“It is the servant who takes the money” —Lawrence of Arabia
As a young man, I was proud to be British. But the more I became familiar with its Establishment and could compare it with other cultures, the more that pride has been (to put it mildly) eroded. The last tenuous memories of such pride are of Lord Carrington resigning as foreign secretary some 32 years ago.
Watch any British film from the 1950’s and you are struck by a time warp of modesty, selflessness and dogged resilience that verges on the fetish. Contrast the self-deprecation with the rugged individual heroics of US films of the same era and you have a rough model of cultural differences that still existed.
But roll forward to the 1980’s, the era of ‘Big Bang’, brazenly loud braces and the Masters of the Universe emerging amidst the new cityscape of Canary Wharf. Those cultural differences (e.g. Carrington vs Rumsfeld) might still exist out in the shires but they were already gone from the Square Mile of the financial district and, courtesy of Blair and New Labour, soon to be expunged from the political village of Westminster just up-river.
Such purging was not all bad. The long boom from early nineties to late noughties made most people much richer, creating a quality of life unknown 50 years before. Even the avalanche of outsiders into the City blew fresh air through stuffy management in Morgan Grenfell, Hambros and Warburg; the huge NatWest was gobbled up by newly aggressive (if much smaller) RBS and creative investment banking invented PPP, PFI, privatisations, 100% mortgages and derivatives of ever-increasing complexity to mine what seemed like an inexhaustible and profitable supply of ‘financial instruments’.
The fact that ‘canny’ Scottish bankers like RBS and HBOS were to the fore in all this only served to soothe any disquiet felt by the fuddy-duddies who still hankered after the much more staid days of ‘my word is my bond’.
The comeuppance of 2008 was a shock to everyone. Twenty years of salary and bonus inflation had addicted an army of bankers, accountants, traders and fund managers to seven-figure salaries and the mortgages they paid. Despite constriction everywhere else in the economy—and particularly in Joe Public’s salary—denizens of the Square Mile (which now includes Canary Wharf and the Qatari-owned Shard) successfully defended their bonus culture, convincing the UK Government that it was essential in any recovery.
Spending over £100bn each year that they did not have, the UK Government bought that story, betting on a recovery in lucrative financial services to drive borrowing down before the whole country (and AAA rating) sank under a £1,500,000,000,000 mountain of debt. As the result, the City’s bluff was not called and this residual distinction of British (vs American) culture—that there was a moral as well as a profit obligation—disappeared.
Foreign money has poured into the City for centuries. And, like the Swiss, there have not always been searching questions asked as to its origin. But weak UK sabre-rattling in response to the disappearance of Crimea back into Russia and appearance of Russian tanks in Eastern Ukraine demonstrates that the UK establishment understands that, in the 21st century, what matters are banks, not tanks and global competition to house the dosh concentrated in 58 Russian billionaires and their poorer brethren (there ARE no sisters) is fierce because of its very lucrativeness.
Thus has London become the centre for Russian corruption, deftly directing their loot into Britain’s continuing empire of tax havens—Gibraltar, Jersey, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands (BVI)—on which the sun never sets but where the taxman’s baleful glare seldom shines. To give some concept of scale, the entire UK received £53.2bn in foreign inward investment last year. That’s a respectable £1,000 per head. But the BVI saw almost £54bn in inward investment—roughly £1.5m per head—in the same period. “We are all in this together”? I think not. As the blurb for the place (pop: 28,000) itself says:
- “The British Virgin Islands represent the world’s principal centre for International Business Companies (IBCs) of which there are in excess of 500,000 currently registered
- The BVI is among the top four domiciles for offshore mutual funds in terms of the number of offshore funds incorporated (over 2,500) and domiciled
- There is no tax on offshore income and capital, no tax on mutual funds, no inheritance tax, no capital gains tax, no VAT/sales tax, no currency controls, and no double taxation agreements in BVI.
- BVI are home to leading international accountancy and attorney firms, and its Know Your Client legislation has been approved by the US Treasury”
In other words, an offshore tax scam on a colossal scale in which both the City and HM Government are complicit. Yet the average UK citizen neither has access to nor benefits from dog-eat-dog global finance in whose waters some very shady sharks swim—not all of them with thick Russian accents.
But this is not all. For tbose who can afford it and despite this pious guff about slowing immigration, British residency is up for sale. “Investor visas” can be purchased, starting at £1 million; Russian clients now provide 60% of the work for lawyers in London’s Commercial Court; 50 Russia-based companies swell the trade at London’s Stock Exchange; planning regulations become malleable for Shard-like aspirations of London’s hedge-funding class.
London’s bright young things have become consultants, art dealers, private bankers and hedge-fund-runners. In effect, they have become the oligarchs’ valets. Such is the trade that Rootin’-Tootin’ Putin knew he could play serious sabre-rattler to bolster his ratings with the krest’yanin, as well as the nomenklatura, by talking tough, grabbing Crimea by coup de main and stirring things endlessly with Ukraine’s Russian minority.
Because when you pay them, you own them. Putin calmly assumed that Britain’s senior management, shuttling through the revolving door that now exists between cabinet posts and high-flown corporate boards, won’t/can’t give up their fees and commissions from the oligarchs’ billions. He has been proved right
In the austerity years following 2008’s financial crash, such a source of wealth could not be resisted. Tony Blair has come to embody a latter-day Raleigh’s pirate ways; he advises Kazakh’s Nursultan Nazarbayev on his image in the West, tutoring his patron on evasion of awkward questions about crackdowns and mine shootings that are everyday life there.
As Scots stand within six weeks of being able to choose an alternate future, they should consider that ‘No’ means remaining party to the UK’s latest growth industry that taints its history as much as earlier greed-driven wheezes like the slave trade or opium wars: laundering oligarchs’ dirty billions and laundering their squalid reputations.
* “To put a brave face on a sorry business” (Russian proverb)