Review by Steve Morrissey (moviesteve.com) (Site seems to be offline!)
"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.
In a previous film, 97% Owned, Oswald and co-writer Mike Horwath lifted the lid on the smoke and mirrors operation that is money – 97% of which is created by banks out of thin air every time they make a “loan” to somebody. If you’re wondering why property prices are so high…
In his Princes of the Yen, Oswald mainlined the work of economics professor Richard Werner in a wide-ranging film which, among other things, forcefully made the point that the most spectacular economic miracle in the post-War world came about not by the application of free-market principles, but by targeted lending by the Bank of Japan to specific industries in that country.
Both these films painted a picture of a topsy-turvy world where things were not as we are often told they are – in one, money is created by magic and isn’t something that has to be finessed by finance ministers dancing the austerity tango; in the other, the command economy appears to have had its successes too – Japan, a country with no natural resources, becoming the world’s second richest country using “socialist” principles.
The Spider’s Web adds to the picture, not by revealing that black really is white, but by showing that straight is actually rather crooked. Its thesis is that as the British Empire collapsed, the City of London, that square mile of financial mystery at the heart of the UK capital, transformed itself from being the financial auditor and organiser of a global system of colonial governance into the centre of Britain as a modern financial power.
Along the way we are reminded of the special relationship between the USA and the UK, one example of which was the run on the pound organised, it’s suggested, by the US when the UK refused to do its bidding in 1956’s Suez Crisis. Suez marked the point when the British Empire finally had to admit that the game was up – it was no longer a world power. On the upside, the Crisis gave a fillip to the emerging London Eurodollar market, a system outside the jurisdiction of the US Federal Reserve and at arm’s length from regulation by the Bank of England. This led, by accident and design, to London becoming second home to many US banks, the centre of a global network of trusts, and the spider controlling an archipelago of tax havens based in former outposts of the Empire.
If the Swiss use banking secrecy laws to hide money; the British use trusts to do the same work, says John Christensen, a former economic adviser to Jersey. By setting up a trust, an individual, company or even vast agglomeration of companies can claim that this shell company operating out of a PO box number in Bermuda, the Caymans or wherever, is the “owner” of their assets. And by being “foreign-owned”, the companies or individuals duck their tax obligations in their home company.
This has been of enormous use to rich people the world over. Headlines are periodically grabbed by various African dictators as they strip-mine their countries of wealth and ship it out to one tiny Caribbean island or another. But there are people closer to home. We see Prime Minster David Cameron – whose father ran just such a trust, the source of young David’s leg-up in life – making windy noises about “rooting out corruption” in the whole system of trusts run from London.
“Up to half of all hidden offshore wealth may be hidden” in the UK’s tax havens, says anti-corruption campaigner Eva Joly. These trusts operating out of former British colonies are nominally regulated already, by the Bank of England, who simultaneously claim that the territories are independent. It’s a Janus-facing system that works for the Bank, the territories and the wealthy individuals who benefit.
This is where the missing trillions of dollars are sitting that ought to be building roads and hospitals, in Africa most notably, but also to a large extent in the developed world.
Oswald has some erudite and passionate witnesses – the economist Michael Hudson, who claims that the entire British economy is supported by drug money, crime and illicit income. John Christensen, meanwhile, is a former Deloitte’s accountant, a director of the Tax Justice Network (www.taxjustice.net) who lectures on the iniquities of international finance – “They were all,” says the game-keeper turned poacher, talking of his time advising companies in the Channel Islands, “involved in some kind of tax dodging or something worse.” Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, brings the zeal of the crusading journalist to his contribution, refreshingly using words like “steal” rather than anything fancier and less precise. And there’s Member of the European Parliament Eva Joly, who wants a public register of the beneficial ownership of trusts, which would be a quick and efficient way of shining a light into some very dark corners. “Ordinary people are paying taxes; the rich are not,” she says. “This is leading to populism”. Which ties the film neatly into the “where we are now” of the bizarre global swing to the right.
