Britain’s imperial history has come home to roost – we have sold off the country's prize assets in a frenzy of reverse colonisation
The life-sapping Brexit debate, about whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU, is tragically missing the point as to why Britain has lost its sovereignty. The answer is UK governments over decades have systematically privatised our assets as part of a policy to remove democratic control and cover up a gaping trade deficit by encouraging foreigners to buy up Britain.
The former mayor of London and Brexit champion, Boris Johnson, always welcomed the international "investors" in London property with open arms, even though the sales of luxury developments "off plan" to foreign millionaires was pricing his voters out of the city. Johnson represented a financial elite in the City of London that according to mafia writer Roberto Saviano makes Britain the most corrupt nation on earth.
When the world financial markets exploded in 2008, it was the specialist shadow banking units of RBS and other banks based in the City who worked up the collateralised debt instruments that blew up the world economy. Why? Because under Gordon Brown, London regulation was "light touch" – they might have been found out in New York.
Less than a decade later, the London property market is booming as never before. The Panama Papers – gosh, how quickly that shockwave threatening the world’s elites with exposure for financial skullduggery faded to nothing – showed how the global rich used offshore companies to hide their property wealth.
Bye bye empire - hello Gulf millions
London was once the capital of the world’s greatest empire. This world-spanning financial and colonial system shrunk after world war two, and Britain became a second rank power. But from the 1970s, the financial geniuses in the City found new ways to attract the wealth of our former client states, especially from the Gulf – inviting them to invest in London property. In the 1990s the Russians followed, then the Chinese.
The party of empire – the Conservatives – meanwhile undertook the greatest asset sale in history, gradually selling off the crown jewels of British industry, from British Steel to British Gas and rail to Royal Mail. In earlier times the merchant adventurers of the City had plundered the wealth of Asia and Africa, now they plundered Britain right under the noses of the public in order to line their pockets along the same buccaneering lines, except this time it was colonialism in reverse. One almost has to admire the chutzpah of it.
Under the neoliberal ideology of our age, money has no nationality, and the UK’s ruling elite, like no other in the world, no longer considers it a threat to national interests to sell off industry and land to strategic rivals. In this we stand in stark contrast to the countries we sell our assets to – in most Gulf Arab nations, and India, for example, it is extremely difficult for foreigners to buy property or to set up companies. Nations that have experienced colonialism are no doubt more precious about letting go of the things they split much blood to get back.
While we have for many years been warned of the need to compete in the global market, when it comes to assets – the things that traditionally define what a nation is – apparently the best thing to do is to hand them over to foreigners by whatever means necessary. The virtue of this from the point of view of government is to remove accountability for the economy from democratic authority. From now on, when industries go to the wall one can simply point to the global market and say, there was nothing we could do.
An Englishman’s home was traditionally his castle – nowadays rather than defend that castle, we offer the keys to it to the highest bidder. From the Shard, to Harrods to Canary Wharf, most of London’s flagship sites and buildings are owned by the Qatari royal family, eclipsing even the Queen.
A few miles away in leafy Oxfordshire, not too far from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Witney constituency, Prince Bandar, the former head of Saudi intelligence and long-time funder of holy wars from Afghanistan to Syria – or was that funder of terrorists? – owns a 2,500 acre country estate, conveniently close to RAF Brize Norton, where he has landing rights. Bandar is the man who helped facilitate the controversial £43bn Al-Yamama weapons deal between BAE and the Saudi government, about which Tony Blair, then prime minister, shut down a fraud investigation in 2006 after Bandar made some unsavoury threats.
In Bandar we have a wonderful illustration of the nexus to which Saviano alludes, in this case between the British military and political establishment, its Gulf allies, and the landed estates that comes to those who are handsomely paid off by British arms manufacturers. Bandar is simply one of many foreign billionaires who have been welcomed to join Britain’s ask-no-questions landowning club.
Partly as a result of this dodgy system of allowing non-residents to buy up tracts of London and the southeast, our capital boasts crazy property prices that appear to make millionaires of many residents, even while their children cannot leave home for the impossible cost of renting or buying. Business cries out because its key workers have been priced out of the city. Brexiters would have us believe this is due to immigration. But they fail to notice that it is rich foreigners, mostly from outside the EU, not poor Bulgarians or Syrian refugees, who are buying up our cities.
It is true that immigrants to the UK, learning something important of our culture, often buy property as soon as they have enough money to do so, as nest eggs for their families and as a way to secure their finances.
And on the other foot, the Brits have famously populated many French and Spanish villages and no doubt making life unaffordable for the locals who live there. The same thing has happened in Cornwall, Britain’s own version of the Mediterranean coast, where many locals are priced out of a home by Londoners.
In the end, it seems there is no end to this, as we have gone so far down the road of embracing global money and selling off our national wealth that instead of any groundswell of resistance, we instead set up chimeras like immigrants and Europe to rail against for destroying our sovereignty.
This is the supreme irony: the likes of UKIP's Eurosceptic leader, Nigel Farage, a City man through and through - no doubt quite at ease with every kind of speculative asset sale in which his ilk can get a cut - complaining about migrants and the EU destroying our way of life.
Can voting leave bring back what we've already sold off?
No - we are the masters of our own destiny, we elected governments that opened the door to the asset stripping of Britain, a country that offers low wages, high rents and student debt as the future to its children. We sold it all because as inventors of the modern colonial system, we know no better way to maintain our position in the global economy than to strip clean our own country in order to balance our impossibly large trade deficit. Foreign asset ownership in the UK now stands at a staggering £1.4 trillion, up £400bn in five years.
This debt-based bubble economy has infected the whole country. As I listen to another friend who has jumped onto the buy-to-let bandwagon that has spread like a cancer through the UK property market, it's clear people have long forgotten the social democratic principle that homes are for people to live in, rather than to make money from.
Perhaps Sadiq Khan, the recently elected mayor of London, and the opposition Labour Party can start to bring back that idea into mainstream politics, that is, if Britain’s property owning classes will let them.
- Joe Gill has lived and worked as a journalist in Oman, London, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Brand Republic, Morning Star and Caracas Daily Journal. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. @gill_joe
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.