Continuing a tradition dating back to 1189, David Wootton took office as the City of London’s Lord Mayor last November. The father-of-four led the Lord Mayor’s procession in a 254-year-old gold carriage through the City. He had a gritty start: the previous month, Occupy London protesters had set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, where they remained until their eviction in February this year. I went to meet Mr Wootton at his official residence and base of operations, the spectacular Mansion House, to hear more.
The political ladder to Lord Mayor starts with becoming a ward’s Alderman, or Senior Councillor, before rising to become one of the City’s two Sheriffs. To reach the first rung, however, it helps to be a member of one of London’s 108 Livery Companies – historic trade associations, most of them surviving first and foremost as charitable bodies, such as the Worshipful Company of Weavers and, in Mr Wootton’s case, the Worshipful Company of Fletchers (arrow makers). The Lord Mayor is elected annually, for a one-year term only, by the City’s Liverymen; the position is unpaid and apolitical. During that time he or she will make around 700 speeches, addressing in the region of 120,000 people as ambassador for the City, and host a large number of visits by important foreign political and business figures. Another key aspect of the Lord Mayor’s role is to advise the government on the views of City businesses.
Mr Wootton’s first priority is to publicise London and the UK’s financial services traditionally associated with the City both at home and abroad. However, the City’s voluntary and charitable work (including The Lord Mayor’s Appeal ‘Fit for Life’) is very close to his heart and something he’ll be promoting too. ‘We’ve kept this work very quiet,’ he says, noting that City firms ‘did £500 million of pro bono corporate social responsibility work’ in the year preceding his appointment.
Secondly, he wishes to promote links with the rest of the UK: ‘We always have been very good at promoting links between the City and other countries – hence our strong interest in the Diplomatic corps – but the rest of the country seems to think that we are only looking “out”. But in fact, there’s a lot we do inside the country, and I’m trying to give that some visibility.’ To this end, he has placed woollen suits from Bradford, his home town, on prominent display in Mansion House as well as pottery from Stoke, from where his father hails. ‘A lot of people in this country think that the UK doesn’t do manufacturing anymore,’ he observes. ‘Well, we do, and the City is giving it plenty of support.’
While in office Mr Wootton has spent around a third of his time abroad, and by November 2012 he will have visited up to 30 countries. ‘These visits once tended to be particularly formal and ceremonial, much like a royal visit with formal dress, and lots of protocol,’ he reflects. ‘Nowadays we are very business focused – they call it commercial diplomacy. Where we can be most useful is in helping the economy, both for the City and the entire UK, in the right direction.’
He notes that in times of economic difficulty, ‘the business world is not good at getting its message out, unlike politicians and the media. And therefore you don’t get a balanced debate.’ He is, of course, referring to the recent spate of banking ‘scandals’. On a recent visit to Moscow and St Petersburg he was questioned carefully about the Libor-rigging incident at Barclays. Generally, Mr Wootton explains, regardless of bad press, other financial centres trust that the City is functioning well because they’re regularly doing business there. ‘Before that particular incident took place,’ he says, ‘I was always asked more about what was happening in the eurozone and less about the City. But the Barclays incident was different because the Libor setting affects banking globally, so there’s rather more to explain. The City needs to be seen to be proactive in setting its house in order – we can’t really wait for Westminster to do it.’
In general, on his travels, Mr Wootton has found that Britain enjoys a huge amount of goodwill from the world beyond Europe. ‘We need to tap into that,’ he enthuses. ‘Having concentrated on Europe for the past 20 to 30 years, Britain has not paid as much attention to some of our old friends, or indeed, some of our newer friends, as we should. Therefore what I’m trying to do internationally – and I know the government is of the same mind – is to be friends with everybody. Outside the traditional world blocs – like Europe, the US, China, Russia, etc – are an increasing number of newer blocs, such as the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, ASEAN and the Gulf states, who are doing much more together. The burgeoning economies of countries like Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria and Colombia are also going to overtake their developed-world counterparts, so Britain will be best served by pursuing networks with everybody.’ He encourages foreign diplomats in London to do the same, while also reminding them not to forget the Commonwealth, a group which is of huge importance to Britain and is ‘enjoying, largely thanks to the Foreign Secretary and Lord Howe, a new lease of life.’
The Lord Mayor believes that London’s greatest diplomatic asset is London itself: ‘We are a very open and welcoming centre for business and culture, and this is reflected in the quality of the diplomatic corps. However, we mustn’t muddy the message that we are open for business. For reasons of domestic policy, the last government paid a great deal of attention to controlling who comes in and out of the country. This hasn’t been handled too subtly, which has started to convey a message that perhaps we aren’t quite as open for business as we suggest.’
Citing the City’s ‘stability and predictability’ as the cornerstones of its success in recent decades as an investment destination, he concludes, ‘We need to make sure that the City is, and continues to be, a stable and predictable place. In the past couple of years a few changes in the budget have caught overseas investors, to whom we’ve been very welcoming in the past, by surprise. It’s a challenge for us to make sure we get the balance right.’