Cutting through the Fog – Corporate Secrets and Beneficial Ownership

David Cameron promised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit that companies registered in the UK would be obliged to reveal their ultimate ownership and that the public would have access to those records.

This was a major statement of intent: evidence that the UK was not going to condone the opacity of companies or owners that could possibly be engaged in criminal dealings or those who are perfectly innocent but choose to inhabit the same smog-bound territory of corporate secrecy.

Why the secrets?

More accountability is a hard-won struggle in an era where our secrets are open to secret services like the NSA and where government secrecy is hard to lessen, Through all this opening up, companies (and Trusts) operating on an international level have reatained an unwelcome ability to shield themselves from public view. At a time of real debate about privacy (Snowden, The Guardian, the NSA, Angela Merkel’s mobile), companies that seek privacy have remained relatively immune.

Companies are treated as individuals under the laws of most countries yet have the ability to hide their ownership and deal with their taxation (if operating multi-nationally) wherever they choose. This means, of course, that they usually choose what is right for them not for the wider society in which they operate. That is their remit. The recent shake-down of Starbucks, Google and others over taxation – which, to date, has yielded not much more than the voluntary promise of payment of a few tens of millions by Starbucks – was a tip of the iceberg moment. With corporate taxation in the UK heading downwards, the current government coalition seems determined to accept the Institute of Directors’ call for companies not to be taxed on their profits at all!

However, one thing about tax is that we can all see how much a large corporate pays in the UK (about a year after the event when it publishes its accounts). What we don’t see easily is where a company has overseas affiliates with which it “trades” – such as paying royalties for the use of its name – in secret jurisdictions where tax is often negligible.

This nonsense of transfer payments and royalties (which HMRC showed last week to the Public Account Committee it has no real understanding over) shifts massive amount offshore and out of the country where real business was done to tax havens.

The fear often cited that proper taxation would force companies out of the UK is nonsense. They do real and profitable business here – the UK is the world’s seventh biggest economy (or thereabouts). Why on earth does anyone believe that they would move away from doing business here? Can anyone imagine that Apple would close its Covent Garden store if they had to pay real tax in the UK rather than shift profits to where the name “Apple” is deemed by a tax expert to reside? Being afforded the space to sell its (excellent) products in the UK, to use our roads, lights, take on people educated here and all the other benefits of selling in the UK (which includes the iconic area of Covent Garden in London) are well worth the entrance fee of corporate taxation.

Offshoring the owners

However, David Cameron’s speech was not specifically about offshoring taxation – it concerned beneficial ownership issues and these are, of course, linked to taxation in a major way but it is much more than that.

The fog of hidden beneficial ownership means that companies are set up which can channel profits or simply flows of revenue to places where tax does not apply and where no-one knows the beneficiary. This is a typical and easy-to-organise ruse of the criminal world. For many years, criminal networks have laundered their revenues offshore – it used to be through the transportation of suitcases full of notes; these days, it is a little easier. This not just saves tax – it transforms illegal earnings into clean money that can then be brought back again into the real economies via the normal banking system.

With the improved ease of transmission of money across the world, it just takes complicit banks to enable the movement (along with some accountants and lawyers to get things under way) and, hey presto, money surfaces wherever it is wanted without anyone knowing.

Just watch the antics of Breaking Bad attorney Saul Goodman – now getting his own series. The essence of monetary manipulation is built around secrecy and contacts. Governments cannot easily stop the development of the latter, but they can do much to stop the former – making beneficial ownership transparent.

Lining Up for Secrecy – the Fog of War

To the vast majority of us, this is obvious, but to many it is a declaration of war. Many secrecy-led jurisdictions are concerned about their future. It is not just Cyprus where the dominance of “financial services” is far too big for the country – Cyprus became completely over-dependent on banking, Russia and lack of due diligence. According to the Tax Justice Network there are 73 secrecy jurisdictions around the world that they analyse.

Of these, a staggering 35 have some substantive connection with the UK. One of those is Jersey and Jersey Finance’s CEO, Geoff Cook, voiced his concern on Friday when he heard David Cameron’s pitch. In his blog he refers to the public register:

It is not yet clear what will be on such a register but unless this is adopted by the G20, I would confidently predict that  Mr Cameron is likely to have lots of friends in the AID world and insufficient food on the table at home.
Protecting business interests, trade secrets, safeguarding personnel from fringe, sometimes violent campaigning groups, from corrupt political elites and from criminals are all real and weighty concerns.  It is telling that the NGO community are happy to  subject those who have worked hard and done the right thing to a much greater degree of scrutiny than almost any other constituency in society.
There is little difference from opening up the private company arrangements of business owners to the public glare of NGOs, journalists, cyber criminals and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the worldwide web, than for ordinary bank accounts. If the logic holds good do we not need to know the balance publicly of all personal bank accounts so that all can be sure we came by our cash by legitimate means?
We have nothing to hide in Jersey and we have been active supporters of government to government information exchange. However, the voyeuristic tendencies of politically correct elites should not be indulged and indeed will not be by the vast majority of countries, leaving the UK out on an uncompetitive, uncomfortable and potentially impoverished limb.

It is extraordinary that arguments for secrecy over beneficial ownership are now wrapped up in screams about safety from “violent” campaigning groups and cyber criminals. These are the words of fear – fear for a future that may have been predicated on the Cyprus model and lack of such due diligence.

Secrecy over beneficial ownership allows vast amounts of money to be electronically channeled out of not just the UK developing nations. That cannot afford the losses. Huge amounts of wealth properly owned by citizens of countries such as Guinea, DRC, Angola and others are secretly moved and laundered – often with the help of banks (who are now in the firing line of authorities especially in the USA). As TJN itself states:

Secrecy jurisdictions facilitate illicit financial flows.

