I watched the film The Golden Compass again over the weekend, the movie version of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, which has to be one of the most important children’s books written in the second half of the twentieth century.
I was fascinated to look at their version of London ruled by the so-called Magisterium, which is in the film rather less of a version of the Roman Catholic Church without a Reformation, and more like a mildly religious version of Big Brother.
Their headquarters is a huge skyscraper, towering over the city, an architectural version of tyranny.
Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that I believe that architectural styles don’t just reflect political mores, they actively shape them. If you design buildings that undermine human dignity, or belittle human beings, as the Shard does – then that becomes the prevailing political atmosphere.
Now, here is the link with the news this week. The Shard was the creation of Qatari princes, and there is something of the Magisterium about it – that is, after all, their ruling style. Qatari officials are currently accused of bribing their way to a World Cup in 2022 in 40 degree heat. This matters because the UK economy is increasingly intertwined with theirs.
The Qataris own a quarter of Sainsbury’s, a large chunk of Barclays and Heathrow Airport. They have asked for priority status for other pieces of UK infrastructure. When we hear about bribery in FIFA (again) related to the Qatar, that is not a small country of which we know little (as Neville Chamberlain might have said), it is a major force in our own infrastructure and business life – and, via the baleful influence of buildings like the Shard, in our political atmosphere and sense of ourselves.
Does it matter that countries like Qatar and China have such a hold over our infrastructure?
I’m not sure, but am not entirely convinced that it doesn’t. Yes, they have to abide by UK laws and standards. Yes, the influx of money is important. But if it matters for the self-determination of Africa that China owns so much of the land, and if it matters that so many businesses in Scotland turned out to be foreign owned – as the No campaign claims – then it certainly matters for the UK as a whole.
The Australian thinker and financier Shann Turnbull argues that we overpay investors by giving them lifetime rights over their investments, when actually they only need returns for an investment horizon of about 25 years – after which the ownership needs to return to local people.
I can’t think of a measure that would do more to shift the inexorable way that the proceeds of investment cascade towards the richest.
In other words, we are paying the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar inefficiently – more than they need to invest in our infrastructure, giving them permanent rights. Qatar and China represent a new kind of capitalism – a free market for the few, and political tyranny for the many.
If we are going to welcome their investment, we need to find ways to make sure we do not also hand over permanent political power as well. Or the Shard really will be the Magisterium building.