In the last sixty years, there has been an unprecedented attack on the institutions of England. Declared out-of-date, out-of-touch, or out-of-anything as an excuse to gradually impose the new leftist cultural zeitgeist, countless ancient bastions of Englishness have fallen. Few mourn for this terrible loss. Fewer still have documented the destruction; perhaps with the notable exception of Paul Talling, mastermind of the invaluable resource that is Derelict London.
It is in London that the destructive forces of neoliberal capitalism and unrestrained architectural revolution have wreaked the most havoc. Whilst it is important to remember that London is and has always been a city that dances to the tune of money, and has been the canvas for many hundreds of different people across history, it is patently clear that in the last half-century, more excuses have been contrived in order to destroy and dismantle London’s heritage than possibly anywhere else in the country.
A recent high-profile example of this is Billingsgate fish market. Established in its original form in 1327, and formally established by an Act of Parliament in 1699, the market moved from the Billingsgate Wharf in the City of London to its present location in Canary Wharf in 1982. During the days of the British Empire, the market was the largest fish market in the world.
The market first came under attack this decade after a 2005 review that also took into account its cousin, Smithfield meat market. However, this year, Billingsgate’s owner, the City of London Corporation, has announced it will revoke a bylaw dating back to 1876 and not renew fish porters’ licences. The potential impact of this move is absolutely enormous on the livelihoods of the porters at the market, some of whom are proud members of a long line of market workers.
The Guardian gave an account of a worker in their article on the subject:
“It’s all about money, all about wages,” said 73-year-old Albert, who does not want to give his surname. “If people don’t have licences, they’ll be able to get anyone in to do the job, they’ll get their own porters, probably foreigners who will work for a pittance.”
A more cynical observer of the case would find it fairly obvious as to why efforts to undermine the markets make good financial sense. Any 13-acre site in the hugely affluent Canary Wharf district will have a huge sale value, as is clearly evident from the site’s illustrious neighbours:
According to the BBC, the Corporation’s reasoning behind their revoking of the bylaw is that its’ requirement that a porter must be of “good character and fitness”
“… does not guarantee employment, nor does it guarantee standards… This by-law is obsolete, out-of-date, irrelevant in modern times, and could be criticised for bureaucratically restricting freedom of employment.”
It could be criticised, but hasn’t, to my awareness. What is abundantly clear is that the workers are satisfied with their present terms of employment, and that jeopardising the porter’s rights to remain exclusive to the company would of fundamental detriment to their employment status itself. Indeed, increasing ‘freedom of employment’ appears to hand the rights to free employment back to the company itself rather than the long-settled workers. Superficially at least, this appears to be another unsubstantiated attempt to undermine traditional working practices in the name of ‘progress’.
Former (and potentially future) London Mayor Ken Livingstone is well-known for convenient appearances at such events, but contributes some valuable insights into the matter, stating for The Guardian that:
“Billingsgate has been on this site for a generation, it has seen a real revival in recent years and it is hugely profitable,” he says. “What they are trying to do here is break the wages and conditions, instead of having skilled staff on a decent wage. It is yet another example of the downgrading of working class working conditions.”
Further to the earlier point about the value of the site itself, Ken suggests that
“… the value of this site is now enormous, and it is going to be much easier to get an act of parliament through that closes or moves the market without a well-organised workforce who know their rights to deal with.”
He is absolutely correct, and what is being passed off as a mere update of an outdated and irrelevant aspect of the employment terms is in fact an aspect of a concerted effort to change the very fabric of this part of London. Needless to say, as well as disrupting history and a community, it is a neat and literal example of the longitudinal and desired shift in this country from the creation and retail of products (especially organic items from agriculture or fisheries) to the creation and accrual of intangible capital.
Those who wish to undermine the position of the porters appear to forget of the fact that it is the trust placed in their ‘good character’ and professionalism that allows the market to (according to Ken’s blog) transport 25,000 tonnes of fish every year and help generate around £200 million in revenue for their employers.
A small case it may seem, but the recent history of such institutions has seen so many small cases go un-noticed that the transition from one state of affairs to quite another has taken place in such a short time. Billingsgate, already dislocated from its original site, is one of the last old London institutions of its ilk, and every effort must be made to preserve the way of life of its workers, and ensure its continued success in the future.