LONDON (Reuters) - Seen from the River Thames, the dome of St Paul’s has been a constant in the ever-shifting London skyline, untouched by two world wars and three centuries of social and political change.
Now the cathedral is becoming an unexpected focal point of debate over the future of capitalism.
On Saturday, several hundred protesters occupied the steps and pitched tents outside the church as the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations spread via social media to London and worldwide. Almost swept from the area by police that night and the following morning, they were spared when cathedral authorities told officers to back off and allowed the protest to stay.
Blocked from their original target - the stock exchange on the other side of Ludgate Hill - several hundred people have set up camp, promising to emulate their U.S. counterparts and stay for weeks, months, or even longer.
By Monday lunchtime, a handful of officers in fluorescent jackets were simply looking on as tourists, students, and office workers on lunch breaks wandered through the encampment, many stopping to debate with protesters what the right way might be, if any, to move forward after the financial crisis.
Many seemed surprisingly sympathetic.
“I came down for a sandwich and got carried away,” said Tim Sanders, a chartered accountant working in the city, drawing a small crowd as he held forth in his navy suit on the need to restore balance and ethics to the financial system.
“You’re seeing history right here, it’s going to sweep the world. These failing institutions are in the pockets of an elite. It’s morally corrupt. “
The protesters themselves appeared a disparate group, a range of veteran campaigners, leftists, environmentalists, students and job seekers. A large proportion said they were in employment and aiming to continue to work in between shifts at the encampment to stop it being cleared by police.
One tent rota seen by Reuters included an engineer at Heathrow airport, a university biologist, a web designer and several other professionals. Some other protesters were recent graduates who had struggled to find jobs. Many of the initial organisers were foreign: German and Spanish in particular.
Like many other protest movements this year, they appear almost completely leaderless, initially co-ordinated via social media platforms, inspired by events overseas and now making decisions through long, consensus-based meetings on issues from sanitation to their wider agenda.
With their generally peaceful approach and hope of finding an ill-defined “better way” to manage international capital and politics, the largely educated crowd appeared in stark contrast to the tough, angry urban youth who brought chaos and looting to London and other cities in August riots.
A church warden told the protesters the Corporation of London - the local government body that represents London’s financial district - was putting the greatest pressure on police to end the occupation.
Late on Monday, a Corporation spokesman denied that was the case and said there were no plans to clear the demonstration “today or tomorrow”. But he said the protesters were wrong to try to scapegoat the City of London.
“The banking sector is a major driver of growth and tax revenue in the UK and elsewhere,” he said. “The City has been a centre for trade, banking and now financial services for 2000 years and it is important it stays that way.”
Reverend Rob Marshall, spokesman for St Paul’s, said the church had a long tradition of engaging with both the City of London’s businesses and its people and that while it welcomed peaceful protest it also needed to guarantee that worshippers and tourists could continue to visit.
“On one hand, debate about the economy and financial structures is vital,” he said by telephone. “But practicalities are the concern today.”
The Church of England was at the forefront of the campaign to write off debt in the developing world. It is also one of Britain’s largest landowners.
Beneath the massive dome, built by Sir Christopher Wren from 1675 after the church’s destruction in the Great Fire of London, church services continued with prayers for those camping outside. Tourists and school groups visited untroubled.
Don Court, a 22 year old politics student, said the decision of the church to allow the protesters to stay had proved the turning point and he had been amongst several protesters to attend services since. At one, Canon Giles Fraser told the congregation many of the world’s problems were caused by financial greed, Court said.
“I’ve always thought of churches as conservative institutions, as protective of the status quo,” he told Reuters on the cathedral steps. “But I went in there yesterday and I saw a reverend of a huge cathedral essentially agreeing with what protesters are saying out here.”
Much may depend on exactly who is deemed to own the land on which many of the tents stand. Currently, there is little clarity on where church land — were the protesters appear currently safe — begins and Corporation land starts. Around the corner, police riot vans stand ready.
Signs and banners on tents made it clear those at St Paul’s viewed themselves as part of a much larger global protest movement.
“Banks, IMF are global Mubarak,” said one, referring to ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
“The people are too big to fail,” said another.
Holding repeated public meetings and listening to a range of speakers including academics, journalists, writers and on Saturday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the protesters said they were just beginning to decide on their demands, already producing an initial statement around key principles.
Exactly what that might mean in terms of policy demands was far from clear, but long term campaigners for greater regulation and accountability in the financial sector say they believe that with events on Wall Street and elsewhere, the global debate is finally beginning to turn their way.
With its reputation as a leading banking centre for the world’s richest, critics say London law firms and wealth managers have grown increasingly adept at attracting Russian oligarchs, Arab potentates and sometimes dubious clients.
Members of the Mubarak and Gadaffi families both held expensive London properties through front companies registered in offshore tax havens such as Panama, believed to be only the tip of hidden investments. Inflows of foreign wealth have pushed up top end house prices and left many complaining of a widening and obvious income gap.
John Christensen, former economic adviser to the government of Jersey and now head of the Tax Justice Network which works to close loopholes, said he had travelled to London to talk to the protesters about London’s status as what he calls the “world’s largest money launderer”. “These protests are hugely symbolically important,” he said.
For most of the protesters, however, the target for their outrage remained the bailout of major banks by taxpayers. Even some staff at financial institutions happily told reporters and activists they believed populations were getting a rough deal.
“I don’t think the public should be bailing out private institutions who are making billions, because it is not in the public interest,” said Joe Lungu, who identified himself as a consultant for Germany’s Commerzbank, “The public is being asked to clean up again and again and again.”
Several others expressed similar views, a few bringing coffee to give to the protesters. Some banking staff wore casual clothes to work in the area on Monday, fearing attack. But the mood was peaceful. “Bankers welcome,” said one chalk pavement scrawl.
Whether such sentiments will end up influencing policy in Britain is far from clear. Many passersby and even some veterans of earlier bouts of UK protest - including student demonstrations last year that failed to block tuition fee rises or wider austerity measures - are openly sceptical.
“They are just a few hundred people,” said one senior investment banker, adding that after a miserable third quarter most of the sector were more worried about their jobs.
The protests look to be attracting wider sympathy. “I think this is just going to get bigger and bigger,” said London taxi driver Robert Fenlon. “And that has to be a good thing.”
For St Paul’s itself, with its gilted interior and tombs of soldiers, merchants and empire builders, its new role as a centre for dissent marks a radical departure.
“St Paul’s has always been iconic,” said Cathy Ross, director of collections and learning at the Museum of London. “But it has always been very much an “establishment” church. For it to become a centre of protest is something very new — and interesting.”
editing by Janet McBride