The Soft Power Of the City
A few days after the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet, a highlight in the diplomatic community’s calendar, Venetia van Kuffeler
met the man himself, Alderman Alan Yarrow
The office of the Lord Mayor of London is well-known for its ancient and elaborate ceremonial duties, but current incumbent Alan Yarrow is keen to stress that pomp and circumstance play only a very minor part in his everyday activities. “Five per cent of my time is dressing-up, the other 95 per cent is flat out work,” he remarks. Yarrow is just under halfway through a one-year term of office. He has already visited ten countries in three different continents, and over the next six months his busy schedule continues apace, with upcoming visits planned to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Yarrow’s background is in the financial services. He has spent over 40 years working in the City of London, most recently as Chairman of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI), experience that stands him in good stead in his current efforts to publicise the wide range of financial and legal services that the City has to offer. Whilst he is modest about his own achievements, Yarrow regrets the City’s very British tendency of underplaying its strengths, and views his job as properly marketing what he describes as “a cluster of extraordinary expertise.”
Yarrow is forthright in acknowledging that mistakes were made from 2003 onwards, but with the recovery now on the horizon, his sights are very much set on the future. “The most important thing is to recognise that mistakes were made, see how they need to be corrected, and to get on with re-establishing the brand,” adding that “it’s time to rebuild the outward-facing side of the City.” Yarrow sees the UK’s key attributes as being its language, time zone and above all, respect for the rule of law, whose fairness and speed, he says, are critical to its future prosperity and relevance in the world.
The Lord Mayor plays host to an array of international dignitaries in Mansion House, the grand eighteenth-century building that serves as his official residence. Yarrow cited the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet as a key example of the use of soft power, which he believes is one of the most effective and subtle ways that the UK can convey both its values and political priorities. In 2015, the annual banquet brought together ambassadors, high commissioners and representatives from over 120 different countries. “It’s neutral ground, it is purely a party of people away from home, and this convening power is critical.”
The Lord Mayor’s role might best be described as one of bringing about situations of mutual benefit. The banquet is a more glamourous example of Yarrow’s efforts to unite interested parties from across the world, who can then work with the UK to their mutual gain. “We believe that we are an interface with government and industry here in Mansion House, and we are very happy to offer facilities to [the diplomatic community] to try to promote their own wares.” Yarrow mentions The Year of Mexico in the UK as an example of the way in which governments can work with the UK to strengthen cooperation between their respective nations.
Yarrow says that the City is keen to extend the invitation to the entire diplomatic community in London. “We are always looking for good ideas,” he says. He explained that the Lord Mayor’s Office could provide a platform for countries with representation in the UK to bring over a business delegation and to pitch their plans to the relevant people. By extension, through his extensive trips abroad, the Lord Mayor also helps to promote the ideas of UK companies abroad, serving as a global ambassador and facilitating access to key business and political leaders whom the businesses might not otherwise encounter.
Despite a general election just weeks away, Yarrow says that his office is staunchly apolitical. Although he has been in contact with all the main political parties, the integrity of the office and its ability to work with a future government depends on him being seen to be impartial. Indeed, it is this intrusion of politics into business that Yarrow sees as posing a grave threat to the European single market. In this regard, he is distinctly wary of the rise in popularity of nationalist parties, whom he claims are by their very nature far more inclined to focus on interests at home rather than the prosperity of the European community as a whole.
Yarrow is a vocal advocate of the importance of free trade and flexible labour laws in maintaining growth and keeping down unemployment. “Every time a barrier appears, that is protectionism and that is bad for business,” he remarks, going on to say that “London’s greatest diplomatic challenge is to maintain a unique set of credentials at a time when nationalism and protectionism is growing.” Emphasising the UK’s own long history of immigration, he highlights the social and economic advantages that the right to immigration can bring, as well as the crucial importance of the UK’s less stringent labour laws in maintaining a young, adaptable workforce.
In response to a question about the often fraught interactions between the City and the EU, which has sought to impose tighter regulations over financial services, Yarrow says that relations have improved over the last six months. Fears over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission have not come to pass, and the appointment of Lord Hill as European Commissioner for Financial Services has, according to Yarrow, been “a very good move.” Furthermore, a recent adjudication in favour of the City of London in the European Court of Justice against the European Central Bank over clearing houses was a significant victory that he says “fully sustained the importance and the meaning of the City of London.”
In the face of increasing competition from fast-growing and emerging markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Yarrow maintains that Europe is stronger and better able to grow when it works together, and is more dynamic when there are fewer restrictions hindering trade between the different nations. “We believe the single market has the best opportunity of winning and working so they can all benefit if there is a lack of friction between countries, so our job is to break that friction down, to make sure the barriers come down.” Along with concentration on the single market, Yarrow would also like to see a reduction in bureaucracy and “proper cost benefit analysis on new legislation.”
When he is not working, Yarrow likes to play sport, particularly golf and tennis. Perhaps sacrilegiously in a nation that loves the game as much as the British, he admits to not liking football very much, but quickly adds that he enjoys watching rugby. Away from the pitch, Yarrow has also recently taken up painting again, using it as a much-needed distraction from the pressures of his day job. “I love to participate, although I do all these things very badly,” he says of his hobbies. Enthusiastic participation is what Yarrow appears to do best. In his words: “You really can make a big difference if you show drive, determination and a positive frame of mind.”
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