Review of Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything, by Oliver Bullough
This “compensation” cast a long but hidden shadow in British history. Among its beneficiaries were the ancestors, already wealthy from slave labor, of actor Benedict Cumberbatch and David Cameron, who served as prime minister in 2015.
This forgotten piece of history reveals an important truth about Britain. It’s a place where politics has always had an incestuous relationship with the rich, and where money trumps morals. Oliver Bullough, in his latest book,Butler to the World: How Britain is helping the world’s worst people launder money, commit crimes and get away with anythingdescribes the most recent manifestation of this corruption.
His account begins with the Suez Crisis of 1956, which in the aftermath of World War II was a point of national humiliation for Britain. As Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Harry Truman said, “Britain has lost an empire and has yet to find a role.” He soon did, argues Bullough. With the help of his bankers, almost all from his upper classes, he set out to transform himself into a “butler” – another very British invention – who serves his wealthy and powerful patrons without making his presence or intercessions on their behalf explicit. . This is the guiding metaphor of the book, which it borrows from the novels Jeeves and Wooster by PG Wodehouse. (Jeeves was a valet, not a butler. But never mind.)
The first step in the formation of “Butler Britain”, as Bullough awkwardly puts it, was the creation of the Eurodollar, an artificial currency devised by London bankers that allowed them to trade dollars in Britain, without be subject to US currency regulations. They thus avoided the post-war weakness of the pound and tapped into the vitality of the dollar. This severed the relationship between the dollar and bullion long before President Richard Nixon made it official in 1971. “Money”, writes Bullough, was now worth whatever “anyone would pay for it” – which only the wealthy could afford, and from which the bankers profited.
The second step was the transformation of Britain and many of its remaining island possessions – Gibraltar, Jersey, the British Virgin Islands – into offshore tax havens. This allowed the wealthy to sequester their money, in dollars, under British case law while avoiding the regulations and taxation of poorer countries, which were drained of revenue. Britain itself has suffered. Due to competition from countries like Gibraltar, British lawmakers moved to liberalize gambling laws and reduce the tax burden on bookmakers, who nevertheless moved to Gibraltar to avoid paying any tax. This allowed them to funnel profits back into advertising and nurture a new generation of gamers. For those with a gambling addiction, this has proven fatal. As many as 650 suicides a year in Britain have been linked to gambling.
However, those looking to bring blood money into Britain need not look too far. Thanks to a loophole in Scottish law, anyone can register a company in Scotland without having to reveal the identity of its owners or the source of its funds. All it takes is an address. This arcane law was used to commit international fraud, steal $1 billion from Moldova and facilitate the arms trade between Ukraine and the Persian Gulf — Everything is detailed in the book.
Perhaps the most disturbing story in the book rightly concerns Russia and Ukraine. Given Ukraine’s strategic importance as a supplier of Russian gas, President Vladimir Putin installed a puppet to oversee the Ukrainian side of this venture. This man was Dmitry Firtash, whose identity has long been hidden. Once exposed, however, he was able to settle in Britain under its “golden visa” scheme, which allowed anyone wealthy enough to immigrate in the name of “investment”.
Firtash partnered with an aristocrat named Raymond Asquith, who now holds a peerage in Parliament. He donated money to Cambridge University, was hosted by Parliament, opened the London Stock Exchange and even met the Duke of Edinburgh. His rise in the British establishment was amazing, and no one thought to investigate where his money came from. (He bought gasoline at artificially low prices, then sold it at a high price.) If not for the FBI and its investigations into Russian mob money laundering, Firtash might not have been arrested at all. He was captured by Austrian authorities in 2014 and has since been fighting extradition to the United States in the Viennese courts. Yet even after that, his aristocratic partners in Britain continued to support and protect him. This is just one example of the amount of Russian money that flowed into Britain after 1991 and the political influence it bought.
None of this would have been possible, argues Bullough, without the collusion of British lawmakers or the bankers and lawyers with whom they had intimate ties. Bankers, for their part, gave the same two excuses: first, if we don’t do it, someone else will; second, our work will create wealth, reduce poverty and promote peace. (As the head of Goldman Sachs modestly put it: “We are doing God’s work.”) Most British lawmakers either turned a blind eye or drained the country’s investigative agencies of money and resources at name of austerity. This contrasts sharply with the United States, where agencies such as the FBI have much greater independence and power.
One can sense the urgency and dismay in Bullough’s writing, but, given the political direction of Britain at the moment, he is not optimistic. Britain is better than that, he says. Why I do not know. Nor am I convinced of his central vanity – Britain as a butler – which he hammers home at every opportunity, and which quickly becomes boring. A butler, Bullough must know, is limited by class and opportunities. Britain is not. This choose to be corrupt and complicit.
Last April, Boris Johnson became the first sitting prime minister in history to be found guilty of breaking the law, for hosting parties during the pandemic lockdown. Luckily for him, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine allowed him to distract from his long history of iniquities. It’s ironic, because Johnson and his predecessors paved the way for Russian oligarchs to “invest” money in Britain. The oligarchs, in turn, donated money to the Conservative Party, bought newspapers, supported Johnson’s campaign, became peers and gained access to the highest levels of British government. Now Johnson has the temerity to stand on the world stage and pretend to support Ukraine and abhor Russian interference. There is no image more appropriate to portray the face of Britain today.
Balaji Ravichandran is a writer based in New York.
How Britain is helping the world’s worst people launder money, commit crimes and get away with anything
Saint-Martin. 288 pages. $28.99.