On May 8th, the Sutton Coldfield International Development Group hosted a screening of a shocking documentary about the United Kingdom being, effectively, the world’s biggest tax haven. ‘The UK Gold’ demonstrates in stunning detail how transnational corporations and highly wealthy individuals avoid paying tax which they rightfully owe by registering their companies on remote islands- all with the acquiescence of the United Kingdom.
In the 1950s, two European cities were embroiled in combat over which of the following would become the world’s financial capital: Paris or London. The latter won primarily because of the links forged around the world by the reach of the British Empire, and these links are still very much alive: the Queen is sovereign over 14 territories, including Bermuda and the Cayman Islands- two of the biggest tax havens in the world. Several experts interviewed for the film, including Private Eye’s Richard Brooks, the founder of the Tax Justice Network, Richard Murphy and ‘Treasure Islands’ author Nicholas Shaxson, confirm that billions upon billions of pounds are transferred through the City of London to these tax havens.
Barack Obama has publicly ridiculed the notion that a single building in Bermuda can contain 9,000 companies and has put forward laws which would ensure that every company operating in the United States of America has to reveal its true owners, but British leaders have only paid lip service to tackling the issue- the reason? The great influence exerted by the City of London.
As a city within the capital city (yes, I know), the City of London has its own Lord Mayor, elects its own Common Council, and even has its own police force. Most crucially, however, the City of London has a unique presence in the Houses of Parliament- the City Corporation, a body which is backed by firms operating in the Square Mile to promote their interest, have their own office in Parliament known as the ‘Remembrancer’ and a seat beside the chair on which the Speaker of the House of Commons sits. On top of this, several Members of Parliament (both in the Commons and Lords, on all sides of the political spectrum) have either worked for, or have the financial backing of City-based firms. This influence results in episodes such as the committee set up to reform corporate tax only comprising lawyers working on behalf of companies operating within the City of London… even worse, such episodes have never been reported by our national media.
The film’s narrator, renowned actor Dominic West, depressingly noted several times of meetings that were never, until ‘The UK Gold’, brought to public attention: one humourous example detailed the visit of the Prime Minister of the Cayman Islands to the United Kingdom. This PM gave a presentation to a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about how businesses could best maximise their investment opportunities by taking advantage of the Cayman Islands’ tax haven status. However, when he returned to his island, the PM was promptly arrested by the local police force and charged with corruption!
Much of the film concentrates on the nebulous relationship between the United Kingdom, the all-powerful City of London and the territories which gratefully receive the businesses looking to squirrel away as much as money as possible, but this isn’t all the story. The film is given a real international dimension through a visit to Zambia- transnational corporations have used this developing country as a tax haven; in one year alone, $16 billion, which could have been used to greatly improve the lives of many Zambian children (e.g. by being spent on developing proper educational facilities, on proper healthcare, on proper sanitation, on proper infrastructure…) was stolen through the unscrupulous practices of big business.
The biggest star of this film is not one of the many experts, whose interviews are featured throughout- instead, it is a priest from Hackney, a London borough which borders the City of London. Father William Taylor describes himself as a conservative who believes in the strength of relationship and institutions- but he has grown to believe that the City of London wields a dark, demonic power that is ultimately designed to serve itself, rather than serve wider society. He opens the film with a potent question: can we compare the rioters of 2011 to the financiers in the City of London who helped to create the worst financial crisis in living memory?
Father Taylor decided he needed to stand up to the monolith and chose to do so by running for election to the City of London’s Common Council. ‘The UK Gold’ charts the evolution of his campaign to shine a light on the City’s dark practises. Father Taylor chooses to run in the ward in which the Bank of England is situated- he notes that he was inspired by the fact that a sewer runs from Hackney to Shoreditch, right under the Bank… this to me seemed a case of intentional irony. Unfortunately, the Father’s campaign doesn’t go very far- in part, this is because 250 separate companies based in the Square Mile each have a vote… in almost all every company, the management alone determines where their vote will go. One candidate, who was an accountant for one of the established firms that helps businesses devise strategies to use tax havens to their advantage, was unsurprisingly elected. Taylor got 28 votes, one for each day of his active campaigning…
Taylor’s experience is one of several examples shown of the City of London and political figures with strong connections closing ranks on anyone trying to properly tackle the issue: the makers of ‘The UK Gold’ were denied interviews with, among others, Chancellor George Osborne, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable. Meanwhile, whilst trying to avoid scrutiny, the City of London is continuing to assist in the rewriting of tax rules so that their clients’ activities can continue unimpeded…
The film ends with no real resolution, but there’s still plenty of positive stuff to take away from it: ‘The UK Gold’ brings together the work of notable campaigners and writers like Nick Shaxson, Richard Brookes and Richard Murphy in an accessible format, replete with good graphic representations and a pulsating soundtrack by Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and Massive Attack member Robert Del Naja (I particularly enjoyed the war-beat music which accompanied William Taylor around the City of London). It also shows up the political establishment in a poor light- if normally loquacious politicians are suddenly so silent on the subject of tax havens, surely they must be trying to hide the murky realities of tax haven operations.
Additionally, the public revelations that several huge companies operating in Britain- Vodafone, Topshop, Starbucks, Amazon and Google- have been routinely avoiding tax have caused outrage amongst the British public. Despite the efforts of the City of London and severely conflicted politicians, the morality of what’s going on inside the Square Mile is being seriously questioned by growing numbers of people. ‘The UK Gold’ provides further evidence that the so-called ‘Golden Goose’ of the British economy is soiling its nest, damaging both Britain and the world at large.
For more information and to download the film, please visit: http://www.theukgold.co.uk
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