'Why did we allow so much obviously dirty money to enter Britain'
Liz Thompson, author
- Credit: PA
Two years ago this week, the world went into lockdown.
Who would have thought we’d now be staring into the abyss, watching scenes with which our parents and grandparents would be sadly all too familiar and facing the prospect that we could all be sucked in.
It’s hard to know which of the two scenarios – world lockdown or world war – is most shocking. If we’re burned to a crisp, all discussion as to how we try to build a better world is obviously redundant, but in this period of hideous suspended animation perhaps we can take time to take stock, figure out how we let it all go so badly wrong and consider a course of correction.
The intoxicating excitement of the Berlin Wall coming down, the words perestroika and glasnost tripping daily off our tongues, is long gone. Those who got very rich indeed from Boris Yeltsin’s wholesale privatisation of Russia went on a global shopping spree, buying houses and yachts, football clubs, newspapers, and access in ways previously unimaginable. Their spoils are all around us, as the Ham&High detailed last week.
What to do with these baubles now that their owners are sanctioned and making themselves scarce? Who’s going to buy Witanhurst, valued at £300m and believed to be London’s most expensive home? The market, with Russian oligarchs out of the frame, is much diminished. Same with their ugly yachts: supply will exceed demand!
It seems only fair that all those so tragically discommoded by Putin’s war be offered accommodation in such houses. Witanhurst alone has 65 rooms, so why not offer refugees a chance to make themselves at home, availing themselves of the swimming pools and tennis courts and whatever geegaws are on tap? Staff can continue to be paid, cooking and looking after the shell-shocked guests. It’s little different to the sequestering of houses, businesses, shares, bank accounts and personal belongings owned by the citizens of enemy nationality after World War One.
Yachts could be brought into various ports and utilised in a similar way – San Francisco, Portland, Stockholm, Belgrade are among the cities that have operated floating hostels. What’s not to like if you’re in flight from conflict?
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But why did we allow so much obviously dirty money to enter Britain in the first place? A reputation as the money-laundering capital of the world is hardly flattering. Take a walk down The Bishop’s Avenue between the A1 and Kenwood and poke a nose through the security gates: marvel at the vulgarity of the Russian - and Arab-owned palaces, empty but for armed guards. Between them, the tumble-down piles with trees growing through the roofs owned, of course, by property speculators.
I have absolutely no interest in football, but surely long-overdue questions must now be asked as to why genuine lovers of the so-called beautiful game have allowed their clubs to be acquired as adornments for despotic regimes. That some Chelsea supporters regard the sanctioning of Roman Abramovich as “harsh” shows that hard cash trumps morality, but wouldn’t football be better if the playing field were levelled and players generally paid less? It would surely make it more affordable for the fans. “Cheap” tickets for Manchester United v Leicester City on April 2 currently start at £88.50 – not exactly a family afternoon out for most people.
Money from oil and big pharma is no longer welcome in the arts, yet no one seems to object to Saudis owning Newcastle United and Sheffield United. True, Malaga and Paris Saint-Germain are also Arab-owned, but across Western Europe supporters generally have a vested interest in their clubs. Here we don’t care where the money comes from, just as we don’t care that Kuwait is the ultimate owner of a vast swathe of London’s Southbank or (until last week) that Dubai owns P&O. Meanwhile, as the west watches nervously to see whether China gives a helping hand to Russia, Britain angsts about its energy supplies – regretting, perhaps, that expensive Chinese contract for Hinkley Point.
Our government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Margaret Thatcher let the genie out of the bottle, but she would not approve of today’s irresponsible vulture capitalism. Nor was she personally corrupt. All this and the Russian-funded Brexit too – Maggie must be spinning in her grave. Will the Russian money finally prove the undoing of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party?
Liz Thompson is a local writer