Butler to the World

Oliver Bullough

(Profile, £20)

Despite all the work he’s put into raising awareness about the hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty money passing through the City of London every year, Oliver Bullough would never have predicted that this book would emerge in a climate in which oligarchs and their riches would be front page news.

The author of 2018’s Moneyland, which chronicled the ascent of the global kleptocracy, he has returned to the subject here, following an epiphany that struck him during a discussion with an American academic.

Bullough was trying to get across to his incredulous interviewer that, although the UK launders massive amounts of stolen cash, unlike the US it has no law enforcement agencies dedicated to tackling the issue, virtually no investigations, research or prosecutions and precious few public officials prepared to talk about it.

Reaching for a comparison, he came up with the image of Britain acting as a butler to oligarchs and tax-dodgers, easing away their problems with expertise, discretion and a refined accent – behind which lurked something greedy and amoral.

The analogy resurfaces numerous times, often referencing Jeeves, who would always find efficacious solutions to the wastrel Bertie Wooster’s problems. But the misdeeds dealt with here are a long way from P.G. Wodehouse’s cosy world. This is stolen money that should have been taxed to pay for underfunded schools or health services, pensions and benefits.

It’s money that supports and enables organised crime. And, so long as it brings money into the country, the British financial and legal systems are happy to hide and launder it, and frustrate attempts to find out where it came from. Their perennial justification is: if we don’t do it, they’ll just take their business elsewhere.

“Financial skulduggery isn’t something that just happens in the UK,” Bullough writes, “there has been a concerted and 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 Empire. With the US now the dominant global force, Britain had to find a new role for itself. An inkling of what that would be came with the Eurodollar, the first in a stream of financial innovations that shook up the stale monoculture of British banking and ultimately deprived governments of autonomy by connecting up national money markets and allowing for unimpeded global trade.

Further steps followed, and Bullough explains how the age of the tax haven was launched by the British Virgin Islands and how Gibraltar becoming the centre of the betting industry would have extensive long-term consequences.

Subsequent chapters examine how an obscure financial device called the Scottish Limited Partnership, often exposed by The Herald, became criminals’ preferred method of hiding money and how Dmitry Firtash (“Putin’s man in Ukraine”, topically enough) integrated himself into British society by adopting the role of a generous philanthropist.

At every stage, he records how easy criminals found it to do business with the UK, a country willing to let virtually anyone avail themselves of its financial and legal services and loath to pass any legislation that would impede them, so long as the cash kept flowing.

In the conclusion to this uncommonly timely book, Bullough offers suggestions on how to tackle the situation, such as standardising regulations across all British territories, policing financial crime at the national level and treating whistleblowers better. But underlying his righteous anger and acerbic wit there’s an underlying tone of defeat. Every effort to stem the tide seems to take us one step forward and two steps back. Talent that should be combating kleptocrats is being poached by the private sector, Unexplained Wealth Orders didn’t perform as planned, even private prosecutions have serious drawbacks.

However, the fact that current events have pushed oligarchs, and their influence on the political process, to the top of the news agenda means that the outlook might not be as grim as Bullough thought.

Alastair Mabbott