Illicit financial flows stem from three major sources: bribery (corruption in its narrow sense), criminal activity and cross-border tax evasion. In doing so, secrecy jurisdictions and the secrecy providers operating through them play not only a major role in preventing the poorest countries from developing out of a state of dependency and poverty, but they help creating a criminogenic environment in which all sorts of crimes can thrive and feast on the fruits of breaking the law.

The crimes that are facilitated and whose financial reward is secured by financial opacity and the resulting secrecy comprise, but are not limited to: tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance, money laundering, terrorist financing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal arms trading, non-payment of alimonies, counterfeiting, insider dealing, embezzlement, fleeing of bankruptcy orders, illicit intelligence operations, insider dealing, all sorts of fraud, and many more.

Clearing the Fog

David Cameron has made a real commitment but there are real obstacles to further progress.

The first is implementation.

Those involved in celebrating the introduction of the Bribery Act in 2011 are rightly concerned that its implementation is suspect. As Jack Straw, then Minister of Justice, said in the original White Paper, there was unlikely to be many cases brought before judges as a result of the Act. This has been borne out in practice along with insufficient funding of investigations, low numbers of court actions and Bribery Act guidance that was aimed at stifling the Act’s powers. Proper and funded implementation of real transparency and public availability of that information is now key to ending secret beneficial ownership for UK-registered companies.

The second issue is around Trusts. These are not covered by the PM’s statement or commitment yet Trusts are a key secrecy weapon for criminal activity across the globe.

The third issue is that the commitment only applies to the UK. This will serve some purpose in helping to clear money laundering from this country but the UK should now use its leadership wherever it has influence. This is direct in the 35 secrecy jurisdictions mentioned above but also in other forums where the UK has any influence – such as the G20, EU, FATF (Financial Action Task Force).

The fog remains but the UK is beginning to spy a way through – taking a lead on an issue on which millions of lives depend outside the UK. It is not the problems of those in Jersey’s Finance Ministry we should most be concerned with but the problems of those in countries where massive corruption by those in power is facilitated by banks and secrecy jurisdictions – resulting in billions leaving the countries (far higher than Aid going in) and that means millions having to survive on a $ a day with no medical facilities let alone schools or economic opportunities.

Time to see above the fog.

The G8 at Enniskillen – No Hospitality to Tax Dodgers

Spendthrifts and tax dodgers

Six years on from the bank-induced recession, governments in the G8 are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to consider problems that they have failed to solve since the invention of taxation. While not as old as Enniskillen’s oldest building, built by Hugh “the hospitable” Maguire (who died in 1428), it is high time serious politicians acted.

Large sovereign deficits (spendthrifts pre-2007 and financial system saviours post-2007) and the inability of Finance Ministers to take more tax from their citizens has caused some nations to focus their attention after hundreds of years on the anomalies of the corporate tax system. This system enables companies (tax dodgers) to shift their tax burden offshore – away from where they make their money – through transfer prices, royalties and the like to places where the tax burden shrinks to almost nothing.

Margaret Hodge (the chair of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) has pursued a fierce campaign against large companies that have, in her view, not paid their due corporate taxes in the UK.

The HMRC (the UK’s tax collectors) have, for many years, decided to be “pragmatic” and reach deals with those same companies on the basis that tax law is insufficient to compel the larger companies to pay reasonable rates of taxation – and the companies have more and better (and better paid) tax lawyers and accountants than the HMRC could dream of.

The PAC has not accused companies of illegality but has stated often that they should pay tax where they earn profits and has cast doubt on the companies’ honesty and morality. Google claims its sales take place in low tax / tax haven Ireland despite the reality of closing the deals in England – as the PAC has claimed and has brought forth witnesses who have testified to this.

What the debate between public and private sectors have shown is clear (to most of us). It is that corporate taxation is very hard to collect currently and that companies believe they are duty bound to reduce their tax to the minimum possible. For there is no social heart in a company – it is not really a person (even if it is granted that status in law), it has to meet the demands of the legal system and its shareholders (while ensuring its customers are satisfied on the way).

Tax-dodging Companies Have No Afterlife

There is a misinterpretation that great companies can find a soul but we should understand that, while they are all made up of real people, companies (especially large ones) take on a life of their own and are propelled by the dynamics of corporatism. A company knows that it has but one existence – there are no stories of “good” companies going to heaven.

Companies that pursue good CSR (corporate social responsibility) do often have good people working for them but the CSR is there because civil society (which includes a lot of customers – real people) demands it. Sustainability is best developed with a good understanding of the society around the company. This means understanding social responsibility where it is seen to be legally needed or where it will benefit the company in the medium term.

This rarely stretches to paying more tax than is needed. For every Starbucks (frightened by bad publicity to throw money in the direction of HMRC) there are 1,000 Googles and Amazons and Apples. Tax is not for sale and paying tax not required by law does not gain a company angel’s wings.

The Spendthrifts’ dilemma

However, since 2007, there have arisen massive deficits in many sovereign nations’ coffers. Suddenly, there is a need to fill those cavernous holes and the substantial drift in the share of income from individual wage earners to high net worth individuals and companies (companies don’t have a vote – outside of the city of London and there are not that many rich people – even if they control most of the wealth) means that the attention of government has shifted in times of recession.

Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, said recently that taxing the “man on the street” wasn’t economically desirable or even politically possible, so for many finance ministers the only option was “to cut, cut, cut more, rather than have a proper balance between revenue and the expense”.

