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Book Review: City of London - The History, by David Kynaston
This is something of a doorstop, but it is also the distillation of Kynaston's four-volume history, and therefore presumably represents the edited highlights. The book covers the period 1815-2001, and I think that is symptomatic of one of its Achilles heels, that it assumes quite a lot of the reader. The Royal Exchange dates from 1570, and Lloyd's of London and the Bank of England from the end of the seventeenth century, and there is only a cursory preamble in the first chapter of the book. Likewise, the terms accepting house, discounting house, and issuing house are introduced without explanation; the book could really do with a glossary.

Setting these misgivings to one side, the book focuses on the increasing financial aspect of the City of London, while also highlighting that, historically, it was also a mercantile and more broadly commercial area. The rise of the Barings and Rothschilds families in particular is noted, while the Stock Exchange contributes Railway mania, and a series of less successful institutions produced a number of banking crises in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It's striking that the City has always been international in character (initially, offering and managing sovereign debt for other monarchies), and often criticised for it (as a distraction from providing a useful financing service for domestic industry). Private banking slowly gives way to joint-stock banking companies; the First World War deals the fatal blow that governs the next fifty years or so, a largely futile battle to reinstate and maintain the Gold standard. Labour nationalises the Bank of England in 1946; mergers, acquisitions, and asset-stripping become rampant in the 1960s and 1970s; the Stock Exchange slowly introduces new technology, only to discard it a few years later; and so on. The discussion of the "Big Bang" of the 1980s is interesting: it was forced upon the Stock Exchange as a deal to resolve a restrictive practices investigation in the early Thatcher years; indeed, one gets the impression that careers in the City were distinctly leisurely until relatively recently. The overall impression is that the City is apolitical, stridently demanding independence from political interference but rarely able to regulate itself effectively.

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