When Fair’s Unfair

Nick Clegg yesterday, in his capacity as Minister for Things That Don’t Count For Very Much In The Real World, announced that Chelmsford, Perth and St Asaph have been awarded city status to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while Armagh will be getting a Lord Mayor.

The first reaction may well be to ask why one arm of government seems so ignorant of what another is doing. While the ceremonial arm is creating a new lord mayoralty, rooted in tradition, the political arm is doing its best to spread confusion over those that already exist, pushing an ill-considered agenda for change. Many of England’s largest cities, Bristol included, have Lord Mayors but David Cameron wants the voters on 3rd May to back an additional, directly elected, semi-executive Mayor. Before Bristol was awarded its lord mayoralty by Queen Victoria in 1899, its civic chief was called simply the Mayor, all the way back to the first recorded, Roger Cordewaner in 1216. How many mayors does a city need? Which one is reckoned as Roger’s successor? And might Bristol be heading for an unedifying spat between Mayor and anti-Mayor over precedence? No-one seems to have thought through what the answers to these questions might be. In Torbay, the only local authority in Wessex currently with a directly elected Mayor, the Mayor is first citizen but the Council also has a Chairman to run its meetings. So the Chairman is inferior to the Mayor but gets to wear the chain of office, on his behalf. But a Chairman styled as the Lord Mayor cannot be inferior to a Mayor without seeming to throw the Queen’s honour back in her face.

The second reaction, after checking the map to see where Chelmsford is, might be to ask why so many worthy Wessex candidates for city status have been passed over in favour of a small Essex town with a cathedral. Bournemouth, Dorchester and Reading all applied but there could only be one winner. In England. And there’s the problem. To be fair to all home nations, city status has to be awarded to smaller and smaller places in the less densely populated Celtic countries, while England’s burgeoning urban areas join a lengthening queue. (Cornwall might even be relieved not to be recognised as a nation if the alternative in the long-term were city status for everywhere from Penzance to Torpoint.) We see here the grotesque folly of treating all nations equally, regardless of size, as if greater size does not raise additional issues that deserve to be addressed. The result is to devalue the very meaning of words like ‘city’.

So the third reaction may be to ask why, in the world of today, the grant of city status has to be so jealously guarded as an expression of the Royal Prerogative. Any village can declare itself a town. All it takes is a resolution of the parish council. The council then becomes a town council and the Chairman is automatically upgraded to Town Mayor. It’s not a power that’s ever abused, because local folk apply their own innate sense of rural or urban in coming to a decision. So why should our cities-in-all-but-name not be entitled to assert themselves too?