Made for only £4,000, closely argued and consisting mainly of talking heads interspersed with stock archive footage, The Spider’s Web comes across a bit like an Adam Curtis film made without the armies of researchers and technical crew. If Oswald is a bit slow to get to the “why here? why now?” that should be every documentary’s leaping-off point, he does admirably map a vast terrain that could accommodate at least ten other films – on subjects as various as why big companies have such a cosy relationship with the taxman; the system of organised theft that is the Private Finance Initiative (or versions of it the world over); or the unregulated power of the global accounting behemoths such as Deloitte, KPMG and PwC.
If you live in the UK or the US – bastions of what is called the Anglo Saxon version of capitalism – you live in countries that have over the past few decades “financialised” their entire economies, the lack of investment elsewhere leading to a feedback loop of de-industrialisation. Michael Oswald’s film argues that there has been no inevitability to this process, it was a deliberate exercise to make the rich even richer while incidentally impoverishing the rest. And he manages to show how this global con-trick has been wrought without coming across as some cheerleader for the politics of envy. That’s quite a trick.
By Frederik Obermaier (Author and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist)
Want to know more about the menace of tax havens and the role of the City of London & Overseas Territories? Then this great film is a must!
By Richard Murphy (Professor of Practice in International Political Economy, University of London)
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.
By David Quentin (Tax Barrister - London)
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.
Review by Descant Deb (http://thebritishblacklist.co.uk)
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 thelost profits. It also restricted the power of white society’s ‘unwanted elements’ through incarceration.
Spider’s Web exposes similar practices up to a point. It is narrated by actor Andrew Piper and features contributions from leading experts, academics, former insiders (including one financial investigator who went undercover for 10 years!) and campaigners for social justice, to tell our story. Oswald uses stylized b-roll, archive and contemporaneous footage to illustrate their points as they discuss how the irretrievable decline of the British Empire (at its height one of the largest in history) led to an increasing loss of income for the City of London. The City, responsible for the UK’s financial services industry and representing its own interests, was incited to compensate itself by creating a whole new monetary system – the Eurodollar; a new market for a new investment system – the London Euromarket; and a safe, regulation-free zone in which to apply it – so-called ‘secrecy jurisdictions’, otherwise known as tax havens! These jurisdictions have grown over the years to represent trillions of dollars of which, on paper, Britain’s elites benefit from almost half!
(Not the best of reviews, but the comparison film had a budget of $1 million)
By Markus Meinzer (Author of Steueroase Deutschland)
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.
Article by True Publica
In July 2017 director Michael Oswald’s latest film, The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire was premiered at the Frontline Club in London. It has since had several screenings in London and public screenings can be organised from November onwards. This fascinating interview just published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten explores what inspired co-producers Michael Oswald and John Christensen to make a film documentary about London’s role as the world’s pre-eminent tax haven. Oswald and Christensen also talk about how London might develop once Brexit kicks in, exploring the possibility of deepening the City’s tax haven role through further tax cuts for the rich and more rolling back of financial market regulation and other social protections.
The key inspiration, according to Michael Oswald, was Nicholas Shaxson’s best-selling Treasure Islands, which explained the way in which the formal British Empire morphed into a spider’s web of tax havens gathering financial wealth from across the world and funnelling it through to the City. As Oswald explains, this helped to re-establish London as the financial capital of Capital:
"At the time of the British Empire, Britain structured its economy not around manufacturing and productive sectors, but around finance. City of London banks provided the financing for the Empire and the colonies would pay interest to the City."
Article on Progressive Pulse blog by Peter May
Last evening I had the opportunity to attend a preview of ‘The Spider’s Web’, a new film about the City of London. Made on a shoestring budget, it was nonetheless successful at showing how the City has accumulated most of its wealth, not principally by financing the Industrial Revolution* as many of us (me included) had imagined, but by financing the British Empire. When the empire disappeared the City transformed itself by creating other opportunities.
For the loss of the Empire they were gradually able to substitute a British financial empire by exploiting the reserve status of Sterling and its wide trading area, and ensuring that that Sterling trading was concentrated in The City. They then added US Dollar (so called Eurodollar) trading. When gradually the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories were all that was left of the Empire they capitalised on this by moving some activities offshore to those same remnants of the empire. These have now been come known as tax havens or, more correctly, secrecy jurisdictions.