Eighteen months ago filmmaker Mark Donne got in touch with me about a film he was making about Britain in the Jubilee year. He said he was “taking the temperature of the nation” and he wanted to accompany me on my journey, as the Vicar of a parish in one of the host boroughs for the London Olympics. He may also have mentioned at the time some stuff about tax. I can’t remember.
Actually the temperatures I had my eye on, when I agreed, were those on those Caribbean Islands and bits of Africa where many of my parishioners come from. And privately I was hoping that this “journey” would be a bit more glamorous than the 149 bus trip from my church door in Hackney to that patch of ground outside the Bank of England, a couple of miles up the road. In the end it was more stay-cation than vacation. It was a travelogue in one place.
The UK Gold is premiering today (25 June) at the Troxy as an opening event for the East End Film Festival with a score written by Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Robert del Naja (Massive Attack). The purpose of the film is to bring home the global story of tax avoidance. And it does this by paying close attention to the place which invented the system, which sustains it and benefits from it and would like to keep it all going, thank you very much: the City of London.
I may know less about the financial services industry than I do about experimental rock music, but when I go and stand on the top of my church roof and look out across the housing estates of Hackney to the towers of the City I still find myself asking, “What do you lot over there do for us lot over here?”
A version of this question also gets asked inside the City itself. I met some money people last year who are similarly concerned that aspects of the financial services lacked transparency, accountability and a consumer-focussed ethos. In fact a few of us got together and, in December, we launched the City Reform Group. Speaking at this launch were representatives from the Consumers’ Association as well as the Institute of Directors. You don’t have to go camping on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral to have noticed that something has gone seriously wrong with our financial system.
But oddly, when it comes to speaking up in public, with very few exceptions, City insiders may as well have taken the omertá. And it turns out that tax avoidance is the issue in the City where lips are most tightly sealed. Generally, of course, the City is in favour of it. Why wouldn’t it be? They will tell you that the cash the tax havens bring into the City’s economy is good for London and good for the country and that, were the havens no longer available as holding bays for capital in transit, businesses would simply exit London. Something like that. But getting an “industry expert” to make this case for The UK Gold was about as hard as getting an old-school C of E vicar to talk about God.
Why don’t they say anything? Well, mainly because they don’t need to. The City Corporation, which itself refused an invitation to be interviewed for the film, is a body elected by City firms to promote their interests globally. It has its own permanent office in Parliament, that of the Remembrancer, with a seat beside the Speaker and free range of access across both Houses. It has offices in Brussels, Mumbai, Beijing. And it has what it claims is a “private fund”, with an estimated capital value of £1.3 billion, to do with as it wishes, including funding the City UK, a lobbyist for low tax financial centres across the world. There is no secret conspiracy here; it’s a network of interests hiding in plain sight.
A consequence of these backroom conversations is that what is said in public is often not what is agreed in private. As the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom champions the “deal” he has struck with the Crown Dependencies over the exchange of information, the Prime Minister of Cayman says the new Multilateral Convention won’t actually require Cayman to do anything substantively different. Is this really the step forward that Cameron claims it is? The economics of taxation may be quite complicated, but the ethics of saying one thing and doing another is not. It’s just as well that the campaign coalition IF is on the case.
Last week the Chancellor was invited to Mansion House in the City of London to give an account of his plans for the ensuing year. We sometimes refer to the guests at these banquets as the “great and the good”. In fact, they are not necessarily either. What they are is quite rich and they have the power to hold in place a consensus that keeps the requirements of the financial services at the heart of our political life. I know this because I was a councillor in the City for several years and I watched these wheels turning.
At our own weekly banquet back in the parish I look around at my congregation, gathered here from all corners of the globe. Some claim benefits of one sort or another, others are pensioners, a few have professional trainings, quite a number do office cleaning jobs, one or two in the City itself. What we all have in common, however, is that we recognise our belonging to one another. Our church motto - “citizens with the saints” - comes from a passage of scripture in which Paul is kicking the Ephesians up the backside for not surrendering to the demands of mutual responsibility: “thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to leave something to share with the needy.”
In this corner of Hackney we recognise that we have a responsibility to our neighbours. But do the Citizens of the City of London? I’m not so sure.