Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A Commonwealth of Livery Companies: Many cultures with a common ethos

Throughout this year I have been immensely honoured to attend as a guest of (and sometimes speaker to) a number of livery companies other than my own. This cooks' tour of companies has given me the opportunity to observe and interact with the different organisational cultures that exist among the livery at close quarters.

The most recent of my outings was as guest of a Bowyer who shared with me his perspective on how these diverse cultures fit into a common framework that ensures commonality of purpose while allowing each company to follow its own path. My host drew a comparison with the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation that embraces many different countries, cultures and ethnicities but does so with a common set of values and language under a single unifying authority.

I found this comparison with the Commonwealth a particularly good model for explaining the similarities and differences among the Livery Companies, let me explain further:

Common Objectives

The Commonwealth shares common objectives of representative democracy, the rule or law and individual liberty (among others) but each country in the Commonwealth pursues its own path to meeting these and other shared objectives. Often countries will collaborate under the banner of the Commonwealth to achieve a common objective.

The Livery Companies share common objectives of charity, education, support to their occupation and fellowship. The ways and degrees to which each company meets these objectives differs from one to the next. Sometimes companies collaborate on shared projects such as the founding of Hammersmith Academy by the Mercers and Information Technologists in 2011 or the formation of special interest groups such as the Wet10, the Metal Bashers and the Financial Services Group of Livery Companies.

Leadership

The Commonwealth recognises HM The Queen as its head, a leader who is above national politics and acts as a unifying figurehead, a defender of the values the Commonwealth represents. HM The Queen speaks for the the Commonwealth and is its most visible representative

The Livery Companies are creatures of the City of London and their senior members elect the Lord Mayor from among the Aldermen. The Aldermen are invariably liverymen (imports both genders) of one or more of the companies. The Lord Mayor acts as the focal point and figurehead for the City of London and the Livery Companies, all of whom have as one of their objectives: support of the Lord Mayor and the City of London Corporation.

Internal Governance

Each country in the Commonwealth has its own internal government, based to varying degrees upon the Westminster parliamentary system. Some countries have a bicameral legislative chamber, others a unicameral model. Some use the first past the post system in elections, others use proportional representation and so on. All the Commonwealth countries have a mature form of representative democracy at the heart of the government.

So the Livery Companies have their own internal governance based upon an elected Court of Assistants. The precise details of each Court differ from one company to the next, some are small executives, others are larger councils that appoint sub-committees for the detailed work. Some Courts Assistants are elected by the Livery, others are invited to join by the Court and confirmed by a show of hands of the Court.

Bilateral and Multilateral Relations

Relations between Commonwealth countries vary in their form and closeness based upon geographic, political, cultural, economic and sporting links. Australia and New Zealand are two countries that share very close links because of their geographic proximity, cultural and linguistic similarity even though these nations had very different starts in life. Sixteen of the Commonwealth countries also share a common Head of State.

The Livery Companies also exhibit a wide range of relationships forged by economic and political events in London and elsewhere. Many companies have obvious occupational connections (e.g., Bowyers and Fletchers) while others have forged relationships by engaging in a shared project (e.g., Mercers and Broderers joined in the plantation of Ulster). In the case of the Skinners and Merchant Taylors their relationship was founded in an argument over the order of precedence that continues to this very day.

Friendly Rivalry (mostly)

What all Livery Companies share in common is their rivalry with the others.

There exists a friendly rivalry among the Commonwealth countries, especially on the sporting field - cricket and rugby being particularly noteworthy examples. The cultural differences and similarities between the countries of the Commonwealth are also a rich source of friendly verbal jousting among citizens of the countries - a characteristic that soon comes to the surface if you put any group of Brits with Australians, South Africans or Canadians (etc) around a table with a few beers. Occasionally countries in the Commonwealth come to blows over their differences, and members have been suspended or expelled - Fiji being the most recent example when it was suspended from 2006 - 2014.

The Livery Companies have raised friendly rivalry to a ritualised art form, manifest in the order of precedence and countless ongoing arguments over who was first, oldest, biggest, wealthiest, had the most opulent hall or invented this that or the other tradition, etc. The Livery Companies are essentially tribal in nature, but they swiftly stand shoulder to shoulder when the situation demands. The bedouin have a saying which summarises both the rivalry and unity among the Livery 'I am with my brothers against my cousins, I am with my cousins against the stranger'.

In times past the Livery Companies would often enter in to long-running, acrimonious and occasionally violent arguments over real or perceived encroachment onto economic territory occupied by another. The Armourers & Brasiers and the Blacksmiths fought many legal battles over the right to control various aspects of the manufacture of arms and armour. Other battles were fought among apprentices and Freemen who had imbibed liberally at the festive board before the Lord Mayor's Show or other pageant. Arguments over who should take precedence in the parade would often turn ugly. That matter is now settled (except for the Skinners and Merchant Taylors).

Thankfully the days of Livery Companies openly fighting on the streets of the City are centuries behind us.

Some Livery Companies have been banished from the City, including the Basketmakers, whose banishment has never formally been rescinded - at least there is no surviving documentary evidence of the same. Perhaps it is still illegal to make baskets in the City of London?

And Finally...

The Commonwealth of Nations and the Livery Companies are both creatures that only Britain could or would create, the sort of complex, multi-dimensional fantastic being that nobody would design from scratch as a working model. The fact that HM The Queen is at once head of state in Canada and Papua New Guinea would seem irrational and incongruous, just so the existence of a Livery Company for the Horn trade and one for the IT Profession seems an anachronism in the 21st century. Yet the Commonwealth of Nations and the Livery Companies are in rude health and work exceptionally well despite the very best efforts of logic.

In conclusion it should be no surprise to learn that the Commonwealth of Nations, the City of London's government and its Livery Companies have a very close link in the person of Citizen and Skinner, Her Excellency The Right Honourable Baroness Scotland of Asthal PC QC who is the current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations (the operational head) and Aldermen for the City's Ward of Bishopsgate.













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