Tag: tax havens

The rot at the heart of British society runs deeper than the travails of Philip Green

By Daniel Margrain

The news that serial tax dodger Philip Green bought his third luxury super-yacht for £100 million, a sum similar to the amount that was effectively sequestered from the BHS pension fund, and which was subsequently hid in tax havens wrecking the lives of thousands of his employees in the process, is symptomatic of the kind of rot that has spread throughout the high echelons of the ruling class. Like rising damp in an old building that spreads throughout the foundations before working its way through the brickwork until it eventually subsumes the entire edifice, Britain is currently suffering from another kind of infestation that of the ruling class “elite” whose unprecedented actions and decisions are undermining the rules and laws on which the proper functioning of a civilized society depend.

The biggest scandal isn’t about the corruption surrounding the Panama Papers, bankers and the revelations about Philip Green (as bad as they are), but about wealth inequality. Currently, the top 1 per cent own as much as 99 per cent of the rest of the world combined. What the Panama Papers revelations highlighted was just how unequal the world is. In his book, ‘The Hidden Wealth of Nations’, economist Gabriel Zucman estimates that worldwide, more than $7.5 trillion is stashed away in offshore accounts. As an indication of just how much that is, the sum amounts to some 8 per cent of the entire financial wealth of the world. About 80 per cent of that has not, and will not, be taxed at all, ever.

This level of tax avoidance increases the wealth gap between the rich and poor. Hiding vast sums of wealth from the prying eye of governments makes it easier for the super rich, represented by the 1 per cent, to remain rich and avoid tax policies which are meant to help the 99 per cent. Off-shore accounts also make it more difficult for everybody else to get rich because of the uneven playing field that results from these tax havens. The 99 per cent among the mainly middle income earners are paying higher taxes to make up for the taxes that the 1 per cent don’t pay.

Although on average slightly less than 8 per cent of all the financial wealth of the world is off-shore, Europe fares worse at 10 per cent. By contrast, off-shore financial wealth in Latin America stands at 20 per cent, in Africa the figure is 30 per cent and in Russia an incredible 50 per cent of all its financial wealth remains hidden off-shore. What all this indicates is the sheer scale of a problem that hits the developing world the hardest where the results for the very poorest who have no access to any form of social protection, can literally be death.

As far as Europe is concerned, the massive use of tax havens began in the 1920s in Switzerland. In Britain this trend became a feature of society around the mid-to-late 1970s. Numerous tax havens had began to spring up during this time which is when the great wealth disparity really started to make its mark. This was no accident. During this period, the function of the state began to change from that of ‘welfare provider’ to more ‘pro-business facilitator’. The ideology that came to embody this change was neoliberalism.

Instead of the direct provision of services administered democratically at the local level, the trend has increasingly been for the state to act as a purchaser of these services which have then been provided privately and indirectly. As each separate financial intermediary takes their slice of the financial pie, the temptation for corrupt practices becomes greater and the concentration of capital and deregulation of labour markets more acute.

With the balance of economic power tilted increasingly towards the rich who are able to buy the influence of politician’s, the impact on democracy has been devastating for millions of ordinary people. This hollowed out system of democracy is one in which the 99 per cent increasingly seem to find it difficult to find some personal and meaningful pattern in a social world dominated by huge and distant monoliths whose power over the livelihood of millions seems absolute.

This explains the growing popularity of ‘unorthodox’ politician’s like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sander’s and even to an extent, Donald Trump, who offer the electorate an alternative to the ‘business as usual’ politics of the corporate controlled political machine. However, until a distinct break with the current system occurs, the masses are faced with the prospect of more of the same neoliberal ideology predicated on austerity.

Contrary to popular mythology, it wasn’t the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher which came to power in 1979 that invented neoliberalism, rather that distinction is reserved for the preceding Labour administration under James Callaghan. It was the Labour government, not the Tories, who accepted the terms of the austerity package proposed by the IMF in 1976. The main condition of the IMF loan, insisted on by the US Treasury, was that the government deficit must be reduced by cutting demand.

Interest rates were raised and government spending reduced. Wage, job and welfare cuts were the hallmark of the ‘social contract’ between wage labour and capital agreed by the unions to bail out the government. As Colin Leys notes:

“From 1976 onwards, Labour accordingly became ‘monetarist’. Its leaders accepted that full employment could no longer be achieved by government spending but must be sought through private sector growth. For the necessary investment to take place, prices must reflect real values, and this in turn required ‘squeezing’ inflation out of the system and permitting the free movement of capital. In 1978 Treasury officials began preparing to abolish capital controls.”

Spearheaded by the deregulation of the movement of capital, the breaking of the unions and the centralization of state power that favoured the corporations in the running of state enterprises, rates of inequality that had been reduced from the previous highs of the depression years of the late 1920s began to grow again. During the 1920s wealth disparity was huge. Then, as people at the top paid more taxes, and people in the middle began to earn more, the gap became increasingly smaller.