He said this while overseeing the signing by more countries of automatic exchange of tax information – Austria, Switzerland and Singapore coming to the table.

However, other than austerity, which is now causing huge unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain, the only target is corporate. This may be a turning point after hundreds of years – a Clause 4 moment – or it may be just rhetoric.

Spendthrifts chasing tax-dodgers – Tax Havens and Beneficial Ownership

Linking this to the G8 and David Cameron is obvious. Companies are able to avoid tax if they can somehow show that their profits are made outside of the higher tax areas. This can only be done if there are places with very low taxation that will accommodate them – these are the tax havens. Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book “Treasure Islands” tells the story of these tax havens extremely well and also the appalling impact that they have on the poorest countries of the world.

Developing nations are rife with corruption and the corrupt are big users of tax havens – really, they are laundering their money.  Today’s Sunday Times article on the use of Latvians as front Directors for companies operating scams tells this story.

This is possible because of the secrecy that exists in most jurisdictions. If there was transparency and the only issue was lower taxation, then we would have a real competitive environment. Unfortunately, that is not the situation – although it is changing quietly with projects like the one above. If transparency becomes the norm, then the corrupt and criminal (whether they are terrorists or drug barons) will have far fewer places to go. There is no better place to learn about beneficial ownership than at Global Witness – which has driven this issue from the start – see their “Idiot’s Guide to Money Laundering.” It’s so easy anyone can do it – trouble is, most are!

This is why transparency is so critical and why politicians are attempting to use transparency to open up tax havens – at last – and the end to ownership secrecy.

Once there is transparency, then the next step is to determine where profits are legitimately made. This means that the policing of royalties and transfer pricing cannot be at the whim of large corporates but there has to be international agreements that specify what is allowable. International tax laws should not predetermine rates of tax, but double taxation should not equate to zero taxation – it has to mean that tax is payable in the countries where the business is done.

The final requirement is to ensure that beneficial owners of companies are known by the taxation authorities. Why companies and trusts are allowed to be secret is beyond the comprehension of almost all of us. As Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK) has written, over 500,000 companies in the UK are struck off each year. Around a third never file accounts.  He estimates that the tax lost as a result could be upwards of £16bn per year from companies that trade but do not file accounts or tax returns.

That is in the UK alone.

Can’t Spend, can’t stop spending

Can’t tax, can’t stop taxing

 

The dilemma of western Governments that find austerity too much, too soon and who (outside of those in serious trouble like Greece, Cyprus and Spain) are unwilling to torment their citizens with mass unemployment and soup kitchens is great. This means that the deficiencies that have been all too apparent in corporate taxation for so long are seen as the final option. The 2007 banking-induced calamity has made such huge financial contortions in countries such as the UK and the USA that even the precious not-to-be-disturbed tax havens and secrecy laws are under pressure.

The G8, chaired by the UK and in Northern Ireland (rather than one of the many UK protectorates that operate as tax havens), does provide an opportunity to generate support for the ending of the nonsense that the current corporate tax system provides. Gleneagles (eight years ago) was all about international development and led to significant and positive change (even if not all the promises have been fulfilled). The same pressure and openness about tax havens and secrecy in international finance could lead to more sensible and pragmatic tax systems and, eventually (if pursued vigorously) to far less exporting of illicit funds from developing nations (such funds leave developing countries at a faster rate than aid money is put in). At least $50bn a year is lost to developing nations in Africa alone every year.

This is a great time for Enniskillen – ancient home of Hugh the Hospitable – to be remembered for its lack of hospitality to tax dodgers.

 

The Business of Sport

                                                                       

The Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Many of us have a love affair with sport – many play it directly and millions watch sport and maybe actively or passively support a team. Sport underpins many of our lives – it makes us fit and provides excitement, motivations, inspiration, team-building and social cohesion.

As the 20th Century went on, professional sport was progressively distanced from the amateur and the fan by its takeover by business interests – initially, the local businessman but later, by international business.

This provides a distancing of ownership from the mass of people that generate the income in an industry that is unlike so many others: where the customers are so involved, often so passionate, often players.

This means that sports authorities (and especially businesses that own the major teams) have a responsibility that is different to other businesses or business organisations. They have a duty of care to their customers around the “game” and how it is played. This opens up the issue of how individuals (or groups of individuals) who are customers can be “played” because of their commitment and what can be done to protect them. There may be lessons for all industries from the examples available.

Business Governance and Sport

Governance in sport impacts many beyond the teams themselves. That is why Deloittes show their involvement in all the following areas :

  • licensing systems for sporting competitions;
  • cost control mechanisms;
  • transparency measures and anti-money laundering;
  • events and/or membership application and selection processes;
  • sporting calendar matters (national and international);
  • regulations in respect of players’ agents;
  • measures to protect the integrity of the competition;
  • independence of clubs – ownership rules and other means of influence;
  • player transfer rules; and
  • ‘football creditors’ rules.

Governance is much wider than this in regard to sport and its impact in  and on society can be shown by three articles in The Independent (Saturday, 18th May) that highlight the difficult interconnections between business and sport (here, England football teams) and the intertwining connection between sport and the community.

·      The first by Chris McGrath attempts to show the worst side (Manchester City’s owners sacking of Roberto Mancini) and the best side (the Portland Timbers superb response to a charity – Make a Wish – for help for an eight-year-old cancer victim).

·      The second (in the business section – Jim Armitage) reflects on the Arsenal blog that shows the support of Doan Nguyen Duc (a wealthy timber merchant from Viet Nam) for Arsenal and questions whether they should take the support (financial and otherwise) from someone that Global Witness (an anti-corruption NGO) says was responsible for much of Viet Nam’s destruction of its forests and the displacement of many people that lived there. He is said to have made the comment: “I think natural resources are limited, and I need to take them before they’re gone”.

