Michael Oswald, “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” (2017)
A very important and necessary documentary, in light of ongoing financial crises in many countries, supposedly necessitating austerity programs and privatisations of state-owned companies and corporations that have the effect of impoverishing the vast majority of people in those countries while leading to capital flight and the enrichment of elites, both local and foreign, “The Spider’s Web …” takes as its premise the notion that the British empire never really died; instead the empire transformed itself from a physical entity with a network of colonies covering the planet into an empire in the abstract: a financial empire whose network is flows of money and whose colonies are tax havens cum secrecy jurisdictions. At the heart of this second empire, as it was of the first, is the City of London, a political institution founded by the Romans and thus much older than the English people themselves, and which controls the British Parliament through having a seat there and the City Remembrancer who is the channel of communication between the City of London and the British government.
The documentary whisks viewers through a brief description of the City of London and how it controlled the British empire in the past and strove to recreate the empire through the financial industry. Particular attention is paid to the creation of secrecy jurisdictions in various offshore places like the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, the Channel Islands and other parts of the world. Other financial tools, strategies and institutions, such as trusts and the establishment of the London Eurodollar market, initially founded as quite innocent phenomena in themselves, eventually ended up being abused in the interest of evading tax and money-laundering. (Strangely the documentary does not mention the use of profit shifting among subsidiaries of a company in different taxation jurisdictions as a tax evasion ruse.) Oswald and the people he interviews – these include John Christensen, a former Deloittes’ accountant and current head of the Tax Justice Network, author Nicholas Shaxson who wrote “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who stole the World”, economist Michael Hudson and European Parliament member Eva Joly – demonstrate how this second British empire exercises its malignant influences: by enabling corrupt politicians and others to hide vast amounts of money representing stolen wealth in accounts with overseas banks, while the people they govern flounder in debt and poverty; and by shifting wealth away from the economy of making and distributing goods (and services directly associated with that economy) to the economy of money flows, divorced from the real economy. Thus as the financial economy in a country becomes important, the other economy where goods are manufactured and sold to end users ends up being drained of its wealth by the financial economy parasite.
The documentary diverts into other secondary issues such as the power and influence of the major global accounting firms (Deloittes, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG) in enabling the British Empire Mk II to run smoothly, the phenomenon of Private Finance Initiative whereby private firms are contracted by government to carry out state projects, and the peculiar insular culture of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which enforces conformity and secrecy on people working in banks in that tax haven and punishes whistle-blowers like Jersey councillor Stuart Syvret severely through constant lawsuits.
Made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (of 4,000 pounds sterling), the documentary by necessity has a minimal bare-bones style of presentation with voice-over narration and interviews doing all the work of providing facts and figures. For this reason, the documentary could work well as a radio or online sound broadcast. On the other hand, some animation that helps to illustrate the nature of such items as the PFI or trusts might have been helpful. Historical archive footage is used to good effect and is paralleled by the quaint and slightly risible parades and traditions that take place in the City of London. The documentary does tend to meander, at least until close to the end, and structuring it according to the topics discussed might have helped to keep it tighter and more coherent.
Even so, with its technical flaws, this film is concise, elegantly made and never boring; indeed, the story it has to tell is more riveting than any spy thriller Ian Fleming hammered out on his trusty typewriter while living in the Caribbean. It really deserves to be more widely seen and known: its argument that the British empire never actually went away but recreated itself through the global financial industry, ending up with a more extensive reach across the planet and greater riches than the physical empire ever did, is quietly and matter-of-factly persuasive.