RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And there's often debate here in the U.S. about the size of Wall Street's influence on the government. Londoners call their version of Wall Street the City. And in the City, the line between government and corporate interests is even blurrier than in the U.S.
As NPR's Dan Bobkoff reports, critics say it's time for reform.
DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: For at least a millennium, the heart of Britain's commercial and financial industries has been the City of London. The City is not the large metropolis we know as London. It's much older and smaller. Many call it the Square Mile, though it's not square and a bit bigger than a mile. It's the home to big banks, medieval alleyways and St. Paul's Cathedral. And for all those centuries, the area has had the same local government with an unusual name: The City of London Corporation.
Ronen Palan of the City University of London says this little government does more than just run schools and collect what the Brits call rubbish. It's a stealth power.
RONEN PALAN: It runs its own police force, its own mayor, and most importantly, it runs its own foreign policy.
BOBKOFF: The City has fewer than 7,500 residents, yet it has 125 elected officials. Its Lord Mayor travels the world, promoting business. And it has a cash account worth roughly $2 billion. Patrick Streeter is a common councilor in the City, representing one of the larger wards.
PATRICK STREETER: We've got a thousand business voters, and about 200 residential voters.
BOBKOFF: This is democracy in the City, because so few live here. And because as many as 300,000 people commute in each day, the City lets local businesses appoint workers to cast ballots. JPMorgan Chase gets votes. So does the Bank of China, and the little lawyer's office down the street.
With businesses its constituents, the City then uses its cash to promote the financial industry's interests. In Streeter's view, City officials don't spend much time analyzing what's wrong with the banks.
STREETER: They're always too uncritical. They're more apologists for the U.K. financial community.
BOBKOFF: How is it that a little local government has the power to influence legislation, host world leaders and advocate for British finance around the world? A lot of it stems from its sheer longevity. From the grocers to goldsmiths, the Square Mile has been the center of British business for as long as we have records. The City bankrolled kings it liked, and helped depose those it didn't.
FATHER WILLIAM TAYLOR: On this part of plot of ground stood (unintelligible), where at...
BOBKOFF: But in recent years, it's found an unlikely adversary. I met Father William Taylor in the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral, though he's actually a vicar in the neighboring East End. He became intrigued as he noticed the City gets special privileges other parts of London do not, like a permanent official in parliament who sits across from the speaker and gives the City's view on legislation.
TAYLOR: Do doctors have a permanent professional advocate in parliament? Do teachers? Do firemen? No, they don't. But the financial services, through the ancient constitution of the City of London, do.
BOBKOFF: Taylor has become a key part of a reform group that's been taking on the City since the financial crisis. He believes the City has promoted policies creating a network of tax havens in British territories and former colonies, a network some say has made London an attractive place for American and other foreign banks. And he says the City defended light financial regulations in the U.K.
TAYLOR: Because it's got all this private money, because it's got this access to parliament, it's able to continue to tell MPs and parliamentarians: Don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
MARK BOLEAT: William Taylor is a critic of the City - yes, one person.
BOBKOFF: Mark Boleat is chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee of the City of London Corporation. That's a long way of saying he's the most powerful person in its government. And you can tell he's a little fed up with critics like Taylor criticizing the City in recent years. Yes, the City government represents the business sector, he says.
BOLEAT: I wouldn't say we're a lobbyist. We act as a representative body to some extent, working with trade associations and others.
BOBKOFF: Boleat says it's not the City's job to criticize or regulate the big banks. It doesn't make policy.
BOLEAT: Are we against financial regulation? Absolutely not. What we want to see is high-class, effective, efficient regulation, because without that, we wouldn't have any business in the City.
BOBKOFF: Boleat says the City's power has been greatly exaggerated by its critics and conspiracy theorists. But Professor Ronen Palan isn't buying it.
PALAN: They were always excellent in playing down their power to the public. But behind the scenes, they have been very, very significant in shaping British policy.
BOBKOFF: And having survived plagues and fires and bombings and even globalization, don't bet against the City of London Corporation. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News.