·      The third (also in the business section by Simon Read) reports on how Sheffield Wednesday turned down a deal with a “payday lender” which it refuses to name but was said to have offered 25% more than anyone else.

The three articles (I assume “coincidentally” in the same newspaper on the same day) highlight the mistrust of journalists for the businesses behind the clubs but also for the type of ethical questions that the clubs have to consider at this time.  “This time” means at a time when business and the community is undergoing strains and, in football, when the position of a team as part of the community it serves is strained to the full. In the USA, big teams moves State; in the UK, only smaller teams like Wimbledon (now Milton Keynes based) have tried it as fan bases are crucial to the business (even if more revenue than ever is via TV and international support).

Whose business is sport?

It is a long time since amateur sport ruled anywhere (the top tennis players rarely joined the professional circuit until well into the 1960’s; athletics was similar and rugby became professional in the UK in the late 1990’s). In the UK, football was severely structured with maximum wages well into the 1960’s as well and even if clubs were limited liability companies, they were owned by local families who kept them private.

In those days of amateurism, sport was for the community. Players were not paid much (outside the USA) and players were close to those they played in front of, living in the same streets and drinking in the same pubs and clubs.

In the USA, football, basketball and baseball (and ice hockey and the rest) became business pursuits earlier. Europe and the rest of the world (and most sports) have followed. It is now the normal way of life that business had taken over professional sport to the financial benefit of players and (mainly through TV) the income for sport worldwide is now massive.

Whether the Olympics, football (through FIFA and its major tournaments such as the Champions League and World Cup), the Superbowl, 20:20 cricket in India and so many more, sport now generates massive income through its massive fan base and the ability of TV to generate that income. So, there has been a rapid shift by large businesses and entrepreneurs to own sports team and have influence over the organisations that manage sports – such as Formula 1 or baseball or football (of all types).

This income has been generated through the opportunity that sports presents over almost anything else – to transmit excitement visually and aurally through radio, TV and the internet to a mass audience that is entranced by the game played – with an excitement and passion rarely found elsewhere. This mass appeal is now available and reach-able worldwide and with that appeal comes massive advertising revenue (and, with the internet) growth is coming faster.

So, sport (something we all get involved in to some extent) has both appeal as participants and observers (although to a greater extent than anything else, the two are mixed with sport). This appeal is then converted into income for companies that are able to transmit sport into the home – via pay per view, rents and advertising.

Sky in the UK has become a dominant operator (although BT are now incurring on their territory).

Owners of sports teams (especially in football in Europe and all the major sports in the USA) benefit wherever they operate.

The Duty of Sport

Because sport is not just another product and because the “customer” is so involved, there is a chance that sport offers something different. The players are celebrities and, in modern culture, people that youngsters look up to (rightly or wrongly). More people know David Beckham than any politician or scientist – it is a (maybe unfortunate) fact.

This means that businesses involved in sport (and that means the sports clubs and managing organisations themselves) have opportunities to involve themselves with society that is not there for other businesses. Not only that, but they have a duty because of the nature of their business and for their own protection.

This duty can be said to be to serve the community that provides them with the income they derive. This is not about BSkyB or BT doing some CSR. They are the middlemen in all this – the means of transmission. No, this means the sports entities themselves working out how much their “community” means to them and how much they should give back to that community. It can be done.

A good example is Arsenal Football Club that has set up the Arsenal Foundation and, in turn, developed real partnerships with Save the Children (its international charity) and Willow Foundation (a national charity). I have an interest here in that I am Chief Executive of Willow Foundation – which provides special days for seriously ill young adults.

Arsenal is an international business these days but has worked out that it also has local roots and its Foundation works in the local community and with Willow on a national scale. With Save the Children, it operates internationally. At its recent Annual Ball, Arsenal Foundation raised over £300,000. That maybe small compared to the Football Club’s annual revenue of £226 million in 2011, but it is a start. Moreover, the time and effort of the club and those within it (like Arsene Wenger – an Ambassador of the Foundation) are worth a lot.

However, the balance sheet is patchy on sport’s involvement with their support base and through them with the community. There is no real driving force that connects through the massive distance that exists between them. While the same distance exists between many businesses and their customers (banking is a very real example, but the same can be said of energy companies and so many others), there is a very real difference in sport that is both for bad and for good.

The Sporting Difference  – and Opportunity

The business sector has been buffeted by recession and, in such a recession, business leaders and their companies are vulnerable to attack from other sections of society. So, the tax avoiders like Apple, Google, Starbucks and others (all under attack by newly-zealous politicians in the UK and the USA along with the tax havens that they employ) are not just seeing their potential tax bills increase. Their relationship with customers is also under attack that can lead to reduced sales. This may not be the case for Google (now so big and dominant that it may no longer care) but others may well feel the pain.

In the sporting arena, it is easy to see a large array of problems: FIFA and football corruption, allegations on racism across the world, NFL alleged behind-the-scenes collusion on player wages (the NFL is a not-for-profit – which may surprise) and the general disbelief that ordinary fans have with the salaries that players “earn”.

Football in the UK is an example of the changes that have taken place in the last forty years where salaries of £100,000 per week are not unusual (Gareth Bale is negotiating £200,000 a week at Tottenham) and the difference between that and the average wage in the UK of around £25,000 per year is stark.

