Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough review – bent Britain at your service | History books


To say this unmissable, deeply depressing book – about exactly how Britain pimps itself to the world’s dirtiest money – is timely is to miss author Oliver Bullough’s point. The fact is the stories that he tells, sordid tales of a nation flogging its real estate and its services and its football clubs and its good name to the shadiest and highest bidder, no questions asked, have been hiding in plain sight for decades. It has just seemed in no government’s interest to notice them.

Bullough himself has long been shouting from the bullet-proof penthouses about these tales. Alongside his 2018 book Moneyland – a quest into that Narnia of libel laws and tax havens and old-school-tie discretion that makes London so attractive to extortionists – he organised “kleptocrat tours” of the capital, his equivalent of Hollywood Hills rubber-necking, bus trips around Knightsbridge and Mayfair pointing out the mansions where the cronies of the world’s worst dictators and biggest tax dodgers hide their billions.

It took even Bullough a while, though, to nail the exact bent-double relationship that many among the elite of this country’s lawmakers and bankers and lawyers and accountants have adopted toward this global kleptocracy. The rouble dropped when he was approached by an American academic and asked to explain what the British government did to protect the nation against money laundering. Which agencies had the most teeth, which prosecutors won the most cases, which politicians were most vocal, where could he find the paper trails? Bullough had to explain that unlike in the United States, where there were well-funded federal bureaux and tenacious homeland security investigators and high-profile cases of launderers brought to justice, in Britain there were very few of these things.

Eventually, in response to his interlocutor’s bafflement, he blurted: “We’re not a policeman, like you guys, we’re a butler, the butler to the world… If someone is rich, whether they are Chinese or Russian or whatever, and they need something done, or something hidden, or something bought, then Britain sorts that out for them… – that’s what a butler does.” The American asked him another question: “How long has this been going on?” and Bullough again found himself answering without hesitation: “It started in the 1950s. We needed a new business model after America took over as the world’s superpower, and this is what we found.”

He dates the shift to the Suez crisis in 1956, the year that Britain’s imperial apparatus finally collapsed, and the establishment cast around for another source of wealth to keep it in the style to which it had long become accustomed. The philosophy of the new venture went by the name of “light touch regulation”. The unmatched financial and legal infrastructure that had allowed the UK to conquer a quarter of the world was quietly repurposed to do the bidding of individuals from dubious regimes that it had sometimes fostered, and others who had seized control of their nation’s resources and needed a place to hide what they creamed off.

Bullough begins by showing how old colonialists found a new niche in recreating the further-flung outposts of empire – the self-governing protectorates of the British Virgin Islands, the Caymans, Gibraltar – as looters’ havens. They used crafty expertise to create the small print of shell companies and financial instruments that allowed multimillionaires and global corporations to avoid doing the thing they liked least – pay taxes. Successive UK governments, while occasionally handwringing about closing those loopholes, were, he shows, complicit in this practice, working on that time-honoured imperial principle: well, if we don’t do it, someone else will. Over time our biggest growth industry, the new source of the City’s wealth and power, was as 10% fixers for fraudsters and worse.

“In Britain,” Bullough argues, “butlering is almost invariably regarded as a source of jobs and wealth because it is seen from the butler’s perspective rather than that of their clients’ or their victims’… It makes a good comedy when Jeeves outsmarts the village bobby or Bertie Wooster gets away with a scam because his chum is the local magistrate, but this is not the way to run a financial system.”

Inevitably, several of the minutely researched case studies he analyses involve Russia and Ukraine. One of the most bleakly instructive is the Ministry of Defence’s decision, in 2014, to sell for £53m the former London Underground station at Brompton Road near Harrods to a man named Dmitry Firtash, whom the US government had been seeking to extradite on racketeering charges. Firtash had made his billions as a middleman between the Kremlin and the Russian oil giant Gazprom, and has consistently been forced to deny association with the FBI’s most-wanted Ukrainian-born mobster Semyon Mogilevich. In Britain, however, with the cross-bench assistance of MPs he had set up the British Ukrainian Society in 2007 and given £6m to Cambridge University to fund a course in Ukrainian studies. After the invasion of Crimea he was invited in to advise the Foreign Office. “I tried to persuade them that imposing sanctions against Russia was a bad idea,” he told a Russian news agency.

In this context, and in the context of many other stories that Bullough tells, Boris Johnson’s determination to delay the report of the intelligence and security committee into compromising Russian activity in the UK, and then dismiss it as the work of “Islington Remainers”, looks ever more alarming. The report highlighted, Bullough quotes, how “the inherent tension between the government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security has been played out across Whitehall departments…” We are, partly as a result of Bullough’s digging, likely to hear a good deal more about that “prosperity agenda” in the coming months and years.

Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals by Oliver Bullough is published by Profile (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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