London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Three) – Canary Wharf

The oligarch's den
The oligarch’s den

Click here for Part One.

… and here for Part Two.

Our unexpectedly politicised amble around the capital had been equal parts fascinating and grim, but it was time to go. The rubbery sandwiches on the coach back to Somerset weren’t going to eat themselves.

Despite our rampaging cynicism, The Bemolution is a sucker for a poetic conclusion. And of all the places we could’ve ended our London adventure, a climactically big square surrounded by international banks seemed especially apt considering everything we’d seen, thought and talked about along the way.

It was completely by accident. We thought we’d try and squeeze in a last rendezvous with a third friend – sassy and savage-witted writer type from home, spent two maddening years bombarding the capital with fruitless job applications, finally got hired and is now doing quite well – before making a mad dash across London to catch the last escape pod out of Hammersmith Bus Station. Travelling to meet her in Greenwich, our witless provincial brain almost overloaded trying to work out where the Jubilee Line met the DLR – you have to physically leave one station at Canary Wharf and walk to another, it took us an embarrassingly long time to realise. And as we glided ethereally up the escalator and emerged from the glass Teletubby dome of the station entrance, it suddenly hit us that Canary Wharf was that Canary Wharf.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the British Empire in the ascendant, Canary Wharf was one of the biggest, busiest docks in the world, bringing the capital everything from rum, sugar, and tobacco, to then-exotic foodstuffs like bananas and tomatoes. It declined throughout the twentieth century as cargo vessels grew too big to navigate that far up the Thames, and between 1967 and 1981 150,000 jobs were lost in and around the docklands. With no substantial government attempts to resuscitate it, help it diversify or relocate elsewhere, the wharf itself finally closed in 1980, a half-derelict relic of Britain’s imperial heyday.

By that stage it was far too late to save the docking industry. But the state could and should have stepped in, investing massively in new industry to employ those left jobless by its demise. Instead, Mrs Thatcher leapt at the chance to prove the superiority of (allegedly) free-market capitalism, and made the Isle of Dogs an Enterprise Zone, subject to less taxation and government regulation in an attempt to draw in new business – although it was the public who had to cough up for the Docklands Light Railway that some cite as being far more important to the area’s subsequent economic success than the Enterprise scheme itself. Coming just two years after the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986, when the government shredded regulation of the banking sector, foreign financial institutions piled into Canary Wharf, and went on to make ludicrous amounts of money over the next thirty years. Strangely enough, the investment banks didn’t seem overly concerned with finding vacancies for ex-dockers.

Today, Canary Wharf has overtaken the City of London itself as the UK’s biggest hub of high finance, employing 44,500 bankers to the City’s 43,300. It’s home to the European headquarters of several US banks, including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase, along with home-grown institutions like Barclays and HSBC. And it was here that bankers helped cook up ever more intricate, baffling and reckless ways of making money out of money rather than anything socially useful – the ‘credit default swaps’ and ‘collateralised debt obligations’, incomprehensible to many industry insiders let alone lawmakers and the people on the street, that would eventually leave the global economy wobbling on the brink of total collapse.

As that initial spasm of panic has unravelled into prolonged recession, the worst since the 1930s, life has gone on here pretty much as it always has. While governments bring misery to millions, using the crisis as an excuse to deal out even more of what caused the problem in the first place – deregulation, privatisation, the transfer of power and wealth from the vast majority to the rich and unaccountably self-serving – the people who work here remain completely unruffled by any of it, still some of the most extravagantly rewarded, politically influential, untouchably powerful members of society.

Of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who traipse round the Houses of Parliament every year in the mistaken belief that anything of much significance goes on there, we somehow doubt many also find their way here. It’s where the real power is, but if they did, they’d probably get bored quite quickly. We did.

Like the Daily Mail and Gary Barlow, Britain’s premier financial hub might be a suppurating ulcer on the country’s moral conscience, but its physical manifestation is more than a bit anticlimactic. It’s not, disappointingly, a glowering Mordor of a place – although black mountains spewing molten hell-matter would do nicely as a symbolic representation. In fact, it’s very dull. At least the Shard and the Gherkin are vaguely-interesting-to-look-at shrines to Mammon.

Loomed over by Canary Wharf’s generically sleek and shiny skyscrapers, we felt thoroughly unimpressed. More interestingly, we felt absolutely nothing at all – not fist-shakingly angry, or sad, or viscerally repulsed, or anything like we might’ve expected beforehand. It’s not surprising when you think about it. Yes, banks and big business have reshaped society in their own image. But the finance-pandering status quo is a maddeningly anonymous phenomenon. You can’t just chop the head off the snake, gather your posse and corner the bandit. If you stormed JP Morgan in an ideological frenzy, you wouldn’t find some cat-petting evil supremo at the top of the tower you could scissor-kick out of a window to end neoliberalism.

