Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough: ‘highly readable but thoroughly depressing’

Timely analysis of how Britain has helped to launder others’ fortunes

Dmitry Firtash on the phone
Dmitry Firtash, the Ukrainian billionaire, in 2016
(Image credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Could a book ever be more timely,” asked Simon Nixon in The Times. Oliver Bullough’s Butler to the World is a “highly readable but thoroughly depressing” analysis of Britain’s role in enabling a “shadowy global super-rich” to “launder and hide their vast fortunes”.

The book advances the “surely unarguable” thesis that a large swathe of the country’s elite has “turned itself into a dark version of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves”, catering to the whims of the world’s kleptocrats.

We’ve welcomed corrupt capital in all sorts of ways, said The Economist. Bankers and accountants help shady billionaires stash their wealth in offshore accounts. Reputations are laundered by our “reassuringly expensive” PR firms, while Britain’s claimant-friendly libel and privacy laws help bat away awkward questions. Bullough’s study is urgent and well-informed – and makes a mockery of Boris Johnson’s claim that no country “could conceivably be doing more to root out corrupt Russian money”.

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According to Bullough, this all dates back to the Suez crisis of 1956, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. By laying bare “Britain’s diminished post-imperial status”, the crisis, he suggests, motivated the City to reinvent itself as an “amoral servant” of global wealth. While I am sceptical of this claim – the link with empire doesn’t seem quite clear – what follows is a “grimly fascinating” tour of the various legal and financial loopholes that have allowed Britain to prostrate itself “at the feet of the shady super-rich”.

One chapter explains how the tiny British Virgin Islands became a haven for off-shore money. Another explores the “murky world of Scottish limited partnerships” – an obscure financial vehicle that European criminals have exploited to hide stolen money “on an industrial scale”.

Especially revealing, given the current situation, is the chapter on the Ukrainian-born billionaire Dmitry Firtash, said Will Dunn in the New Statesman. Firtash, Bullough writes, was the “Kremlin’s man in Ukraine” during the premiership of Viktor Yanukovych.

In 2007, he “moved to Kensington” and was welcomed into the heart of the British establishment: he was “honoured by Cambridge University, introduced to the Duke of Edinburgh and invited to open trading on the London Stock Exchange”. He later bought a disused Underground station and was asked to advise the Foreign Office. His story, like many others in this fascinating book, reveals Britain’s shameful role in oiling the “wheels of Vladimir Putin’s gangster state”.

Profile 288pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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