Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough review – oligarch’s paradise

A timely exposé of how the UK helps oligarchs, gangsters and money launderers spend and store their wealth

I t is hard to imagine a more timely book than Oliver Bullough’s damning account of Britain’s role in facilitating oligarchs and criminals in their acquisition of billions of pounds’ worth of ill-gotten gains.

The UK’s bankers, lawyers and wealth managers have become so reliant on Russia’s dirty money that, in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, it is proving politically and economically painful to cut the umbilical cords channelling cash from Moscow into the City.

Bullough characterises this longstanding transactional relationship as that of butler and master: Britain playing Jeeves to Putin’s Bertie Wooster. Butler to the World is both a brilliant and depressing blast at decades of malign financial cosiness and the politicians who let it happen.

The rot set in when Britain lost its empire and was forced to cast around for a new part to play on the world stage. It found one by pimping out the City and the Caribbean tax havens that fly the union flag. But in turning a blind eye to the source of trillions of dollars pouring into London’s markets or held off-shore in overseas territories, we have become a nation of fawning servants “at the elbow of the worst people on Earth”. Despite the noises made about values of fair play and the rule of law, few countries do more to frustrate global anti-corruption efforts.

Bullough identifies the critical moment in this sad trajectory as the 1956 Suez crisis. In the ensuing financial crash the banking elite that ran the City borrowed barrel loads of dollars to prop up sterling and, by so doing, accidentally invented “one of the most consequential financial tools of the 20th century” – the eurodollar. The banks used the eurodollar to carry on pumping liquidity into the City “without limits or restrictions”, while offering their wealthy clients the choice of having their assets counted in Britain, the US or both – whichever was the most profitable and tax efficient. Bullough shows how this led to the creation of an array of complex financial products, all served from a silver platter of jurisdictions, permitting the super-rich to shelter their fortunes from the prying eyes of governments and regulators.

One of the great things about his book is that Bullough doesn’t just sit back and drily condemn all this financial skulduggery, he goes to meet the people who helped create the conditions that allowed it to happen. In the British Virgin Islands, he interviews the English barrister who in 1976 helped turn the islands into a tax haven for American investors. And, in Gibraltar, Bullough tracks down the politicians who drafted the laws that transformed the Mediterranean seaport into a lucrative base for the world’s gambling giants and, more recently, blockchain investors.

But it is back in Blighty that Bullough’s investigations will have readers shaking their heads in despair at our unwillingness to stop oligarchs, gangsters and money launderers from milking our systems.

He shows how, time and again, wealthy individuals arriving in the UK rely on the same army of professional advisers who help them buy up prime real estate, with the properties registered using a web of offshore shell companies. Generous public donations to universities, arts foundations and political parties bestow a certain kind of British respectability, and grease the way for introductions to members of the royal family and ministers.

It takes guts to write and publish a book like this. The crippling legal costs incurred by the publishers of Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People show just how much is at stake. As long as the government allows claimants to take advantage of the eye-watering costs needed to defend a libel action in this country, brave writers such as Belton and Bullough and their publishers will always be financially exposed.

There are hundreds of well-known oligarchs who decamped to Britain with their post-Soviet winnings. Many more have simply melted into British society, where they continue to rely on bankers, accountants and lawyers to profit from their exported riches.

The Ukraine invasion may well prove to be a pivotal moment in Britain’s willingness to put profits before dirty money. But recent history suggests otherwise: when the west imposed sanctions on Russia after the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, it didn’t take long before normal butlering services were resumed.

Robert Verkaik is the author of Why You Won’t Get Rich: And Why You Deserve Better Than This. 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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Robert Verkaik

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