As the consensus between capital and wage labour started to go in reverse from about 1980, inequality began to increase steadily to 1920s levels which is roughly the point they are today. By the mid 1980s tax havens started to emerge in places like the Caymen Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Panama, Bermuda the British Virgin Islands and increasingly, London. All of the wealth located in these havens isn’t actually invested their. This means that the vast majority of people who live in, say, London, don’t benefit from foreign money that’s invested in, for example, property due to the massive rise in property prices that result from these investments.

So why do the 99 per cent put up with all this?

Many people tend to get distracted, whether that’s through working all the hours under the sun merely to survive, or through sports or other forms of leisure activities. Many others are angry but feel disconnected from the political process. The politicians, by contrast, benefit from the current situation so they are not motivated to change it, largely because they are immune from any effective political pressure from below.

The consequences for civil society that emanate from the combination of public apathy and apoplexy are potentially extreme. The lack of proper investment in public services like the NHS, social care, libraries and schools will end up with them collapsing. This is a process that to a large extent is already happening. The fact that the super rich have their money stashed away off-shore, while many among the poor don’t earn enough to pay tax in the first place, has resulted in an insufficient tax yield.

The reason why many people can’t get a prompt appointment with their GP, paving stones in the streets are cracked, their libraries are staffed by volunteers and there are pot holes on the roads that never get attended to, is directly linked to these factors. So while public services are being slashed on the one hand, people are increasingly having to pay for the ones that remain with money, in many cases, they haven’t got. If they are fortunate enough to have a job, it’s likely that their disposable income in real terms wouldn’t of increased in the last four decades.

Particularly for the young, the prospects of finding secure, fulfilling and well paid work is as remote now than it has been for at least 70 years and the situation is likely to get even worse as robots begin to replace many traditional blue collar and even white collar jobs. Leaving aside the threats posed by climate change, the underlying root cause of the problems society faces both now and in the coming period, is the inability of governments’ to take a long term approach to tackling levels of inequality that are so extreme that violent disorder on the streets may be the only language the politician’s will take note of.

The Panama Papers

By Daniel Margrain

The handing over by an anonymous source of massive amounts of data from the Panama-based, German-run law firm Mossack Fonseca which specializes in providing clients with dodgy offshore accounts, had clearly contributed to some unease within the camp of British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Rarely, if ever, do corporate journalists give Cameron a hard time and this was no exception. Having just returned from one of many in a long line of luxury holiday’s on the back of the impending collapse of the UK steel industry, a car crash shambles of a budget, divisions within his own party over Europe and with government policy over schools and health in meltdown, Cameron angrily snapped at reporters in response to feeble attempts to bring him to account regarding the extent to which his father allegedly attempted to shield his wealth from the UK tax authorities.

Cameron was clearly in no mood for such media games especially as both he, the media elite and the Westminster political hierarchy in general, know that due to the specific nature of the leak, much of the potentially incendiary material will never see the light of day within the public domain. It’s disgraceful that Cameron and some Tory ministers are using the ‘privacy prerogative’ to hide behind the morally repugnant and possible criminal activities associated with Cameron’s father which means that the PM is also potentially complicit.

The reason why leaked material that’s likely to be detrimental to the powers that be is hidden from the public on so called privacy grounds can be explained by the fact that the said material is being managed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who in turn are supported by some of America’s biggest corporate funders. I’m not reassured by the ICIJ when they said they’ll be releasing the full list of people and companies in early May. In any case, the true nature of the revelations won’t be revealed as to who was acting legally and who wasn’t.

Had the leaker approached Wikileaks with the 2.6 terabytes of data consisting of 11.5 millions documents, rather than Suddeutsche Zeitung – and by extension, the Western media more widely – the impact and potential consequences for those concerned would of been far greater. Instead, the largest data leak that journalists have ever worked with will be selectively ‘drip-fed’ with most of the significant amounts implicating Western elites being censored from the public gaze.

We have already seen signs of this with Luke Harding’s Guardian piece published Monday (April 4) which, predictably, focused on Russian individuals and companies whose wealth represents a minority of the money stashed away. Harding’s seriously compromised piece failed to mention that 9,670 UK Companies and over 3,000 US Companies, as well as Cameron’s father, top Tories and some of the UK’s biggest allies, were implicated and/or named in the Panama Papers.

Did the corporate media vilify David Cameron for some serious high-ranking connections to this mother of all leaks? No, it did not. Did the same media publish any damning report that featured Cameron airbrushed alongside global ‘baddies,’ like former Iranian leader Ahmadinejad? No. But it seems as far as Putin and Russia is concerned, anything the media dishes out is regarded by the elites as fair game.

Arguably, the most important graph in the Panama Papers scandal is highlighted below. It shows the number of intermediaries (banks, accountants) in each country.

 

There is no mention of these by the media or of the numerous huge Western multinational corporations or billionaires, some of whom sit in the House of Lords. Neither does Harding mention by name any of the 12 leaders, past and present, identified in the documents. Instead, the Guardian journalist, in line with the methodological approach adopted by Suddeutsche Zeitung which received the leak, selectively focused on the West’s official enemies – Russia, Syria and North Korea.

