Book Review: Butler to the World: How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals

Butler to the World: How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals, Oliver Bullough (Profile Books 2022), 224pp., hardback, ISBN: 9781788165877. Also available as an e-book and an audiobook.

Forum members who attended the 2021 Conference will already know something of Oliver Bullough’s work; he is a journalist and author who specialises in writing about financial crime, and his previous book, Moneyland, was a Sunday Times bestseller.

In my opinion, ‘Butler to the World’ should be read by anyone with an interest in law, finance, regulation or democracy (which I’d like to think is everyone on this Forum!). It contains a highly readable account of the role of Britain (or at least of the British government and institutions) as an amoral enabler for kleptocrats, profiting from helping them launder not only their money but their reputation. It is a fascinating and eye-opening read, if somewhat depressing, for example his scathing comment that ‘[f]inancial skulduggery isn’t just something that happens in the UK; there has been a concerted and decades long effort to encourage it to do so’. His narrative clearly details the extent of the harms caused by this behaviour, both in the UK (including gambling addiction, loss of tax revenue, and improper levels of political influence) and overseas (in particular, economic deprivation of some of the poorest countries and most marginalised communities).

Bullough takes as his starting point the impact on Britain of the Suez crisis and the end of empire, and its search for a role in that new world. He examines the rise of the City of London and the potentially anti-democratic impact of deregulation and globalisation on the power of national governments. He also looks at Britain’s offshore territories and their role as tax havens and facilitators of opaque businesses and transactions. He carefully critiques the regulatory gaps and deficiencies, and the imbalance between the resources of regulators and prosecutors as compared with wealthy kleptocrats and their advisors, which results in an impression of effective regulatory activity while little of substance is actually done to combat money laundering and other harms. There is also an interesting chapter on private prosecutions, something which has painful resonance in the light of the Post Office’s use of this process to perpetrate miscarriages of justice on a significant number of its sub-post masters and sub-post mistresses. The book concludes with a summary of useful resources (including, should anyone wish to pursue a career as a Jeeves-style actual butler, details of how to embark on that career path!).

In Chapter 6, which is likely to be of particular relevance to Forum members, he examines the financial ‘laundromats’ operated in countries of the former USSR and facilitated by Scottish limited partnerships as well as limited partnerships operating elsewhere in the UK, and UK LLPs. His damning indictment is that ‘Butler Britain exists to help its clients. It has no interest in stopping them from misbehaving when there’s profit in it’. Despite the introduction of the legislation requiring disclosure of people with significant influence (PSCs) over a business (the substantial flaws in which have been pointed out by many commentators, including this reviewer (see ‘Partnership law: Used, Misused or Abused?’ (2021) 32(2) EBLR 208)), little has been done legislatively to remedy the problem. As Bullough pithily puts it, from the point of view of the British government, ‘limited partnerships were an obscure twig on an already pretty unfashionable branch of the law’. He also makes the point, citing Richard Smith (whom Forum members may recall from the 2019 Conference), that SLPs owned by anonymous offshore companies are not isolated examples but, at some points in time, the vast majority of SLPs being registered. And he concludes this chapter by sounding the alarm about the exploitation of the new PFLP vehicle (something on which this reviewer has also written (see ‘Limited partnership law and private equity: an instance of legislative capture?’ (2019) 19(1) JCLS 105).

Bullough does conclude with some limited optimism, making the point that the dislocations caused by Brexit and then Covid have led to Britain questioning its role in the world as it did after Suez and the dismantling of its empire, and that this provides an opportunity for Britain to make ‘a principled decision to take a course of action not because it [is] profitable but because [is] right’.

I’ll certainly raise my half-full glass to that.


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