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London, government and politics

London, government and politics. The exceptional size and resources of London gave it military significance in addition to its political importance as the capital. William the Conqueror granted London a charter, confirming its previous privileges, but also began building the White Tower, nucleus of the Tower of London, as a strong point. London did not replace the old Wessex capital of Winchester until the 12th cent. Indeed, as long as the king and his household were continuously on the move, the concept of a capital could scarcely develop, but Edward the Confessor's decision to build his great abbey at Westminster, reinforced by William Rufus's building of Westminster hall, and the beginning in 1176 of a stone London bridge, pointed the way. Before the Conquest, Saxon rulers had granted London remarkable privileges—a folk moot which met three times a year; the husting (Danish: hus-ting (house assembly) ) which met every week; aldermen to supervise justice in the ward moots. In 1018 London had paid one-seventh of the national tribute to Cnut and in the decades before the Conquest the witan had met there more often than anywhere else. Londoners added to their privileges in subsequent centuries in a long series of charters. Henry I granted them the right to elect two sheriffs who should also act for Middlesex, and in Richard I's reign they gained a mayor. During the convulsions of John's reign, they gained further concessions and the mayor of London was the only commoner to serve on the committee of 25 appointed to enforce Magna Carta. When representatives of the boroughs began to be summoned to Parliament in the late 13th and early 14th cents., London usually returned four members rather than the standard two—though even that grossly under-reflected its population and wealth.

The government of the city, as it developed, consisted of a Court of Aldermen, chosen for life; a Common Council of some 200 members, chosen annually by the wards; a Common Hall of some thousands, representing the liverymen; and ward moots or parish meetings. The wards were further divided into precincts—small neighbourhood units of 50 to 100 houses—which also met regularly. The Court of Common Hall elected the two sheriffs and nominated two members for the mayoralty, the Court of Aldermen choosing one. The executive was the mayor (after 1283 increasingly referred to as the lord mayor), the two sheriffs, a large number of paid officers, of whom the recorder and town clerk were the most important; and a host of lesser officials, paid and unpaid, down to precinct level, including scavengers, constables, night-watchmen, and rate-collectors. The wealth of the city from tolls and dues enabled each level of government to entertain itself well and award contracts to its friends and supporters. The lord mayor presided over the Court of Common Council, in which the aldermen also sat, and which acted as a kind of executive committee. There was a constant struggle for power between the component parts, the Common Council and even more the Common Hall tending to radical disenchantment with the national government, the aldermen, consisting of the senior and wealthy merchants, often on close terms with the government of the day. Seldom did the city speak with one voice on any political issue. Great influence was also exerted by the livery companies which developed from the medieval guilds: the Weavers' charter was granted in 1155, Fishmongers' 1272, Goldsmiths', Merchant Taylors', and Skinners' 1327, Drapers' 1364, Mercers' 1394, and Grocers' 1428. London's wealth and its closeness to the court meant that its representations had to be taken seriously, and its privileges included the right of direct access to the sovereign, which could be used to present irritating petitions and unwelcome advice.

On several occasions London was in the hands of rebels— Wat Tyler in 1381, Jack Cade in 1450, Thomas Wyatt in 1554—attempting to seize or intimidate the government. These incursions were rarely successful, partly because there was little government to seize, partly because it was difficult for rebel leaders to control their men once they had entered the city. Nor were Londoners—extremely conscious of their own privileges—greatly inclined to welcome peasants, Cornishmen, or Highlanders. Of more consequence in national affairs were the occasions when the city itself acted with unity and resolution. Londoners, with their close financial and trading links with the Low Countries, were very receptive towards reformed doctrines in the early Tudor period and London became the spearhead of the English Reformation. One hundred years later, it was in the forefront of the opposition to Charles I, and the Civil War may, in one sense, be seen as London versus the rest. The resources of the capital in men and money were the mainstay of the parliamentary cause and the pattern of the conflict was dictated by Charles's efforts to fight his way back into London after he had fled the capital in 1642. London gave strong support to Shaftesbury during the Exclusion crisis and forfeited its charter temporarily as a consequence, and for much of the 18th cent. was a thorn in the side of Whiggish aristocratic governments. The tensions between a Whig Court of Aldermen and a Tory/Jacobite Common Council led Walpole in 1725 to push through the City Election Act to strengthen aldermanic control. But radical London was not subdued. William Beckford and John Wilkes used London as their power base for attacks upon George III's ministers, the former even offering the king a well-publicized rebuke at an audience in 1770. In the 1790s the London Corresponding Society pressed for reform of Parliament and London played an important part in the chartist agitation of the 1840s. Later in the century London radicalism was less evident, partly because new towns like Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield had taken up much of the running, partly because London's enormous size made it difficult for politicians to organize it.

The growth of London also placed great strain on its governmental institutions. London itself had long before expanded beyond the city limits, taking in Southwark in 1550. By 1811, only one-tenth of the capital's population lived within the city's jurisdiction and the corporation had little desire to acquire responsibility for the remaining nine-tenths. What administration there was outside the city was left largely to parishes and vestries, supported by a patchwork of trusts, commissions, and charities. A leap forward in co-ordination came in 1829 with the Metropolitan Police Act but, significantly, it did not apply to the city proper, which set up its own police force ten years later. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 did not include London, whose government continued unchanged while some of the new councils like Birmingham acquired a reputation for municipal enlightenment. Not until 1888 was the London County Council established, taking in an area from Woolwich to Hampstead and from Wandsworth to Hackney. A second tier of 28 borough councils operated beneath, sharing responsibilities. The London County Hall, on the south bank of the Thames, was opened in 1922 as a symbol and headquarters for the new authority. It was controlled first by the Liberals, from 1907 by the Conservatives (Municipal Reformers), and from 1934 by Labour. Herbert Morrison's leadership in the 1930s was intended to make Labour London a flagship for municipal socialism, particularly in housing and environmental matters. But London was once more reorganized in 1965, partly for party advantage, partly because Greater London had outgrown the LCC area. The Greater London Council supervised 31 boroughs and the cities of London and Westminster. The Conservatives held power at first but lost control to Labour in 1973. Dislike of its left-wing politics and jealousy of any rival source of authority caused the Thatcher government to abolish the GLC in 1986, leaving London as the only capital city with no overarching authority. Power was exercised by 33 borough councils. The 1997 Labour government proposed an elected mayor as London's executive, and, after a referendum, Ken Livingstone was chosen with his main task to improve London's transport.

J. A. Cannon


Beier, A. L., and Finlay, R. (eds.), London 1500–1700: The Making of the Metropolis (1986);
Brigden, S. , London and the Reformation (Oxford, 1989);
Pearl, V. , London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution: City Government and National Politics, 1625–43 (Oxford, 1961);
Rudé, G. , Hanoverian London, 1714–1808 (1971);
Stevenson, J. (ed.), London in the Age of Reform (Oxford, 1977);
Webb, S., and and Webb, B. , English Local Government: The Manor and the Borough, Part II (1908);
Williams, G. , Medieval London: From Commune to Capital (1963).

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