Taking all this together, sport (as epitomized by the 2012 Olympic Games in London) can be magnificent but clubs and sports organisations have to take notice of the communities upon which they rely. The piecemeal CSR and charitable work should be as competitive as their sport rather than resisted or an afterthought – or done just for publicity.

Sport is a collective experience – whether in teams or the association between individual sports stars and their fans. This provides an opportunity to seal the gap between the stars and the fans that small groups of supporters on their own can never fill.

The link between the stars / clubs / associations (the elite) and the fans / amateur groups has always been a struggle. It is for each club to decide how it deals with the community upon which it depends. Some ensure the players get into the community – at Tottenham Hotspur in London, Ledley King and Jermaine Defoe are well-known for the time they spend with young, inner-City kids and clubs. Other set up Foundations and / or develop relationships with charities (usually connected in some way to the work they are doing or the area they are in).

Heading for Rollerball?

Deloittes produce an annual report on the top football teams – with the last issued in January of 2013.

No one (that I can see) assesses annually the contribution that sport and teams make in society or the potential for that contribution – let alone any analysis on the work individual clubs perform.

Business seems now to be the only driver – which is a Rollerball outlook on sport – a dystopian future that may well be here already. Made in 1975, the film showed the world in 2018 as corporate-controlled where sport was the controller – like 1984 with sport instead of three political blocs fighting each other.

So the Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Bodies such as Sport England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the major associations of all the sports and clubs discuss the wide range of benefits and opportunities that exist. Because it is hard to measure the impact of sport and the part played by big corporations in sport (it is not something easy to measure like GDP), the real impact of large corporations on communities and people in the UK is not assessed.

Like the problems of measuring the benefit of a woodland or a river, our focus on numbers (and scores) misses the potential for large sports organisations to do good – and the result is that newspapers see the Rollerball potential.

The Government has set up a Natural Capital Committee to measure the value of natural capital in the UK. It  just published its first Annual Report

Because of its enormous impact on society and people, one response may be to set up an equivalent in the area of Sport – to assess the benefits and problems associated with the business of sport and the benefits to society, people and communities in ensuring that Sport is well managed for the benefit of as many as possible and that Businesses in Sport gives back to society sufficient of the benefits it derives from those communities and show how they take those communities into account. We would then get to see an Annual Report on the state of sport in the UK.

See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Going Soft on Power

We are all looking back on 2012 as the year when the UK has been said to lead the way in a number of areas – the Olympics, Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, Murray and the US Open, James Bond and the Queen, with Danny Boyle wrapping it all up to show the UK on the side of good.

But, like every nation, we are not just the nice guys. The UK has also become better known internationally for bribery and bank irregularities (LIBOR fixing, money laundering for terrorists), the Leveson inquiry into the press and phone hacking, the indictment of our police over Hillsborough, alleged police wrongdoing that led to a cabinet minister resigning (Andrew Mitchell) and Jimmy Savile reminding us all of what this country was like just recently.

So, 2012 has been a very strange year for the UK – a “curate’s egg” of a year. Monocle Magazine (itself named after an eyepiece that was popular in the 19th Century) rated the UK the world’s top “Soft Power” in 2012 as a result of the Olympics, Murray’s tennis feats and James Bond (among other things). Yet, at the same time, our banks are being shown up for massive failures on LIBOR, HSBC’s lack of control and willingness to allow money laundering on an exceptional scale and the recent Rolls Royce bribery allegations.

The UK is home to amazing ideals and potential: from sports stars and a tremendous passion for sport, home of democratic freedoms, a country based on welcoming the world to its shores and an internationalism based on a long-lost Empire and a need to be important but be seen to be doing the right thing; an independent spirit that makes us not want to be subsumed in Europe or the USA but to straddle the middle and be all things to all.

The UK is also home to the World Wildlife Fund and to a host of NGO’s and charities that see the UK as the centre of the struggle for the world to be a better place. Our aid programme (directed by DfID) is well-meaning even if sometimes misguided (recent nonsense in Rwanda being a good example).

Yet, business and financial irregularity brings our self-righteousness back to earth with a bump.  While we may be able to export a high degree of soft power through our great sporting and artistic talents, a nation like the UK has to be wary that its reputation is not completely destroyed by letting our ancient mercantile and trading instincts come first. Sometimes we don’t know if we are on the side of James Bond or SMERSH.

Britain’s “export” trade

The UK was a mercantile nation well before becoming the first into the Industrial Age and its Empire was established on the back of pioneering instincts and a trading mentality – heavily mixed with politics and ownership. Our wealth was built on the back of exploration and an eye for what sold well – whether it was gold or slaves.

Whereas the Chinese and its tributary system did not seek to rule the countries with which it traded, the UK sought vertical integration through Empire. It exported its laws, its systems, its language and its instincts throughout the world – the good and the bad. Writers like Niall Ferguson have debated whether, on balance, the British Empire has done good or bad overall, but, like the apology being demanded currently for Turing, this is history. As AN Wilson so majestically says in “The Elizabethans”, it is hard for us to look back on that age with the eyes and experience of the 21st Century.

What matters today are the after-effects of the actions taken and also in the actions being taken today along with the belief systems that are current. While Monocle may be right that we export some good and reap some soft power, the UK also exports some bad that may well negate the soft power that we so want to aspire to at a time when the West’s economic power is diminishing fast. Joseph Nye calls the mix of soft and hard powers,  our overall “smart power” and we are in danger of losing the “smarts”

When Transparency International – UK was setting up its “Defence against Corruption” project and I was an adviser to them, a great deal of discussion took place about how corruption has three legs  –  the corrupted (the government and individuals who were bribed), the corruptor (usually a company that did the corrupting) and the nation where the corruptor was based.

