The effects of this alternative reality are everywhere — from the Belgravia mansions owned by anonymous trusts to Yanukovych’s outrageously tasteless hunting lodge.
Bullough pithily anatomises the offshore economy that affects us all, whether we realise it or not.
Such schemes comprise what the journalist Oliver Bullough calls kleptocracy. Moneyland, his impassioned but at times specious book, depicts the universe inhabited by global money launderers and calls out the Western bankers, lawyers, property brokers and politicians who profit from it. Kleptocracy works like this: steal, launder, spend. Developing and post-Soviet countries are where most of the money is stolen, but it is here in the UK and in other apparently clean and well-governed places where it is laundered and spent – on things like luxury properties and private school fees. In allowing corrupt international elites to take advantage of its legal system, property rights and democratic institutions, Britain acts as an enabler of kleptocrats.
The subtitle of his book offers the promise of a solution to this kleptocracy, a reckoning: “how to take it back”. Though the whole enterprise is a spirited argument for transparency, for accountability, Bullough has – of course – only the obvious answers to how to dismantle Moneyland. Regulation, the rule of law, international standards, supranational cooperation. Those things would require a collective willingness to accept potential hardship in the west – where offshoring remains a boom industry – and profound political courage. In its absence, Bullough fears, and he is not holding his breath, “the misery in distant countries will become our misery”.
Moneyland, a gripping yet dispiriting book, is an excellent addition to the process of relearning these lessons. Bullough understands the value of the regulatory system put in place by the Allies after the Second World War — and torn up with relish three decades later. As a Russian speaker who lived and worked in the former Soviet Union during the early Putin years the author has encountered Moneylanders and their victims in the course of his work.
Bullough’s book is pacy, clever and far more entertaining than you’d expect of a work on this subject. Sometimes it moves so fast you suspect that nervous lawyers have been involved. At other times, you wish he’d written about the offshore manoeuvrings of tax-averse mainstream corporations as well. But if you still have any illusions about the wonders of liberated capitalism, Moneyland will probably cure you.
Bullough is a sharp reporter. He guides us through the language of Moneyland: the language of euphemism. “Global citizens” — people who buy citizenship in countries with which they have no connection by birth or residency. “Commissions” and “facilitation payments”— bribes. “Succession planning” — avoiding/evading inheritance tax. “Tax neutrality” — not paying any tax. “Fiscal friction” — having to pay tax if every dodge fails. When he visits Yanukovich’s shooting lodge he notices that it has a heated marble massage table but not a single book.
Bullough has provided a model for how to tell a gripping and comprehensible story about a complex and crucial subject. You cannot understand power, wealth and poverty without knowing about Moneyland.