So the current debate is a necessary one about devolution, but perhaps needs to develop into one about power sharing. To return to the Magna Carta theme, the Barons sought limitations to the exercise of central power and a clear basis for sharing it. They also did not rely solely on rational argument but potentially had the means to force King John to comply with their demands. It will be interesting to see how the Core Cities muster their forces and deploy them during the coming election and beyond.

As Sir Richard Leese recognised, the number of places that can be considered as core cities is necessarily limited. However it is clear that the approach that Core Cities have set out is one which has its application across England especially and the UK as a whole. All can benefit from the learning about ‘what works’ in creative, collective approaches to change and the development of confident, positive narratives about places and their people. And INLOGOV is uniquely placed to offer support by sharing learning and exploring approaches which challenge barriers of stagnation, short-sightedness, parochialism or old rivalries, all of which get in the way of what is important: long-term development based on outward-looking collaboration.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin is an Associate Fellow of INLOGOV. He was previously Executive Director of Finance & Policy at the Local Government Association and Chief Executive of St Albans City & District Council.