Alfie Fernie Insights

Butler to the World: how Britain became a ‘servant of the rich’ – Eterna’s Book Club 

Consider this question: What clothing best fits modern Britain’s character? 

Take a moment to ponder the technological advancements and historical shifts that have influenced its post-war identity, like the World Wide Web, commercial air travel, or even that cultural phenomenon of glam rock! One could imagine Britain embracing a variety of outfits: the clinical white lab coat, practical blue overalls, or even a flamboyant sequin jacket.  

According to author Oliver Bullough, however, modern Britain best suits a black tailcoat.   

In “Butler to the World: How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals” (2022), Bullough tracks Britain’s pivotal role in the offshore economy’s evolution and its complex ties to grand corruption. He describes the City of London’s transformation from a hub of imperial influence to one dedicated to serve global wealth, often with little regard for ethical considerations. Central to this shift is the guiding principle of minimal intervention, leveraging robust financial and legal frameworks to accommodate bad actors wanting their illegitimate profits concealed.

Bullough exposes a Britain willing to offer its assets, services, football clubs, and reputation to the wealthiest and least scrutinised entities. Apparent for years yet often disregarded by successive administrations, his portrayal positions Britain as a modern-day Reginald Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse’s archetypal butler – an expert navigator of complex situations ensuring favourable outcomes for his master. 

The release of Bullough’s book last March perfectly aligned with a renewed sense of urgency to tackle issues related to illicit financial activities, spurred on in Britain by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Notable measures were taken, including the dramatic sanctioning of Russian oligarchs, the sale of Chelsea Football Club, and a stronger spotlight on “Londongrad.” 

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Jonson 

Bullough guides readers through pivotal historical milestones, from the Eurodollar market’s establishment to the Suez Crisis, and the creation of offshore centres like the British Virgin Islands and Gibraltar. Britain, faced with the decline of its empire and the United States’ ascent as a superpower, sought new avenues for economic upkeep. This led to the embrace of facilitated tax avoidance and concealment of questionable business transactions. An illustrative case study emerges from the sale of a disused London Underground station near Harrods to Dmitry Firtash, a wealthy intermediary with ties to the Kremlin and Gazprom. Despite US investigations and connections to mobsters, Firtash managed to cultivate significant ties in Britain, including funding a Ukrainian studies programme at Cambridge University and advising the UK Foreign Office during the Crimea annexation. 

Our thoughts 

Whilst shedding light on the elite aspects of offshore facilitation, Butler to the World invites a more comprehensive exploration of other participants who support the wealthy looking to manage assets. Notably absent is a deeper examination of law firms, financial institutions, accountants, and advisors, including those specialising in reputation management and public relations. A broadened view could explain a thriving industry that has burgeoned since the 1990s in Britain, dedicated to supporting rich individuals and families with transnational financial roots. In this realm, Frank Vogl’sThe Enablers offers more extensive insights. 

When examining the narrow scope of offshore centres and the development of London as a primary financial hub, merely from the perspective of shady dealings, Bullough appears to have overlooked major alternative channels of tax avoidance and wealth return. These include profit shifting by corporations and real estate purchases. While it is understood that London has held importance as a notable destination for capital, international comparisons are also absent from consideration. What about Miami, Vancouver, or Dubai? Furthermore, a conversation concerning the British business ethos is absent, tracing back to the historical dynamics of imperial trade and London as a historic centre for capital exchange. 

Bullough does underscore an important issue: successive British administrations’ rationalising the country’s involvement by contending that relinquishing these activities would simply invite others to exploit the vacuum. This raises a critical point about the underfunding of agencies tasked with overseeing such financial transactions. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, British law enforcement such as the National Crime Agency lack adequate resources to effectively pursue their objectives – which may not always be crystal clear! Sufficient resourcing is vital for these agencies to grasp the complexities of these financial activities and enforce effective regulation. 

While tangible actions against Russia materialised from March 2022 with sanctions and the introduction of Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, despite significant events like the Crimea crisis and the Panama Papers, it is essential to acknowledge that financial influences originate from multiple countries. This includes China and Middle Eastern nations, along with the undisclosed wealth of Britain’s own elite. 

Finally, the book highlights the global implications of Britain’s role as a butler to the elite, illustrating the disparity between the lavish lifestyles of the privileged and the scarce resources available to the non-elites in places like Nigeria. Bullough draws attention to the country’s health expenditure in 2019, a mere 11 U.S. dollars per person. This stands in contrast to Nigeria’s elite, who have had the privilege of accessing top private health centres outside the country. He prompts us to consider whether the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic might have encouraged increased local investment as alternatives to traditional elitist havens. 

In summary, Bullough’s work offers a viewpoint on an intricate aspect of Britain’s involvement in the modern world. It is our responsibility to partake in more extensive conversations and evaluations to fully grasp the diverse complexity of this system. What is crucial is to surpass the concept of Britain as a simple butler. Our aspiration is for the country to take a commanding position on the world stage in another domain, be it education and health to engineering and media…even within the growing realm of ‘moral’ money.