Butler of the world, Oliver Bullough. Review
Despite all the work he has done to raise awareness of the hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty money that pass through the City of London each year, Oliver Bullough would never have predicted that this book would come out in a climate where oligarchs and their riches would be Front Page News.
Author of Moneyland in 2018, which chronicled the rise of global kleptocracy, he returns to the subject here, following an epiphany that struck him during a discussion with an American academic.
Bullough was trying to impress on his disbelieving interviewer that although the UK launders huge amounts of stolen money, unlike the US, it does not have dedicated law enforcement agencies. to solving the problem, virtually no investigation, research or prosecution and very few officials prepared to talk about it.
Seeking comparison, he offered the image of Britain acting as a butler to oligarchs and tax evaders, mitigating their problems with expertise, discretion and a polished accent – behind which lurked something greedy and amoral.
The analogy resurfaces several times, often referencing Jeeves, who would always find effective solutions to wasteful Bertie Wooster’s problems. But the misdeeds in question here are a far cry from the cozy world of PG Wodehouse. This is stolen money that should have been taxed to pay for underfunded schools or health services, pensions and benefits.
It is money that supports and enables organized crime. And, as long as it brings money into the country, Britain’s financial and legal systems simply hide it and launder it, and thwart attempts to find out where it came from. Their perennial justification is that if we don’t, they’ll just go do their business elsewhere.
“Financial scheming is not something that happens in the UK,” Bullough writes, “there has been a concerted, decades-long effort to encourage it to do so.”
He traces the origins of the “butler” mentality to the humiliation of Suez and the end of the Empire. With the United States now the dominant global force, Britain had to find a new role for itself. An idea of what that would be came with the Eurodollar, the first of a series of financial innovations that shook up the obsolete British banking monoculture and ultimately disempowered governments by connecting national money markets and enabling unhindered global trade.
More steps followed, and Bullough explains how the Age of Tax Haven was kicked off by the British Virgin Islands and how Gibraltar becoming the center of the betting industry would have significant long-term consequences.
The following chapters examine how an obscure financial device called the Scottish Limited Partnership, often exposed by The Herald, became a favorite method for criminals to hide money and how Dmitry Firtash (“Putin’s man in Ukraine”, quite topical) integrated himself into British society by adopting the role of a generous philanthropist.
At every step, it records how easy criminals have found doing business with the UK, a country willing to let virtually anyone avail itself of its financial and legal services and loath to pass legislation that would prevent, as long as the money kept flowing.
In the conclusion of this rare topical book, Bullough offers suggestions on how to deal with the situation, such as standardizing regulations across UK territories, tackling financial crime nationally and better treatment of whistleblowers. But underlying his righteous anger and acerbic wit, there is an underlying tone of defeat. Every effort to stem the tide seems to take us one step forward and two steps back. The talent that should fight the kleptocrats is being poached by the private sector, unexplained wealth orders haven’t worked out as expected, even private suits have serious downsides.
However, the fact that current events have pushed the oligarchs and their influence on the political process to the top of the news means the outlook may not be as bleak as Bullough thought.