Much of the discussion around TI’s Corruption Perception Index is about the first, but the latter two are as much party to the corruption as the corrupted.

When Jack Straw originally produced his white paper which ended with the introduction of the Bribery Act (a very late addition to the codifying of our laws and the subject of many years fighting between NGO’s and companies as well as between the UK government and OECD – where we had signed up to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention many years before), he pointed out that the UK was a relatively bribery-free nation.

It is true that since the times of Samuel Pepys (when anything could be bought through bribery) the UK has cleaned up its act at home. As we became wealthier, we became less corrupt (although there remain many instances of bribery and corruption still).

However, in some ways we became more Confucian – we were most obsessed with doing right at home and exported our worst sins overseas. Companies from the UK in many industries such as energy, construction and aerospace and defence bribed for business. As the recent ITV programme “Exposure” aired on 10th October, 2012 showed, bribery by British firms overseas remains too common despite the Bribery Act. Rolls Royce is accused of two major acts of corruption in Indonesia and China dating back several years. It will have to show that its systems and policies are now consistent with the Bribery Act requirements or staff could be held culpable.

National reputation – national character

In the defence industry, the cry was always “If we don’t bribe, the French will”. The Chinese and Russians may be the chief bribing competitors these days but we have now enacted the Bribery Act – so, by law the exporting of bribery by companies from the UK should be at an end – including any company that does any business in the UK.

Maybe the issues that have been uncovered at Rolls Royce are old news but many concerns persist and suggest that the short-term gain mentality remains. In a posting from October I reported on a Financial Times article (from a survey by FTI Consulting) that showed a third of board members in the UK would bribe if they felt it was needed to win business. This worrying statistic shows clearly that the UK’s soft power base is in danger.

Our 2012 national reputation was portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony as quirky but unselfconscious; a nation of tremendous artistic, scientific, engineering and business success, caring and cultured. Ai Weiwei summed it up well in an article in the Guardian (it is well worth reading the whole article:

“Brilliant. It was very, very well done. This was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics.”

This was a characteristic portrayed throughout 2012 – a year when our sporting achievements have been at their highest in athletics, in golf (along with the rest of Europe), in tennis, in cycling and in cricket (we even beat New Zealand at rugby). Only in football (our national sport) has a less than successful and a less than wholesome image been portrayed.

But, maybe this is where the link may be. Football has become a huge business and business has no ethics of its own – we are continuously told that companies have no souls (as tax avoiders such as Google, Starbucks, Amazon and the rest show clearly). Football was a working class sport but is now a multi-billion pound successful business. Its sporting soul has disappeared as our exports grow – its “self-confidence” becoming mere hubris.

Soft power and hard exports

It could be said that football has not suffered yet along with its financial success (it still has its fan base). It took someone like Lord Coe to defeat the doomsayers that forecast the Olympics in London, with its huge corporate branding, would go the same way but it was a success with real people. Football remains hugely popular but the corruption in FIFA allied to racism at football grounds in Eastern Europe and the huge pay gap between the performers (being paid £20,000 and upward per week) and the fans means that its brand is continuously being corrupted.

If, in the age of smart power, if it is to be a continuing success, brand UK has to be clear and focused, not tainted by bad business ethics. It means not just abiding by the rules of international business but setting the standards – to take advantage of the good will that has been gained in 2012.

This means swapping the short-term (unreal) benefits of poor, 19th trading standards (where bribery and corruption was rife) to set real standards that are enshrined in the 2011 Bribery Act but where the UK has not put in the resources to implement the Act, where the US has shown a willingness to prosecute its own malfeasants in a way that shames successive UK governments.

Soft Power has to become (to use Nye’s term) smart power. Smart power is the ability to take advantage of the benefits that come from our leadership in key areas and to trade on them. Danny Boyle (through the Olympics opening ceremony and his refusal of a knighthood) shows the way away from the 19th Century mercantilistic British norms to a UK that has the ability to lead the world with its soft power allied to economic and political capabilities. This means waking up to what the 21st Century could mean – a global economy where improved communications can kill a business in progressively much shorter times as well as upsetting the benefits that the likes of Tolkein (The Hobbit is a classic British tale) and Fleming and the rest have provided to the country as a whole.

It means being self-confident enough to be seen to espouse good business not business at any price or any cost. There was no government reaction to the FT report cited above. There should have been. Doing good business is becoming the next stage of capitalism – we should be at its forefront as the challenge of the Chinese and others (who aspire less to this cause than the vocalized western consensus since WWII) grow: good business rather than bad business.

This is a hard ask in the depths of recession – but, if the UK is to capitalize on its soft power base, then a UK for the 21st Century has to be built on a smart power base – rather than simply going soft.

Waking from our tax stupor

Sleeping with Royalties

So Amazon, Starbucks and Google avoid tax and British politicians are surprised! So the big accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst and Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloittes) follow the banks in Margaret Hodge’s and her committee’s sights.

It is pretty incredible that in 2012, after hundreds of years of banking and secrecy in financial dealings that politicians seem to suddenly wake up to the fact that multinational companies move money around the world to save on tax and that wealthy individuals do the same.

Have the sleeping pills run out? Is the dreamlike state that they were in for so long worn off like a modern-day Rip van Winkle?

All this time, companies have paid large royalties to themselves in low tax jurisdictions, changed prices to do the same, set up secret companies in secrecy-oriented tax havens alongside wealthy individuals and others from the criminal and terrorist fraternity who make the tax havens their home.