Look around Canada Square and you’ll just see people going about their business, living their lives. To them, they’re not doing anything wrong at all. According to the values system most of them will have been brought up in, in fact, they’re doing exceptionally well, and mummy, daddy and Great Aunt Melinda are probably very proud of them. Insulated from reality and the bulk of humanity, filled with warped priorities by a culture that massages the egos of the fantastically rich, they’re just living out their majority-squashing, egalitarianism-denying idea of normality.

Which would be absolutely fine, if that vision of normality wasn’t foisted on the rest of us. If bricking themselves off from the majority of the human race also meant shielding us from their economic activity, there wouldn’t be a problem – the corporate-financial class could be left to gamble and speculate up their glass towers, leaving society at large well alone. In the real world, disastrously, they’ve got terrifying power, and consistently use it to skew politics in their own interest. They need bringing down to size, no question – but tear down Canary Wharf or the City and the financiers will just spring up somewhere else. It’s a culture at fault, and a culture that’s needs to change.

Since the late 70s, finance has become a disproportionately huge part of the British economy. Finance’s overriding aim has become the political mainstream’s overriding aim – the short-termist, single-minded pursuit of wealth by the wealthiest as a way of fuelling continuous economic growth, regardless of the catastrophic social and environmental consequences. Good politics is now pro-finance politics – governing the country in the way best-suited to the financial sector making truckloads of profit.

The financial elite remain vociferously hostile to anything that might sap even the tiniest fraction of their wealth – wealth, which, incidentally, has grown massively over the last decade, while the incomes of the majority have either stagnated or fallen. Even the piddling Tobin Tax is condemned as economic blasphemy – this a measure that would extract less than one percent of the value of international financial transactions and put the funds raised towards the global anti-poverty effort. Try anything, no matter how mild, to redress the crushing inequality our super-financialised economy has brought about, and you’re branded as some kind of economic terrorist, risking ruin by spooking off the hallowed wealth-creators.

It’s always worth reminding yourself of the maladjusted moral universe the bankers inhabit. Take the current financial crisis – there’s one pertinent chain of events where the banking sector demonstrated its utter moral bankruptcy. The specifics are far too complex to segue off into here, but, suffice to say, the crash was caused by activities that nicely epitomised the creed of bankerdom – make yourself millions monetising something that’s a) incredibly reckless and b) has the potential to cause system-rattling social damage when it inevitably goes wrong, then cash out and make for your retirement home in the Bahamas just before it all crashes and burns. Do it right, and the regulators and the governments and the businesses and the millions upon millions of vulnerable, uninformed individuals you duped and/or annihilated in the process won’t see you for dust.

Nothing’s changed since the crash of 2008. Far from chastened, the financial sector is being as brazen and morally outrageous as ever. The banks have rigged the Eurozone bailouts of debt-saddled Ireland and Greece, already subject to some of the most punishing, draconian austerity measure in the Western world. By conveniently ratcheting up the interest the Greek and Irish governments had to pay on money owed just before they received multibillion Euro rescue packages, the banks have managed to maximise the amount that will go straight back into their own coffers, ensure that, if it’s not kept on top of, the existing Greek and Irish debt will balloon even faster than before, and, in turn, increase the likelihood of further bank-nourishing bailouts to come – all while Greece is hacked and slashed into a third-world country.

Those are just two fairly recent, topical blots on big finance’s moral balance sheet. The banks have been doing even worse things for decades. Continuing in the blankly amoral lineage of the Swiss finance houses that took in Nazi gold, today’s bankers prop up corrupt politicians, violent dictators, drug dealers, tax dodgers, arms smugglers and war criminals by emotionlessly processing their transactions and laundering their dirty money. In doing so, they’re letting African despots bleed their already impoverished subjects dry and narco-barons live like kings on the proceeds on other people’s desperation.

But even that pales in comparison to their most reprehensible activities of all –using food and water, the world’s two most precious resources, as speculative playthings in a world where 22,000 people die of starvation every day. The bursting of the housing bubble, quickly followed by the 2008 crash, saw bankers and hedge fund managers dashing to move billions of dollars of their money into something safe. A lot of them chose food – people, after all, will always have to eat. The commodity markets – where, in a neat encapsulation of the insanity of our way of life, the most important resources on the planet are bought and sold with stunningly little regulation – became the new arena for their unending quest for massive profit. Between 2006 and 2011, the value of the market in food nearly doubled from $48bn to $78bn. Barclays was forced to admit that it alone made around £500m from food speculation in just two years.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that food became more expensive, with catastrophic consequences for the world’s poorest. Having already used their enormous political clout to block any attempt at making the more world a more equitable place – including steps to eradicate needless poverty – the banks proceeded to make money out the misery of the most destitute. Some banks took to buying up and hoarding food to artificially inflate the price they could sell it on for later. By the end of 2010, rocketing prices of staple foodstuffs like maize, wheat and rice had consigned 44 million more human beings to extreme poverty. In the space of a few months in 2012, maize prices jumped by up to 50% in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa – and a horrifying 174% in Malawi. Who knows how many thousands died, and continue to die as a result.

