This film tells the fascinating story about the murky world of offshore finance. The connections between its historical roots and today’s impact on the lives of all of us are laid bare in shocking clarity. This film is a must for everyone who tries to make sense of the modern economy and the rise of inequality – it is the best I have seen to date on that subject.
“A fascinating, informative film asking all the right questions”
Here in Brexit Britain we find ourselves in a peculiar situation. In spite of having done pretty well out of Europe, including our various rebates, opt-outs and special deals, fifth richest country in the world and all that, we have suddenly rebelled, storming out of the arrangement in a strop, angry about something that no one can quite articulate – it might be the straightness of bananas or democratic accountability, or something else entirely.
Meanwhile, the political left appear to have given up talking in a language that most people understand (mysterious references to “social issues” really don’t cut it) and the populace seems to see no contradiction in buying arguments about “freedom” and “control” from people who live here but are domiciled for tax purposes elsewhere (Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail), people who actually live in tax havens (the Barclay brothers of the Daily Telegraph), or in the USA (Rupert Murdoch of News International). And, most notably of all, from people based over here but whose allegiances are over the Atlantic (how UKIP’s Nigel Farage and his paymaster Arron Banks love being photographed with the new US president).
How we got here isn’t the subject of Michael Oswald’s latest film, but The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire does shed some light on the miasma of weird that has taken hold of the zeitgeist, when, after 40 years of a “free market” experiment that has seen living standards for many stagnate or fall, people seem to be voting for more not less of the same thing and are blaming “globalisation” for policies masterminded and put into effect by their own governments.
A brilliant film, skillfully deploying the documentary staples of archive footage and expert talking heads to tell its story, which by its nature risks being technical and fragmented, in an accessible and compelling way. The narrative is framed by reference to the evolution of the UK from an imperial to a financial one, but the issues are wider and more immediate: the systemic, structural opacity and corruption at the heart of a world purportedly governed in the interests of respectable business and in accordance with the rule of law.
Film maker Michael Oswald and TJN’s John Christensen have co-produced a new film about Britain’s tax haven empire. Titled The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire, the film, which is ready for release, draws heavily on Nick Shaxson’s ground-breaking book Treasure Islands, and uses historical footage to show how for over half a century, successive British governments have put tax havenry at the heart of Britain’s development strategy. In director Michael Oswald’s words:
“After reading “Treasure Islands,” I realized that there was an interesting, coherent and self-contained story that had not been told, the story of Britain’s transformation from a colonial power to a financial power, and the myriad and obscure financial structures created by City of London financial interests that lie at the heart of this transformation.”
For co-producer John Christensen, who has spent his entire career investigating tax havens around the world, London’s role as the epicentre of Britain’s tax haven empire makes it the most harmful offshore financial centre on the planet. As he explains in this extract from his statement on the film website:
“Along the way I spoke with hundreds of bankers, lawyers, accountants, officials from the senior Whitehall departments, at the OECD in Paris, and the IMF in Washington, seeing at first hand the downright criminality of the pinstripe infrastructure of professionals who operate from secrecy jurisdictions like Jersey.
I also discovered that secrecy jurisdictions had moved from being minor players on the economic periphery to becoming the beating core of financial capitalism, with London as its epicentre.”
‘The Spiders Web’ lays bare the corruption that led to the UK being at the heart of the world’s tax haven and dirty money network
In 2011 Bick Shaxson shattered the secrecy of the City of London with his book Treasure Islands. Now Michael Oswald has, in effect, turned the story into a film that achieves the same result.
‘The Spiders Web’ lays bare the corruption that led to the UK being at the heart of the world’s tax haven and dirty money network, and explains just how it stays there. Experienced tax justice campaigners, academics and politicians, backed on occasion by an unsupportive cast from the States of Jersey police (watch it and see) make it clear that the UK has become dependent upon corruption for its apparent well-being.
This film is shocking, persuasive, factual and shaming. Watch it and you won’t view bankers, lawyers, accountants or many in our political elite in the same way ever again.
Professor of Practice in International Political Economy, University of London.
The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire is Michael Oswald’s newest revelatory feature documentary – one which is as important to Britain as Ava Du Vernay’s 13th (2016) is to Americans. Both place national history into a disturbing modern context! It parallels Du Vernay’s deduction that in giving up overt slavery, American elites subverted the 13th Constitution of the United States to utilise the judicial system to funnel unpaid prison inmate labour into the business sector, thereby subsidising rising production costs and preserve the lost profits. It also restricted the power of white society’s ‘unwanted elements’ through incarceration.
(Link below includes the rest of the review and a Q&A, not a very positive review, but then the review is based on a comparison to a documentary with an estimated $1 million budget made by industry insiders…..)
The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire, is a documentary film that shows how Britain transformed from a colonial power into a global financial power. At the demise of empire, City of London financial interests created a web of offshore secrecy jurisdictions that captured wealth from across the globe and hid it behind obscure financial structures in a web of offshore islands. Today, up to half of global offshore wealth may be hidden in British offshore jurisdictions and Britain and its offshore jurisdictions are the largest global players in the world of international finance. How did this come about, and what impact does it have on the world today? This is what the Spider’s Web sets out to investigate.
With contributions from leading experts, academics, former insiders and campaigners for social justice, the use of stylized b-roll and archive footage, the Spider’s Web reveals how in the world of international finance, corruption and secrecy have prevailed over regulation and transparency, and the UK is right at the heart of this.