As wealthy nations like the UK have slept while such as royalties escape our shores (and our tax revenues with them) to the tax havens, we have allowed even more serious crimes to take place – the looting of the developing world of their natural resources through the illegal and morally repugnant ocean of money that gets sent to such secret jurisdictions. Far more money is transferred out of the third world into such jurisdictions annually than we in the so-called developed world push back in through aid programmes: all because we allow the secrecy to continue while we sleep.

Tax evasion / avoidance and secrecy – lifelong bedfellows

The talk is about how we extract more tax from corporations and the focus has been on HMRC to review the levels of royalties it allows companies like Starbucks to pay to what appear to be false set-ups in countries like Luxemburg. Starbucks solution is to keep on doing this but to pay HMRC £10m for a couple of years as a gift.

Tax avoidance on the scale that we are seeing – tens of billions a year according to experts like Richard Murphy. He shows how little companies are paying (compared to some like Costa Coffee who appear to be paying amounts that equate to their sales and real profits). The problem is that corporation tax is based on profits and, as any good accountant knows, profits are an art form not a science. If there were no secret jurisdictions, then companies would show their total sales and profits (as shifting money inside a company cannot lose it overall – so overall profits stay the same over time) and it would be possible to tax profits based on where the sales were made. Agreements could be made between the nations in which such sales were made on a national scale and by company. So, if Google makes $1bn in profits and 10% of its worldwide sales were in the UK, then it could be taxed on $100m of its profits in the UK at UK rates unless there were good reasons not to – e.g. evidence of excess investments. Of course, the simplest method would be to completely ban royalty payments within a company or connected companies. This would ensure (at least improve the chance that) that real activity and profitability were taxed where they should be. Royalties charged outside the company to another one would continue.

Before such a solution takes hold (or something similar – making real change to dual-tax treaties), the tax authorities have to struggle with long-term negotiation with companies on esoteric and mind-numbing issues and governments have to work to destroy tax havens and secret jurisdictions. HMRC are involved in the first but the progress on the second seems to take place on a geological timescale.

Secrecy is the friend of tax evaders and avoiders. Being able to hide the actual transactions that take place is often the cornerstone of tax minimization. This is why it is so important that the current discussions between the Isle of Man and the British government on opening up all the former’s bank account to UK investigation is so significant – even if just a start. Richard Murphy estimates that this will open up 99% of such accounts.

Good start but hardly the whole picture. As Nicholas Shaxson has written in his book Treasure Islands there are many tax havens in the world from the Channel Islands to Delaware  and from Cyprus to the Virgin Islands. Each one enables secrecy of accounts and company ownership that does not just delay the ability of tax authorities to open up the information but stymies it completely in many cases.

Transparency – letting the light in

Earlier this year, Global Witness issued a report – Grave Secrecy that highlighted the following:

Global Witness believes a further dramatic change  is required: the identities of the real, ‘beneficial’ owners of all companies should be publicly available in the country they are incorporated, and nominee directors and shareholders should be held liable for their clients’ actions. The EU has the opportunity to take the lead on this over the next 18 months as it updates its anti-money laundering laws.

This matters because ‘shell’ companies – entities that are little more than just a name on a piece of paper – are key to the outflow of corrupt money that keeps poor countries poor. Those who loot state funds through corruption or deprive their state of revenues through tax evasion need more than a bank: they need to hide their identity behind a corporate front. Countries such as the UK might have a company registry and consider themselves ‘onshore’, but as long as they only collect shareholder information, they are effectively permitting hidden company ownership – which means they are as offshore as any palm-fringed island and will continue to facilitate corruption, tax evasion and other crimes. This needs to change.

Their investigations showed how easy is was to set up false companies (in one case with a director who was no longer alive) which would often not operate but to which financial transactions would be placed – disguising the remittance of funds from one jurisdiction to another. Money laundering of this type is thus rampant internationally.

This is not much different from the tax avoidance of legitimate companies who, arm in arm with politicians and tax authorities, have been sleep walking to the current position. Now, with so many countries deep in recession and with Governments indebted and working hard to stay financially afloat, the general public is angered at what seems to be the slanting of tax benefits away from those who are working hardest to those who manage money and financial flows.

Robert Peston (BBC financial commentator) writes today (December 8th):

“Companies perceived by people, politicians and media as, in some sense, not making a proper contribution to the societies from which they extract their revenues and profits, will over time become marginalized within those societies”

Secrecy has bred tax opportunism and money laundering and it is right to conjoin those terms even if in law they differ. While the recession keeps its grip on the western world, there will be no let up on the public’s desire for some better form of equality whether against the wealthiest 1% or the top companies who control most of society. This equality of outcome – paying the right tax for the benefits that accrue from the nation that houses that company (such as roads, police, defence forces, education and the like) – is a central theme for this recession.

To become transparent is the requirement for the 21st Century and especially during the economic downturn. The internet has given us all the ability to learn what is happening within seconds and to act on it. So, Starbucks is today hit by demonstrations despite its ploy of giving a charitable donation to HMRC.

However, real transparency will require the ending of tax havens, the ending of impunity for those who are guilty of money laundering and for those who enable it (whether lawyers, firms of accountants or banks – many of whom are now facing corporate fines but few individuals are facing prison).

We should have a transparency law operating in all jurisdictions (similar to the country-by-country reporting) which would require multi-nationals to declare their sales in every country in which they do business, an end to tax havens and secrecy, real Directors allowed to operate companies, an end to the transfer of funds of PEP’s (politically exposed persons who operate with impunity and take billions out of countries desperate for the money they transfer into their own accounts) and a general set of legal requirements which ban artificial tax avoidance schemes.

Locked out of Power and Making a Noise

How do we contribute to society and how do we influence the future?

