How Britain’s upper class came to serve the global elite | Andy Beckett

Britain is gifted for wealth. Not necessarily to generate it or distribute it in such a way as to create a contented society, but to care for it, help it grow and make it respectable – convert it into social and cultural capital. For centuries, bankers, lawyers, accountants and other aides to wealthy Britain have quietly filled these roles.

In the past, their customers were mostly British: slave traders, self-taught industrialists, people who had made fortunes from our colonies. But in recent decades foreigners have become the main beneficiaries of Britain’s drive to serve the wealthy, however they make their money. This shift is so significant that Britain has become the “world’s butler”, according to a compelling new book by anti-corruption campaigner and journalist Oliver Bullough.

Other secret countries, like Switzerland, have been doing it for longer. Yet Britain offered the oligarchs an unusually wide range of opportunities, from the ability to own famous football clubs to money laundering to prestige ownership; private education for their children to a party in power which does not hesitate to know who finances it.

The Economic Crimes Bill, which is finally passing parliament after years of delay, could reduce this activity: by requiring foreign owners of land and property to be more clearly identified and by making it easier to investigate people with “unexplained wealth”. Sanctions against some Russian oligarchs after invading Ukraine bring parts of Londongrad to a screeching halt. But Bullough says these belated steps don’t go far enough. Meanwhile, the capital and more affluent suburbs of the original counties will continue to serve plutocrats elsewhere.

For a country that was a superpower less than a lifetime ago, being butler to the elites of other countries that have surpassed it seems like a loss of status. In 2007, social commentators Peter York and Olivia Stewart-Liberty described the growing number of businesses set up by posh English people to make life easier for the super-rich – like Quintessentially, co-founded by Ben Elliot, nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall and now co-chairman of the Conservative Party – as a “master-turned-servant” phenomenon. The same could be said of older British institutions such as the City of London, which funded the British Empire but now largely works for its successors.

How have our elites managed to adapt and rationalize this shift in roles? An obvious answer is that working for foreign tycoons can be very profitable. A more counter-intuitive explanation is that running an empire and arranging things for wealthy clients requires some of the same qualities: trust, good connections, and a belief in hierarchy as the natural state of the world. As global capitalism has created increasingly privileged winners, who better to understand their needs than the Brits who themselves grew up with staff?

One could also see in this aristocratic entrepreneurship a final victory for Thatcherism. Long after Britain’s working class and middle class, at least part of the upper class has become accustomed to selling out. They don’t have “the old inhibitions of being pushy,” York and Stewart-Liberty wrote. With new foreign money making life in London more expensive, the upper classes “can’t afford that old false modesty”.

Serving the international super-rich can also be a way of escaping Britain. In 1973, historian Jan Morris identified among British imperialists “a recurring desire to break up ‘these islands’ into livelier places, where fortunes can be made, outrageous enterprises undertaken and restrictive rules… ignored “. In a smaller but similar way, working for an oligarch can make you feel like part of a global adventure, close to real power – while leaving Britain’s problems for others to try and solve. solve them.

It was in the 1970s, the first decade after the final dismantling of the empire, that London began to welcome tycoons from the Middle East who wanted to spend, invest and hide their oil money. A new breed of British estate agents, specializing in ultra-expensive property, has emerged to cater to them. The growth and polarization of the Russian, Chinese, and Indian economies from the 1990s produced new waves of the new rich, seeking business and leisure in high-profile Western cities. London successfully marketed itself to them as a place of good taste and tradition – and lower taxes than New York or Paris.

Sometimes this process was considered part of the “Wimbledon effect”: the idea, named after the tennis tournament, that what matters to the British economy is not the nationality of the competitors, but the place where the competition takes place.

Could post-imperial Britain have chosen to provide different, less morally compromised services to the outside world? No doubt for much of the post-war period it did. From the 1960s to the 1990s, what Britain mainly sold to foreign visitors was the mass culture made possible by social democracy: innovations in pop music, street fashion and television, subsidized by stipends from more generous unemployment benefits, a more confident BBC and free university education.

This vibrant pop culture still exists, but it seems less central to British life and less influential globally. Today London in particular is known to the world’s wealthy as a place to eat at expensive restaurants, park your supercar outside Harrods and check out your barely used properties and hidden investments. It is an economic model that works, up to a point, except when geopolitical shocks disrupt it. But for those who cannot afford or do not provide his services, he offers little. If ever all the oligarchs leave, we will not be in mourning.

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