Despite the fact that Putin wasn’t personally mentioned in the Panama Papers, I’m in no doubt whatsoever that since he uses Russia as a personal fiefdom, he should not be exonerated. It’s one thing ridding the country of the oligarch’s who were responsible for asset stripping its resources which subsequently turned Russia into a gangster capitalist paradise, but another to pocket a large chunk yourself by getting shot of the competition which is effectively what Putin has done. Putin’s primary interest is Putin himself.

But what the Panama papers reveal is that he’s not alone. The global web of corruption and tax avoidance extends to 72 states, heads or former heads of state. Yet you would be unlikely to have reached this conclusion having read the Guardian article or observed the cover of the paper which sensationally headlined with the words “Exclusive: The Secret $2bn trail of deals that lead all the way to Putin”. Neither would you have reached the conclusion having watched the UK state broadcaster, the BBC, who chose to mention just five of the 72 – Egypt, Iceland, Gaddafi, Putin and Assad.

Central to all this is the pathetic kow-towing to power by our media that’s supposed to be impartial and independent yet they act reflexively en masse by directing their fire at enemies of the state. If you don’t believe me, just look how often Putin has been foregrounded in the coverage of these leaked documents, complete with the requisite ‘shady’ photographs. Naturally, the media cannot be perceived to be so transparently biased which is why the occasional ‘balanced’ message is required. Step forward the Telegraph.

On Monday April 4, the paper dutifully reported:

David Cameron’s father ran an offshore fund which avoided paying tax in Britain by hiring Bahamas residents, including a bishop, to sign paperwork…The fund, which was established in the 1980s with help from the Prime Minister’s late father, continues today. The Guardian says it has confirmed that ‘in 30 years Blairmore has never paid a penny of tax in the UK on its profits.”

Nevertheless, the targeting of a dead man is virtually risk free as will be the ‘outing’ of a senile corrupt Lord to be cynically used a sacrificial lamb for the media hacks to peruse over if and when the time is right. Ultimately, the UK Secret Services will never allow the media to publish anything that is likely to damage the ‘reputations’ of leading establishment figures. The destruction of the Snowden files that the Guardian had in its possession but were requested to destroy by M15, are proof of that.

I had been watching the UK media all day on Monday after the story had broken, and news bulletins prefaced the scandal with either Putin, Cameron’s deceased father or Assad. It’s mainly the first two which are easy and convenient targets intended to deflect away from the crimes that implicate ‘our’ leaders. Almost certainly then, there is a highly motivated political agenda at work here that probably explains why Iceland, who locked up many of its corrupt and criminal bankers, was also named.

Following the revelations that Iceland’s PM was implicated in the scandal, the people of Reykjavik took to the streets in their thousands. At the time of writing, I watched the BBC News at Ten which reported from outside the Icelandic parliament. Following the resignation of the PM, the BBC reporter interviewed some Icelander’s. What the people on the streets of the country are increasingly aware of is that corruption within the corridors of power in Iceland and elsewhere is systemic.

The elites on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned about the effect the revealing of undoubted widespread and systematic corruption within the high echelons of media and politics will have on the body politic of Europe and North America. They don’t want Reykjavik to spread to London, Paris and Washington. This is another reason why the full scale nature of those implicated will never be revealed.

What all this highlights is the public is being cynically deceived by the corporate media in order to get their fellow elites off the hook. Craig Murray’s brilliant expose of the BBC Panorama documentary entitled Tax Havens of the Rich and Powerful Exposed, highlights the extent to which BBC producers and presenters will go to in order to misdirect its audience to this end. Perhaps less subtle than the overt propaganda pieceSaving Syria’s Children, but no less effective, the BBC related at length the stories of the money laundering companies of the Icelandic PM and Putin’s alleged cellist. As Murray said:

“The impression was definitely given and reinforced that these companies were in Panama. [Presenter] Richard Bilton deliberately suppressed the information that all the companies involved were in fact not Panamanian but in the corrupt British colony of the British Virgin Islands. At no stage did Bilton even mention the British Virgin Islands.”

Murray goes on to say:

“Is it not truly, truly, astonishing the British Virgin Islands were not even mentioned when the BBC broadcast their “investigation” of these documents?”

Indeed, Mr Murray, it is.

The BBC and media in general are obscuring the key role British money-laundering via its base in the British Virgin Islands plays in these transactions. This scandal must also be seen within a context in which between £30bn and £120bn a year of UK tax is either avoided, evaded or uncollected (sources (Tax justice/ PCS estimate & HMRC estimates). Meanwhile, £16bn worth of benefits a year remain unclaimed (HMRC estimate) against a backdrop in which benefit fraud amounts to a relatively tiny £1.2bn (DWP estimate).

Which of the above figures do you think the government and their media mouthpieces constantly highlight?

It can never be stated enough that this corruption scandal is mostly centred on the British Virgin Islands. Yes, the corruption is widespread and involves a number of world leaders, some of whom are our official enemies. However, in the broader scheme of things, these political figures are essentially peripheral. The level of corruption is widespread and systemic. As far as the major players are concerned, the media need to focus closer to home.