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Books: Downfall of the Cockney rebels

Michael Leapman asks if Ken Livingstone can succeed where Dick Whittington failedd hopefully before Good Morning, without droning her into numbness like a dozen-year habit of a man? Or stand before the medicine cabinet, the angular little figure of light at your feet, looking through your own eyes, the rings of bone sharpened around...
London: a history

by Stephen Inwood

Macmillan, pounds 30, 1111pp

LONDON HAS always been more or less ungovernable. New Labour's tangle over what precise powers should be wielded by its new authority for the capital, and in particular whether to allow Ken Livingstone to be mayor, has echoes through the ages. We have, as this monumental work relates, been here many times before.

The dilemma is always the same. A London authority that exerted enough muscle to be effective, and was allowed a budget big enough to tackle the city's pressing problems, would become a rival power-base to the central government. That is why Labour's new authority, like its predecessors, will not be given the means to serve the capital's best interests.

Stephen Inwood ends his book - as sprawling and richly textured as London itself - with a quotation from its first historian. William Fitzstephen wrote in 1173: "The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor." It has been allowed one only spasmodically.

Inwood traces the rivalry between national and civic authority back almost to the Norman Conquest. London, even then, was an important centre of trade, its backing crucial to monarchs in trouble. Depending how deep that trouble was, such support could be bartered for concessions to the city's independent status - as happened in 1141, when King Stephen was struggling for power against Queen Matilda, and again 50 years later when King John was having an early spot of grief with his barons.

In the late 14th century, Richard II punished London for its failure to support him by moving the exchequer to York, purging city officials and imposing the legendary Richard Whittington as mayor. When Richard II was deposed by Henry IV, Londoners welcomed the new king. As Inwood observes: "The appearance of popular support which a cheering crowd of Londoners could provide was a convenient buttress for a doubtful claimant." Dick Whittington quickly transferred his loyalty to Henry and assured himself of continuing favour by lending him money.

In the Wars of the Roses, the London merchants and financiers were again keen to be seen supporting the winning side. The triumphant Henry Tudor was hailed at Shoreditch with trumpeters, loyal verses and a plump expenses purse.

As London spread, it became harder for city officials to impose authority on the "suburbs" beyond its walls. When Elizabeth I issued a proclamation banning new buildings within three miles of the city, it failed to halt the spread of flimsy shacks. During the Great Plague of 1665, the policy of isolating the sick and sealing off their houses proved equally impossible to enforce.

Disease, vice, crime and drunkenness were ever- present, because neither the city nor the national government had the power or will to control them. The early 18th century saw the first manifestations of organised crime and in the same period London's death rate, approaching 50 per thousand people, was nearly double the national average.

Under the Victorians, various stabs were made at providing the capital with effective government. For the most part, these were thwarted by politicians scared that a powerful authority would embark on huge capital expenditure on health, water and transport projects, leading to increased taxation.

The Metropolitan Board of Works, formed in 1855, gave way in 1888 to the London County Council, replaced in turn by the Greater London Council in 1965. All had achievements to boast of, but foundered because of an inescapable verity: wealthy voters do not live in areas where need is greatest, and are always reluctant to foot the bill for public projects. City-wide strategies seldom command universal support.

The most graphic example came during the last years of the GLC. Under its "Fares Fair" policy, the Labour authority had cut bus and tube fares by a third, financing the deficit through the rates. The Conservative council of Bromley challenged the policy on the grounds that Bromley had no tube and the cuts did not apply to its rail service. The Law Lords decided for Bromley and the policy had to be abandoned.

Which brings us back to Ken Livingstone, leader of the GLC during that tempestuous period, and with ambitions to be mayor under the new regime. His chance is negligible and, if he reads this absorbing book, he will understand why. Whatever trappings of powers the mayor is given, the prospect of a truly independent London has always struck terror into the hearts of England's rulers.

Dick Whittington held office under three kings because he knew how to bend the knee to the powerful. Ken Livingstone, never your natural placeman, is more likely to end up as Cinderella, left behind when the others go off to the ball.