Our capital helps crooks to siphon money from the world’s poor to Britain’s prosperous professions
The first time I spoke publicly about kleptocracy, I was nervous. I had written a report about Ukraine, about how corruption had consumed the fabric of its economy, society and politics, and my conclusion was alarming. I stood there in my pinstripe suit and navy tie and hoped someone in the audience would tell me I was wrong.
This was 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea was still a recent outrage, and its proxies were advancing in the Donbass. Western countries meanwhile were firm in their defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, were supporting the government in Kiev, and were imposing strict sanctions on people threatening its democracy. Nonetheless, I concluded that the West in general, and London in particular, had long been at least as big a threat to Ukraine’s future as Russia.
When I looked at how Ukraine’s rulers had looted their country, and where they spent the money they had stolen, this conclusion was obvious. The shell companies, the banks, the accountants, the lawyers, the estate agents, the passport vendors, the private schools, the yacht brokers, the PR firms; they weren’t in Moscow, they were in the West, and primarily in Britain. Yes, it was Russians who were undermining Ukraine from outside; but it was Westerners that helped undermine Ukraine from within. Ukrainians were paying a terrible price: easily-treatable diseases were epidemic; justice was for sale; schools were falling apart. And it was our fault.
It is an alarming conclusion, since that is not how we Brits think about our country. In our national self-image, we invented democracy, we give a home for persecuted dissidents, we donate generously to starving nations. Yet here I was saying we oversaw a vast shadow financial system, which had fenced billions of pounds worth of stolen money for some of the world’s biggest villains, and sold them luxury goods and houses.
This is why I was hoping someone would tell me I was mistaken. It would have been embarrassing, of course, to have presented a paper that was fundamentally flawed; but that would surely have been better than the fact that I lived in a country that was enabling and profiting from industrial-scale theft.
But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, attendees from politics, law enforcement and academia told me my conclusions chimed with theirs. If anything, I had been too cautious: my conclusions applied not just to Ukraine, but equally to dozens of other countries too, to North Korea, to South Sudan, to Afghanistan, to Zimbabwe. This was a dark side of globalisation, which syphoned money from already impoverished countries, and stashed it for the benefit of the powerful and unscrupulous. And if this dark side had a Death Star, it was London.
Flushed with fresh confidence, I addressed the inaugural kleptocracy tours organised by my friend Roman Borisovich, pointing out the homes of rich crooks in West London, and explaining the dirty origin of the money that had paid for them.
The tours gained journalistic attention all over the world. Politicians sat in our buses alongside activists, and told us we were right, that kleptocracy was a scandal that needed fighting. We were working in the right direction. I wrote articles on the mechanics of kleptocracy, then I published a book—Moneyland—detailing the origin of what is essentially a parallel country where the kleptocrats can park their assets. The reviews were positive, sales were healthy, and feedback was good. I got emails from senior investigators in the US, the UK and elsewhere telling me how much they’d liked what I’d written. “I am grateful to you for reminding me why I got in to this field of work 25 years ago. You are quite right that the crooks have had the upper hand and our investigative efforts are often thwarted, but just because it is difficult it doesn’t mean we should give up!” wrote one law enforcement officer.
But nothing changed.
The volume of money being stolen from the world’s poorest countries—places like Ukraine—continues to exceed a trillion dollars a year, which is a sum significantly larger than the entire Dutch economy, one that would buy you Apple outright. It is a crime unrivalled in history, with terrible consequences for democracy and prosperity everywhere, and yet no one in power appears sufficiently interested to actually do anything about it.
Watching politicians squabble over Brexit while this epidemic of monumental larceny happens all around them is profoundly frustrating. It’s not just that leaving the European Union will make cooperating with other countries in this fight harder—though it will—it’s the opportunity cost that’s so galling. If we took the energy that we’re expending in shouting at each other about the EU and spent it fighting kleptocracy, we could improve people’s lives in ways it is hard to describe.
Five years ago, I hoped someone with inside knowledge would tell me I was wrong, but now I wish they’d stop telling me I was right, and instead start taking meaningful action to combat the evil I’ve described. Kleptocracy is not a natural phenomenon to be marvelled at, but a man-made system to be shut down.
If this feels miserable in the UK, however, it feels worse in Ukraine. All I did was organise bus tours; in Ukraine, they held a revolution. And yet still, dishonesty and graft remain embedded in the structures of the state and the economy. I asked one of the anti-corruption activists whose work I quoted back in 2014 how she manages to remain optimistic. “Don’t think of corruption as something you can defeat 100 per cent all at once,” she said. “If we’ve only improved the country by 1 per cent, we’ve still improved the country.”