Several fascinating discussions at the Lviv Book Forum organised by the Hay Festival. Serious debate about the role of oligarchs in British cultural and political life
If you missed the debates at the Lviv Book Forum you missed some of the best debates this year especially its focus on the role of Russian oligarchs and their dirty money in influencing British cultural and political life. Debates of this nature seldom make it into the open air in Britain, one reason being – as was explained – because of the effective lack of free speech in the UK arising from the punitive nature of our libel laws. Oligarchs and other wealthy individuals can launch what are termed SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) which effectively silence critics and frighten publishers and journalists. Costing millions to defend they exert a chilling effect in the UK and make Britain the libel capital of the world.
Why do Russians come to Britain and establish themselves here? This was a major part of the discussion because they are to be found in other parts of the world. There were a number of factors which made Britain particularly attractive it was explained. Firstly, English which was spoken internationally. Secondly, it was the no questions asked culture here: no one asked where the money came from and the agencies which were supposed to check on this kind of thing, looked the other way. Our private schools were another attraction as was easy access to and entry into, the political elite. Members of the Lords for example, were happy to sit on various boards of companies set up by the oligarchs. This easy access to the elite meant all sorts of powerful people were happy to attend parties where political influence took place. Fourthly, Oliver Bullough also spoke of the wide range of services offered in London for example, legal, financial and public relations. The ‘easy come, easy go’ culture combined to make London the key magnet for dirty money and illegal wealth.
One of the participants, Catherine Belton, spoke of the ease with which assets were acquired for example football clubs such as Chelsea. This provided further cultural power and how sports journalists were only too happy to criticise her work in return of favours and interviews with key players.
Misha Glenny explained the origins of the whole process which (as ever) started during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership although he said it carried on under Major, Blair and Brown and is well and truly alive today. Mrs Thatcher’s central plank was to reduce subsidies for the arts and encourage private patronage. This opened to door for wealthy individuals to put money into galleries, museums and orchestras and other cultural institutions. It also gave them influence over the sort of things which are put on.
But more importantly, it gave them a philanthropic reputation which brings us back to the libel issue because, to pursue a libel claim, you had to establish a reputation to defend here. Their philanthropy did this even though the sums involved were peanuts in terms of the wealth extracted from Russia.
The Independent (?) online newspaper, owned by an oligarch was give as an example with a piece it published regretting the non-invitation to Vladimir Putin to the Queen’s funeral.
In the following day’s session, Phillippe Sands spoke of the huge sums given to the Conservative party. He also spoke of the somewhat different opinion in the UK of Boris Johnson to that which he enjoys in Ukraine. The view in the UK was more ambiguous and even sinister. The point being that when Russia first started on its activities in that country, there were many in the UK who were able to downplay its importance and many happy to claim that ‘Ukraine was always part of Russia’.
The combination of these forces, the highly successful political and cultural influence the oligarchs had acquired, the ‘no questions asked’ financial milieu and the ease with which money could be siphoned off to network of tax havens centred on London, combined with massively expensive and oppressive libel laws, meant the UK’s political process has been compromised.
The implication for human rights is clear. Wealth and influence buys silence and complicity.
Matters changed with the invasion in February. Oligarch’s assets were frozen and the plight of Ukrainians could no longer be brushed away. Film of Russia’s activities, the massive number of human rights abuses and evidence of torture together with bombing civilian targets, became obvious to all. Suddenly, things Ukrainian were everywhere, with a concert at the Albert Hall for example and Ukrainian food being more visible. However, the speakers were not convinced this would be permanent. The scale of their financial power and the likelihood of compassion fatigue would probably mean over time, their steady return and influence.
If you missed it then you can access it via this link. Books referred to:
Moneyland, Oliver Bullough,
McMafia, Misha Glenny
Putin’s People, Catherine Belton