Great-grandpapa’s billions

Like many of you, I have been reading “Kleptopia” by investigative reporter Tom Burgis.  It’s both wonderfully well-written and terrifically depressing.  If there’s a British PM in the past twenty years who hasn’t been advising foreign kleptocrats on how to use the UK regime to their advantage, or assuring them of a warm welcome if they do, I can’t think of one.  And this book was published before the latest wave of accusations of cronyism to hit the Tory party, particularly with regard to the awarding of fabulously lucrative contracts during the pandemic.  (The leading light in this particular campaign is the Good Law Project.  And if you want to see how all the names and entities link up, there’s the marvellous/depressing website “My Little Crony”.)

I will leave reviews of “Kleptopia” to others more qualified.  But one thought that occurred to me again and again as I was reading was longevity.  At the moment, we are all – justifiably and entirely correctly – outraged at what appears to be the feathering of their own nests by Trump, the UK “chumocracy” and countless other PEPs around the world.  But how will this be seen in a couple of centuries’ time?  Although many of England’s stately homes were built on the proceeds of the slave trade, and public outrage at the time was sufficient to result in the Slave Trade Act 1807 (abolishing the trade but not slavery itself) and then the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the families concerned were permitted to keep their proceeds (and were also compensated for their financial loss when required to give up their slaves – but that’s a story for another day).  For the next two centuries they lived lavish lives, at the heart of our ruling classes, and it is only very recently that we have seen public anger against figures involved in slavery (witness the tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this year).

Will it be the same with the kleptocrats of our own times?  Will we – the defrauded public, for it is our public money that they steal – demonstrate and campaign against them, eventually bringing about changes to the law so that they cannot profiteer in the same way again, but still allow them to keep the proceeds and settle in for centuries of comfort?  Or will we put in the enormous effort that will be needed to unwind their schemes and discover their financial hiding places, to seize their criminal proceeds? In AML training I am often asked, in relation to source of wealth enquiries, how far back should we go?  How many ancestors ago must the criminal be before his descendants can claim to have inherited clean money?  But this is a question not for AML trainers, or indeed for compliance staff and MLROs: it is a question for society.  And I hope that “Kleptopia” and Chum-gate will encourage more people to ask just this question.

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