Oliver Bullough at the Hay Festival

Butler to the World: Oliver Bullough Q&A

The bestselling author Oliver Bullough joined the Bureau for a livestream event this week to talk about his new book Butler to the World.

Speaking with our Enablers editor Franz Wild, he discussed how London became the global capital for the world’s corrupt elites, and what this has done to damage the principles of our democracy.

What follows are extracts from the conversation, which you can watch in full below.

How did Britain become butler to the world? Did it grow out of the empire, or was there something else about the British establishment that put us in that position?

We need to be blunt – in Britain, we used to be the oligarch, right? In the same way that Putin when he disagrees with a country’s trade policies, he just bombards it until it changes its trade policy, that’s what we used to do to places. Quite obviously we did it to China, we did it to Benin, and we did it to Zanzibar. It was pretty standard British Empire behaviour.

But then when we couldn’t afford to do that anymore, we needed to find a new business model. We were like an aristocrat that had gone bust – we didn’t have the big house and the place in town anymore, but we still knew everyone. We still knew what order the knives and forks go in on a posh dinner table, and so on. So that was essentially what Britain did. Instead of being the oligarch itself, it just helped other people to be oligarchs.

The first really important trade when this began was in 1955, when the Soviet Union was worried about keeping its dollars in New York. Dollars were then increasingly the unrivalled international currency, the pound was falling away having been previously the international currency. The Soviet Union was worried if it kept its dollars in New York, that they could be frozen by the United States, so they wanted to keep them somewhere else.

It did have a bank in London, the Moscow Narodny bank (MNB), so it decided to keep its dollars in London. But what were they going to do with the dollars in London? They didn’t just want them to sit there, you have to do something with them. As it turned out, there was another bank in London, the Midland Bank, that was short of capital and wanted capital in order to fund its lending. So the Moscow Narodny bank just lent its dollars to the Midland Bank, which could use them to fund its normal British lending.

By doing this they made this incredible discovery, which was that there were no rules all of a sudden, because American rules didn’t apply because it wasn’t in America. British rules didn’t apply because it wasn’t using pounds. They had discovered completely by accident, this legal space in the heart of London that wasn’t legally in London.

A lot of politicians are talking about libel reform, do you think positive change is actually going to occur? Or is that too optimistic?

I’m actually feeling quite good about libel reform. The level at which it’s being talked about, a lot of ministers are putting a lot of time into it. There is a consultation underway, I’ve been talking to officials in two or three different government departments about it, and they’re clearly really interested and really concerned and clearly keen to get different impressions about it.

I’m very persuaded by the case made by Caroline Kean, who is the solicitor for both Tom Burgis and Catherine Belton at HarperCollins. Her case is that it would be very simple to just have a public interest test, essentially a guillotine – so at a very early stage in the proceedings, a judge could just say, “No, this is in the public interest. That’s it and this now stops.”

What do you think of the claim by Ann Pettifor that the wealth tax is impracticable because the wealthy are very mobile? Should we throw our hands up and give up?

I’m going to broaden this question out because there is this argument that there’s no point in stopping being a butler because if we don’t do it, somebody else will do it, which is sort of a similar principle to “there’s no point in taxing a wealthy person, because if we tax them they’ll just go somewhere else”.

But actually, where would this wealthy person go? Britain’s pretty cool, right? It’s a nice place. We’ve got a lot going for us here. When it comes to butlering, if we stopped doing it, who else would do it? There aren’t any other countries that can do what we can do in terms of providing the full spectrum of butlering services.

We do soup to nuts – from laundering your money, to educating your children, to providing actual butlers to providing captains for your superyachts. We do it all here. In terms of corruption services, Britain is not just head and shoulders above the competition, but chest and head and shoulders above the competition.

It does also speak to this idea that you do need some level of international cooperation though, right?

That’s true, but it’s often used as an excuse not to do anything. In terms of the network of offshore financial centres that Britain controls, there is nowhere that is close to being a competitor anywhere in the world.

The only place that could conceivably replace Britain, in terms of what we offer to the world’s wealthiest people is the United States, and the United States has has a robust and effective law enforcement mechanism. So in a way it can’t replace what we do, which is safety for your assets and no scrutiny for their origin.

I think there’s a lot at stake here. If we get out of the butlering game then essentially the butlering game for the foreseeable future will be over. And that will be really amazing.

Header image: Oliver Bullough at the Hay Festival