We’ll always need banks and bankers of one kind or another – in a sanely organised society, they could play a crucial role in allocating investment and resources to places that desperately need them, and help bring about a more equitable, sustainable, less morally disastrous world. As it stands, the shape of politics, economic policy, and the state of civilisation as a whole is dictated by a caste of amoral sociopaths. The culture that produced them needs pulling to pieces, and the lawless institutions they’ve built need bringing under public control. More than a few of the individuals involved should be in jail, and have their assets seized as a start towards compensating the rest of the species for the damage they’ve done.

Capital

What about London as a whole, though? It’s not fair to tarnish a whole city with the same brush as a few thousand feral elites who happen to do very irresponsible things at the centre of it. As we trundled back towards Hammersmith we gave it a dozen tube stops-worth of thought.

There’s no denying it – for years, we gave in to the grouchily provincial side of the Force and officially didn’t like London. It was a frenzied, overpopulated hive of narcissistic professionals who stared through you when you asked them for help navigating the Metropolitan Line. And it can be like that. But as the years went by and we explored the capital in more depth, we quickly and unsurprisingly realised there was a hell of a lot more to it than that.

You can still find a warm, friendly, human London, one that still resembles real life as most people experience it, albeit one fairly down on its luck after decades of being smothered by the glass, and the steel and plastic people at the top of the city’s dehumanised corporate culture. It took getting lost on the way to see the Alan Partridge film in Wandsworth one time to open our eyes to the existence of nice London, thanks to the string of lovely florists, newsagents, pasty booth operators and general bystanders who helped us get where we needed to go. It was a ridiculously simple thing, but a pivotal moment in our relationship with the Big Smoke. Just like practically everywhere else in the world, we realised stupidly late, there were ordinary people just trying to get by here too.

Now there are lots of banal things we like about the city – the novelty of the tube still hasn’t worn off, coming from a place where the next village over gets a bus once a fortnight. But the most positive thing London represents at a cultural level is workable diversity. It’s living proof that for all the Rivers of Blood-style scaremongering, it is entirely possible for all kinds of different people to peacefully coexist, even in a cramped city. Yes, perhaps integration could have gone slightly better in some areas, yes, there are still occasional flare ups of ethnic tension, but despite the protestations of the Melanie Phillipses and Richard Littlejohns of the world, multiculturalism works remarkably well.

In short, its poverty and plutocracy might be a damning indictment on our way of life, but London isn’t all bad. Still, we flopped off the tube at Hammersmith and boarded the rocket back to Planet Provincial solidly convinced of something we’d only briefly entertained in the past – that London shouldn’t be the capital city anymore. It’s got too much wealth and power, and it allows for too cosy a relationship between our economic and political elites. It might be one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on earth, but it breeds insularity, too – as a Londoner, especially a rich, professional one, it’s all too easy to think you’re living at the centre of the universe and dismiss the world beyond Zone Three as backward and irrelevant.

Plenty of countries have shifted capitals over the years. Brazil moved theirs from overcrowded Rio to purpose-built Brasilia, which did wonders for the previously neglected Brazilian interior. Move ours to Birmingham, slap bang in the middle of England – and closer to the post-industrial north – and it could mark the start of a grand rebalancing act, tackling the vast over-concentration of wealth and political heft in the south-east and bringing massive investment to the parts of the country that need it the most. Or pick somewhere else, somewhere particularly devastated by the social vandalism of the neoliberal years, as a lasting statement that we’ll never again put up with an economic regime that benefits one corner of the country so massively and does so little for everywhere else.

Even better, go the whole hog and abolish ‘the capital’ itself – devolve as much political power as locally as it will go, mothball the House of Lords, and let the now less crucial National Assembly exist in the ether. In the age of Skype, a virtual parliament can’t be that farfetched – one where people vote and debate by video conference. No need for second homes, eye-watering expenses bills. Politicians could live and work in their constituencies all the time. Become far more rooted in the communities they claim to represent, and far less susceptible to Westminster bubble syndrome. Politics could be a healthier, more humble pursuit – and a darn sight more democratic on the side.

Somehow, we think London would manage just fine without all the constitutional bells and whistles. In fact, with the bulk of political power transferred to its local government, it might actually do something decisive about its own shocking inequality and wrenching deprivation. In the 1980s, Ken Livingstone’s GLC was a progressive beacon poking up out the Thatcherite mire – maybe with more sway over its own affairs, the ex-capital could turn itself into a nice place for all its residents to live.