The Master's Mansion House Speech

Each year the Master Mercer gives a speech at the annual 'Dinner to the Masters, Prime Wardens and Upper Bailiff of the City of London's Livery Companies' given by the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. The text of this year's speech, given by the current Master, Mr Simon Wathen, is below:-

My Lord Mayor,  Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to thank you, My Lord Mayor, on behalf of the Livery Companies present, for the generous way in which you have proposed the toast to the Livery Companies. This evening is a fine demonstration of the strong partnerships and associations which exist between the City and the Livery Companies.

We also thank you for your wonderful hospitality this evening. We have wined and dined superbly in this glorious room amid this splendid company of friends, and not surprisingly we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

You have made the theme for your Year, “The Energy to transform lives”, which your personal programme in your 686 Plan underpins. In this context, your speech has laid down some serious challenges for the Livery. In response, I want to talk this evening briefly about PURPOSE in the context of Livery Companies, and how we can use that purpose with energy to help transform lives and to ensure that we are and remain relevant in today’s society.

This sounds rather a dry subject but as my time as a Warden and then Master at the Mercers’ Company has progressed, the issue of purpose has come to the fore. Part of the problem in our case is that we have not had any connection with a trade for nearly 500 years. Some companies have strong connections with their underlying trade which gives purpose and focus to their activities today. Other Companies have rebuilt their trade connections, although in some cases one wonders whether they have gone too far.

Take for instance the Innholders – I should say that the Master Innholder does know this is coming - now you might think that in the old days innholders ran an innocent activity, providing bed and board for travellers and their horses: but there was also a theory that they were an arm of the government, in practice informers paid by the authorities to pass on tales and gossip picked up in their inns.

The Master Innholder perhaps unwisely asked me to speak at a recent Court lunch, so I set about my research on his Company, pursuing that theory. Looking for inspiration, I typed the phrase “were Innholders spies?” into google, the result was explosive, the web is heaving with conspiracy theories about the Innholders.

I refer you to one Abel Danger, whose website alleges that the Worshipful Company of Innholders is an arm of the British security services, the so-called MI-3, and was deeply involved inter alia in the attack on Pearl Harbour and the assassination of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, that the order to kill Oswald was relayed over Innholder communication systems via madams operating out of a Hotel in the Bahamas and the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, which Abel Danger asserts was a homosexual brothel and command authority base for Al Capone and Jack Ruby etc..

The company you keep, Master Innholder! But of course understandably you hotly deny this connection. But a caution to you all, beware of what you do in an Inn these days. To pick up my thread, some companies may have gone too far in reconnecting with their trade.

But it may be undesirable for some companies to do so.

Take the Mercers. I recall a conversation with the CEO of a company which runs trade fairs around the world: he wanted to know what Mercers did – I explained what the trade was and that it was carried on, on the south side of Cheapside, in what would have looked like a covered market with dozens of little stalls manned by Mercers, all subject to the rules and regulations laid down by the Company. When I painted this picture, his response, quick as a flash, was “Oh, you used to run a souk”, - not quite what I have in mind for re-establishing a connection with our trade.

Without such a connection, we fall back on being a livery company, with fellowship and philanthropy at the core of our activities. But I echo your question, Lord Mayor, Is this enough? The impression still lingers, that it is “all about the dinners”, to wit, the FT article a year or so ago, in which Matthew Engel dwelt on this very issue after attending a Livery Dinner, although he eventually accepted that it was not all about the dinners at the venerable company which had been his host, and indeed in others.

But it might not be so easy to win over the press. Matthew Engel argued that the Livery Companies as an institution are in need of PR. With the City still generally unpopular following the financial service industry disasters, with a General Election coming up next year, followed shortly thereafter by an election for a new Mayor of London, we in the livery might feel challenged if not threatened. I am not suggesting that 1881 and a City Livery Companies Commission may come again but it always as well to be prepared.

We should face up to the challenge: we do that by having, demonstrating and communicating our purpose. So instinctively I feel that now is a good time to get our house in order on the purpose front. We are addressing the issue in the Mercers Company through a strategy review on four fronts: Governance, Stewardship, Fellowship and Philanthropy.

To face up to the challenges, governance has to be transparent, effective and compliant; stewardship should be underpinned by the knowledge that the Companies do not belong to us and that the principle of inter-generational equity should prevail; fellowship because it is at the heart of being a livery Company, not least because our members contribute to the wealth and governance of our companies; and philanthropy because that purpose has existed since our forebears took care of the widows and orphans of their members.

Fellowship and Philanthropy go hand in hand as we look to how we support each other and society. Key is to make effective use of our talents and to drive much greater involvement of our membership.  In looking at these issues, we must get the best bang for our philanthropic buck and work out how best to use our financial and people resources, for impact: by measuring impact against clear objectives, we will have a story, individually and collectively, to tell. And making proper use of those resources for impact will introduce a strong element of service in what we do, to sit alongside the fellowship and the philanthropy.

I suggest that the principles of philanthropy and service should be central to all that we do.

Which takes me back, Lord Mayor, to your concept of “energy to transform lives” – developing such a sense of service aligned with a purposeful philanthropy will generate energy to help achieve the delivery of that concept.

In doing so, we will need to work on the external messages, although not necessarily push the button just yet on their delivery – there are those who argue that we will do best to keep working away quietly, but perhaps we need to make more of what we do.

So all in all, we continue our good work, we support you Lord Mayor, we will come up with those stories of the lives, with pictures, which our activities have transformed, and alongside you, we will develop and impart the many positive messages about this great City.

Thank you once again for a splendid dinner and your toast to the Livery Companies.