In 1956, with its Empire collapsing in the wake of the Suez crisis, Britain faced political and economic crisis. As Sterling came under intense pressure, the Bank of England took an extraordinary step; without fanfare or public scrutiny it allowed London-based banks to shift their international lending from pounds to dollars.
Importantly, the Bank chose to not regulate this new ‘offshore’ market since these transactions could be deemed to be happening ‘elsewhere’, even though in reality the trades occurred in British sovereign space. Quite where ‘elsewhere’ is was of no concern to the Bank; the important thing, from the point of view of London banks, was that no other regulatory authority – not even the U.S. Federal Reserve – had the power to regulate this new market, which became known as the Eurodollar market.
I was born in 1956 and grew up in the British Channel Island of Jersey. As a teenager I witnessed Jersey’s transformation into an offshore satellite of the City of London. In the 1960s, as the Eurodollar market exploded in scale, British banks (not to mention banks from Canada, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States), rushed to take part in this unregulated bonanza, and then established offshore subsidiaries and branches in Saint Helier where they could book their profitable trades without paying UK taxes.
Business boomed. And not only in Jersey. With support from British government departments, other British dependencies vied for a slice of the action. Bermuda chased the offshore reinsurance market. The British
Cayman Islands chased business from North America. Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, the Turks & Caicos islands, and others, also piled in to offshore financial services.
By the mid-1970s, as I left school, the Eurodollar market had grown so big that it was larger than the global stock of foreign exchange reserves. And with wealth pouring in from across the planet, London and its offshore satellites were booming. For the City bankers and their colleagues in Cayman and the Channel Islands it seemed you truly could have your cake and eat it.
But not everyone was convinced about the merits of this exercise in unregulated financial markets. In February 1978 I joined a working group of Oxfam policy wonks in London. They were discussing the roots of poverty in resource-rich countries African and Latin American countries, and had noticed huge unaccounted outflows of wealth from these continents, almost all of which appeared to head northwards to Europe and North America via offshore secrecy jurisdictions.
While we didn’t fully understand the mechanisms that enabled these outflows, we had no doubt that the scale of capital flight was so enormous that it was thwarting the development of entire nations. We also had no doubt that the City of London was a major player in this process of looting poorer countries of their wealth and in protecting Britain’s secrecy jurisdiction satellites from political attempts – at the United Nations, for example – to rectify the policy and regulatory flaws that enabled capital flight and tax dodging on such an immense scale.
In 1979, after finishing my professional training as a forensic investigator, I decided to make tax havens the focus of my research, first at university and subsequently as an offshore practitioner. That explains why, in 1985, I headed south from London on my motorcycle to Portsmouth and then on by ferry to Jersey, where I worked undercover as an insider for almost thirteen years.
This was the start of a journey into the dark heart of tax havenry, taking me from working for one of the global Big Four accounting firms to being appointed economic adviser to the government of Jersey. Along the way I spoke with hundreds of bankers, lawyers, accountants, officials from the senior Whitehall departments, at the OECD in Paris, and the IMF in Washington, seeing at first hand the downright criminality of the pinstripe infrastructure of professionals who operate from secrecy jurisdictions like Jersey.
I also discovered that secrecy jurisdictions had moved from being minor players on the economic periphery to becoming the beating core of financial capitalism, with London as its epicentre.
Nicholas Shaxson’s “Treasure Islands” had been on my reading list for many years, by the time I finally picked it up I did so not expecting that it would take me on a journey to a documentary. Tax Havens and financial secrecy are never out of the press these days, and so when I made contact with Nicholas Shaxson to see if he would be willing to take part in yet another documentary on the topic he replied he would but diplomatically added that, “the field is slowly becoming more crowded.” After reading “Treasure Islands,” I realized that there was an interesting, coherent and self-contained story that had not been told, the story of Britain’s transformation from a colonial power to a financial power, and the myriad and obscure financial structures created by City of London financial interests that lie at the heart of this transformation. Today, Britain and its dependencies are by far the largest global player in the world of financial secrecy and international finance. This documentary explores how Britain came to hold this position and what impact this has had on Britain and the world.
After 4 months of research and writing, the various parts of the story began to fall into place. It also became apparent that there was one person who had already figured out the story, that person was John Christensen, a former economic adviser to Jersey and the co-founder of the Tax Justice Network. John Christensen agreed to be a producer on this film and his expertise and experience have been invaluable in its production.
I’d also like to give special thanks to Sean Boucher who spent 4 months working with me and wrote the majority of the soundtrack, and Executive
Producer Simeon Roberts who will make sure the film reaches the widest possible audience. It would take too long to individually thank every person who contributed to the film, or the numerous translators who will be making the film available in their respective languages. This film received no funding, it is thanks to everyone who was willing to give their time and expertise that its creation was possible. We sent hundreds of emails to broadcasters and funding bodies, but not a single one deemed the film worthy of support. We disagree, we think this film is interesting and relevant in today’s world and we hope you think so too.
In the days of Empire, Britain transferred the mineral and commodity wealth of its imperial possessions back to Britain. Britain’s tax haven empire is a modern version of this wealth extraction. Britain is a complex country where corruption is hidden behind multiple layers and those ultimately responsible are difficult to identify. I hope this film will help shine a light on part of this obscurity and contribute to the creation of a world where financial rules and regulations are to the relative benefit of all players and apply to all participants equally regardless of their position or importance.