 

There is a dangerous gap opening up between people and institutions that current forms of democratic parties and other organisations set up to channel views to those instruments of power are not able to bridge. The problem is manifold:

Political parties which dominate most democratic societies are filled with professional politicians who have little (or at best moderate) understanding of the real world outside of politics;

Civil service bodies and public sector institutions are (as they have always been) full of careerists who are no longer “tempered” by the social reality that broadly based political parties would provide;

Campaign organisations are also full of careerists who work their way up the system internally and may have little real association with society outside their own silo of interest.

Corporations (especially large, multinationals) have a tremendous power in a world dominated by numbers – growth objectives – and can fund large campaigning groups of their own.

Ever-Changing society

There is no equilibrium in society although it feels like stasis has been reached. Different bodies are continually evolving as the environment changes politically and socially and economically. The problem is that entrenched interest groups (drawn from those sectors above) continuously work to make their positions more secure.

In the past, four, main sources of change were developed to open up society to change:

Political parties

Campaign groups

The media

Communications

But, mainstream sectors have succeeded, in the main, in wrapping the first three groups into that mainstream. There is a dependency on each other and a difficulty in breaking through with new ideas and attempting to force through decisions on even the most important issues.

The global economy has exacerbated this problem – as international needs lead to massive international organisations that succeed always in taking decision-making away from the individual.

Improved communications have through history succeeded in transforming the ability of individuals to learn more and have a greater say. The printing press was followed by the telephone, which was followed by the fax machine and the mobile telephone and the internet. Mass communication is now available that provides the ability for all of us to understand more of what is being done in our name. Social systems such as Twitter enable communication in an instant; mobile telephony and digital technology allows information in microseconds. This has had repercussions in events like the Arab Spring but the rigidity of social norms fights back most often.

Society’s complex underpinning will see some new emergence develop from this – but, what is it likely to be and how can the individual become involved rather than be part of a sector that more clearly matches that of Orwell or Huxley’s nightmares?

The drift to Centralised control

Maybe it’s a natural occurrence – that as organisations develop, they coalesce and form groups and associations that begin to meld into international committees that appear completely remote from most of us.

This is certainly true of political parties, true of sports associations (like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee), true of international organisations (like the UN, WTO), major NGO’s and charities, political groupings such as the EU, international corporates (such as the banks). Most people don’t know most of these organisations and many (like FATF – the Financial Action Task Force) have for years seemingly gloried in their anonymity.

With the rise of the internet, we were meant to discover more but that same rise has meant that less spending goes into traditional media organisations like campaigning newspapers. This has meant a reduction in in-depth investigations and analysis and much-reduced investment by newspapers and other media outlets in providing the type of information we need as individuals in society to keep the massive organisations on their toes.

In a major sense, the rise of the internet has had consequences that were not envisaged and has led to a major centralization of power structures – more immune from investigation than before.

We must not be misled by the closure of the News of the World in the UK after the hacking enquiry – the NotW was a scandal rag that was part of the new world of celebrity. Its loss is not great.

The loss of whole departments where the main task was to investigate and analyse how society works (and where it does not) and the rise of the internet as a news medium (and comment in 140 characters) shows that, so far, what has emerged is leading to centralization not the reverse.

Does Centralised control matter?

Democratic society is supposed to provide individuals with the ability to influence the way our society is run. So, centralized control does affect us all. While the drive to consumerism may suggest that we would not mind if we were ruled like in China (more goods supplied to keep the population quite), I suspect that this tendency does not appeal to all of us. Centralised control does not stop at Tiananmen Square – it has no controls. “”Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” (William Pitt the Elder) is borne out through history and the idea that we can allow others complete freedom to guide us through life is obnoxious to most of us I suspect.

What are the options for decentralising?

The centralization of sectors of society needs to be continuously prodded. That can be done both internally (i.e. within those instruments of power) but mainly externally (from other organisations and / or individuals).

Working within is tough – the structures bind staff to their culture and it is very difficult to break out. A feature of British politics has been how the Liberal Party (a party for the individual within a coherent society and always opposed to centralization and totalitarianism) has become (especially since it became the Liberal Democrats) so bound up with the EU project – a centralizing force that is now seen to be breaking up.

External pressure may now be the only way to elicit change and to change the environment so that something less centralized can emerge.

The Centre for Civil Society in Australia is a good example of an organization that has been set up to prod society. www.civilsociety.org.au

The Centre for Investigative Journalism in London is another. http://www.tcij.org/

NGO’s like Global Witness are important contributors. www.globalwitness.org

All such organisations are set up to prod (some quite heavily) the existing structures – they are all dependent on external funding.

We need some creative destructionism – in the same way that Apple created new products that tore at our desire for more than pure functionality (although Apple is now part of that central structure); in the same way that Google tore into the online world and is now a core of that central structure – within the non-economic sphere, the way we live outside of numbers and products.

There are some options that remain that can assist in developing society so that we learn the lessons of the 20th Century – where communism and fascism drove the world to and then away from totalitarianism. Those lessons are now in danger of being unlearned – where the danger of unbridled centralism of society is occurring without (thankfully) war, but just the same potential results. We could wake up and find the world run from the centre. Maybe it is already and the drift to unequal wealth distribution a symptom.

That suggests more of an effort is needed to point a finger at our structures and the best way to do this is through our participation – and through some independent organisations, especially in investigative journalism, which can expose, fight for freedom of speech, help to analyse the impact of centralised decisions on society and expose fraud and corruption: many groups, many individuals wanting to open up the closed doors.

Does a tree that falls in a forest make a noise?