Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launde

Safe Havens | Quinn Slobodian | The New York Review of Books

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2024-05-13 23:00:03

Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything

Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire

When was modern Britain born? Conservative historians have long located the emergence of the modern state in the Blitz and the Dunkirk spirit. Liberal historians point to the creation of the NHS, imagining Little England dusting itself off after World War II to build the welfare state.

Two recent books, Oliver Bullough’s Butler to the World and Kojo Koram’s Uncommon Wealth, tell a different story: of Britons modernizing their country by boarding first-class overseas flights to distant points to figure out ways to undermine the new economic order. While the US was helping rebuild the devastated economies of Western Europe and construct the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Britain was busy erecting what the City University London economist Ronen Palan calls its “second empire” of low- and no-tax jurisdictions.1 Architects of a project parallel to the welfare state that would eventually help to undermine it, they proposed an exchange: if the atlas painted pink to mark imperial possessions was gone forever and Britain’s furnaces and factories would never again lead the world, then at least the empire’s financial core in the City of London could live on. Territorial control of continents would be swapped for the hub and spokes of a financial network. Today roughly half of the world’s tax havens are directly linked to the UK and responsible for a good share of the estimated $8.7 trillion held offshore.

Seeing postwar history through the tax haven helps us understand how empire ended but so little changed. For Koram, a legal scholar, an early turning point between the first and second empires was the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 with the help of British and US intelligence after his partial nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The message to Iran, which had never been officially colonized, and to “all people across the world excited by the promise of decolonization” was clear: “Sovereignty is not the saviour you think it is.”

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