Where does legitimate business end and organised crime begin?
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th September 2015
Be reasonable in response to the unreasonable: this is what voters in the Labour election are told. Accommodate, moderate, triangulate, for the alternative is to isolate yourself from reality. You might be inclined to agree. If so, please take a look at the reality to which you must submit.
To an extent unknown since before the First World War, economic relations in this country are becoming set in stone. It’s not just that the very rich no longer fall while the very poor no longer rise. It’s that the system itself is protected from risk. Through bail-outs, quantitative easing and delays in interest rate rises, speculative investment has been so well cushioned that, as Larry Elliott puts it, financial markets are “one of the last bastions of socialism left on earth.”
Public services, infrastructure, the very fabric of the nation: these too are being converted into risk-free investments. Social cleansing is transforming inner London into an exclusive economic zone for property speculation. From a dozen directions, government policy converges on this objective. The benefits cap and the bedroom tax drive the poor out of their homes. The forced sale of high-value council houses creates a new asset pool. An uncapped and scarcely regulated private rental market turns these assets into gold. The freeze on council tax banding since 1991, the lifting of the inheritance tax threshold and £14 billion a year in breaks for private landlords all help to guarantee stupendous returns.
And for those who wish simply to sit on their assets, the government can help here too, by ensuring that there are no penalties for leaving buildings empty. As a result, great tracts of housing are removed from occupation. Agricultural land has proved an even better punt for City money: with the help of capital gains, inheritance and income tax exemptions, as well as farm subsidies, its price has quadrupled in 12 years.
Property in this country is a haven for the proceeds of international crime. The head of the National Crime Agency, Donald Toon, notes that “the London property market has been skewed by laundered money. Prices are being artificially driven up by overseas criminals who want to sequester their assets here in the UK.”
It’s hardly surprising, given the degree of oversight. Private Eye has produced a map of British land owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens. The holdings amount to 1.2 million acres, including much of our prime real estate. Among those it names as beneficiaries are a cast of Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, British aristocrats and newspaper proprietors. These are the people for whom government policy works, and the less regulated the system that enriches them, the happier they are.
The speculative property market is just one current in the great flow of cash that sluices through Britain while scarcely touching the sides. The financial sector exploits an astonishing political privilege: the City of London is the only jurisdiction in the UK not fully subject to the authority of parliament. In fact, the relationship seems to work the other way. Behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons sits the Remembrancer, whose job is to ensure that the interests of the City of London are recognised by the elected members. (A campaign to rescind this privilege – Don’t Forget the Remembrancer – will be launched very soon). The City has one foot in the water: it is a semi-offshore state, a bit like the UK’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories, tax havens legitimised by the Privy Council. Britain’s financial secrecy undermines the tax base while providing a conduit into the legal economy for gangsters, kleptocrats and drug barons.
Even the more orthodox financial institutions deploy a long succession of scandalous practices: pension mis-selling, endowment mortgage fraud, the payment protection insurance con, Libor rigging. A former minister in the last government, Lord Green, ran HSBC while it engaged in money laundering for drugs gangs, systematic tax evasion and the provision of services to Saudi and Bangladeshi banks linked to the financing of terrorists. Sometimes the UK looks to me like an ever-so-civilised mafia state.
At next month’s Conservative party conference, corporate executives will pay £2,500 to sit with a minister. Doubtless, because we are assured that there is no link between funding and policy, they will spend the day discussing the weather and the films they have seen. If we noticed such arrangements overseas, we might be inclined to regard them as corruption. But that can’t be the case here, not least because the invitation explains that “fees associated with business day & dinner are considered a commercial transaction and therefore do not constitute a political donation.”
The government also insists that there is no link between political donations and seats in the House of Lords. But a study by researchers at Oxford University found that the probability of so many major donors arriving there by chance is 1.36 x 10-38: roughly “equivalent to entering the National Lottery and winning the jackpot 5 times in a row”. Why does the Lords remain unreformed? Because it permits plutocratic power to override democracy. Both rich and poor are kept in their place.
Governed either by or on behalf of the people who fleece us, we cannot be surprised to discover that all public services are being re-engineered for the benefit of private capital. Nor should we be surprised when governments help to negotiate, without public consent, treaties such as TTIP and CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), which undermine the sovereignty of both parliament and the law. Aesop’s observation that “we hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office” remains true in spirit, though hanging has been replaced by community payback.
Wherever you sniff in British public life, something stinks: I could fill this newspaper with examples. But, while every pore oozes corruption, our task, we are told, is merely to trim the nails of the body politic.
To fail to confront this system is to collaborate with it. Who on the left would wish to stand on the sidelines as this carve-up continues? Who would vote for anything but sweeping change?