Ever since Margaret Thatcher, the UK economy has swung away from manufacturing. It was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with Japan, Germany, the US, Italy and others.
The UK, and specifically the City of London, which is not the same thing as the London Metropolis, and which holds a very privileged status within Britain, sought to reinvent itself through financial engineering. It thus went on to become a global financial powerhouse.
In the 1970s, the UK was economically in the doldrums, and had become an economic backwater. It needed bailing out by the IMF. It had strong arguments to apply for inclusion in the EEC at the time.
The UK includes all of its overseas territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Gibraltar. Then there are the Channel Islands, which are also Crown dependencies and not constitutionally independent. All of these and other overseas territories fall under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom. They are remnants of the British Empire that have either not been granted independence or have voted to remain British territories.
Together these form part of an extremely powerful network of tax havens falling under British sovereignty. They are repositories of literally trillions of pounds in financial assets. The UK has been fighting the EU tooth and nail to protect its tax haven regime.
Together with the US, that has its own tax haven powerhouses, even on the mainland itself, the two nations have enormous influence and control over global finance. They hold the lion’s share of global financial assets. We simply have no idea of the enormous extent and repercussions of all this. We see only the tip of the iceberg.
The US also has considerable influence over Panama, another huge tax haven, which some argue is a de facto satellite of the US. One of president George Bush senior’s first major foreign policy moves was to invade this tiny state in 1989. And financially speaking, for good reason.
This former director of the CIA cum president chose an interesting code name for the invasion, Operation Just Cause. Oh, how sweet! Nothing like good old smoke and mirrors, and the Pharisee playing the role of the Good Samaritan, to further one’s none too ignoble cause in the world of geopolitics.
So what has all this got to do with Brexit and the power elite? By the latter, I do not mean the members of Parliament, but the unelected financial and industrial powers sitting behind all thrones. These pull strings, foment strife and engineer conflicts on the grand chessboards of geopolitics and the amassing of vast wealth.
Like the pirates of old, seeking to hide their ill-begotten gains in some treasure chests in the Caribbean and other hideaways, billionaires and their corporations have buried away their own treasure chests, often in the same part of the world, ironically, far from the prying eyes of mainland Europe, among others.
Another part of that irony is that while piracy, theft, tax evasion and fraud are still all illegal, the mechanisms for pirates to ‘legitimately’ bury their illicit treasure chests are not.
There has however been growing pressure mounting to close in on the receptacles of these hidden treasure chests. If new laws are passed across Europe to this effect, where would that leave Britain’s tax havens? I would say, somewhere between in the soup and up the creak. Or somewhere between Devil’s Island and the crystal blue sea of the Caribbean.
While piracy, theft, tax evasion and fraud are still all illegal, the mechanisms for pirates to ‘legitimately’ bury their illicit treasure chests are not
If there is one thing that we can be sure of, it is that the billionaires club has no intention whatsoever of seeing its vast trillions vanish into thin air, or of doing jail time. If I were a British or European billionaire pirate hiding my treasures in the British Overseas Territories, I would be most happy to see Britain leave the EU. It would be there across the channel, and in the Caribbean, safely out of the reach of the European tax regulators.
If I were a non-British EU national, it would create no problem for me from a movement point of view. If I were British, then I would just buy myself an EU passport. I would get to have my cake and eat it; something we are not totally unfamiliar with at this stage of the game. Furthermore there would be richer pickings for the owners of large corporations in Britain if that country subsequently relaxes its environment and labour laws.
Many people in the northern economically depressed areas of England voted out. Did many of them feel that they were missing out on the European dream and the cookies? I am pretty sure some of them did. But who is controlling the flow of cookies to northern England anyway? Is it Brussels or London?
The richer south on the other hand, around the London area, largely voted to stay in. I guess they were happy with their cookies, not exactly shared equally with their fellow countrymen up north. The Scots of course also voted out, unlike the Englishmen just south of the border. They seem to have benefitted more in Europe than the northern English.
But herein lies the irony. People who have it good tend to vote to retain the status quo. Those less comfortable tend to want to change it. Give them a chance to vote for change and they jump to the occasion, no matter how it is packaged.
An angler who has caught nothing for hours in one place tends to move to another spot, not really knowing if his luck would change. The angler who keeps reeling in prize-winning specimens tends to hold his ground. He glares at any other angler who dares come close. He would not want to relinquish or share his spot.
So where do the billionaires with their billions stand in all this debacle? Do they stand to gain or to lose with Brexit? They may ramble on about the economy, and what may be more beneficial. But ultimately, they think and act in accordance with what suits their pocket, privacy and reputation, like the general flow of the population.
Losing his tax havens would be a billionaire’s disaster.
So why on earth should he give a rodent’s behind about how Britain might fare out of Europe? As long as he would have his overseas territory hideaway to stash all his hidden treasure, and stay out of court away from prosecution, he is really alright, Jack!
Rodolfo Ragonesi is a lawyer and researcher in history and international affairs.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece