Brexit gets worse as London seeks to wriggle free from UK

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London, going further offshore?

London, going further offshore?

Update: also see Anti-Tax, Anti-Regulation Sirens emerge after Brexit

We have our own particular reasons for disliking Brexit – the recent decision by the UK to leave the European Union. In a pre-Brexit analysis the Tax Justice Network quoted Adam Posen, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who articulated a huge generic concern:

“If you’re anti-regulation fantasists to begin with, you start going down the path, ‘Oh we can become an even more offshore center. We can become the Cayman Islands writ large, or Panama writ large.’ And this frankly is the way I think this also spills over to the rest of the world, is that the UK decides, ‘Hey, regulatory arbitrage, letting AIG financial products run in London, actually destroyed the US financial system, but didn’t hurt us – made us a lot of money. Let us continue down this path. Let us be the ‘race to the bottom’ financial center. And I think this that’s where this going, because they’re not going to have any other option. It’s not good.”

This is already being played out. Take a look at this quote from Chris Cummings of the extremely peculiar and powerful TheCityUK (and by extension the City of London Corporation), illustrating Posen’s point exactly:

“It is vital that action is taken to reinforce the global competitiveness of the UK as a place in which and from which to do business. This will help to mitigate the risk of prolonged uncertainty while a new relationship with the EU is negotiated.”

Also see some more good arguments, also quoting Posen, and looking at a specific piece of banking regulation, here. And note that what goes for financial regulation is also broadly applicable in other areas, notably corporate tax.

As if all this weren’t worrying enough, amid risks of national fragmentation with the possible departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland — each of which risk being new actors in the race to the bottom — there is more.

It’s not the first time this has been raised. One concern with this is that the larger a financial sector is, relative to its population, the greater the grip that financial sector will have on the political system.

The more autonomy London gets, of course, the more powerful the City of London and the multinational tax lobby will become, relative to London’s population: and especially (if and when privileged access and “passporting rights” to European markets are no longer available) the ‘offshore’ part of the City that believes in a race to the bottom “competitive” approach to attracting the world’s hot money.

The pre-Brexit British leadership has overseen a relentless series of disastrous ‘competitive’ policies on finance and tax which has resulted in one handout after another to multinationals and shareholders, with precious little useful investment in return – as we have outlined in detail.  Fiscal devolution would likely exacerbate these moves. The BBC notes:

“London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for the capital to be given more powers on how it spends the money it makes.”

Not only that, but via the Evening Standard:

“They could include control of stamp duty revenue, business taxes – which could be lowered and targeted – vehicle excise duty to help tackle air pollution and greater powers to borrow to invest in infrastructure.”

This looks like the thin end of a wedge on revenue-raising powers.

And there is something else, too.

The metropolitanisation of gains

The metropolitanisation of gains

Khan repeats a popular old trope among London-based political actors — about how all the wealth is created in London then showered munificently upon a grateful rest of the country. Leaving aside the fact that this economic model has been arguably the biggest cause of grievance underlying the Brexit vote, it is substantially untrue. Adam Leaver of Manchester Business School wrote an article for Tax Justice Focus entitled The Metropolitanisation of Gains, the Nationalisation of Losses:

“London does attract capital, but it does so because it is a kind of conversion machine, taking national and international assets, converting them into revenue streams from which well-placed individuals skim high pay. In other words: London attracts capital because it is also extractive.”

It’s a really important article: do read it.

And to top it all, the predictable chorus of ‘tax competitiveness’ is already warming up. There’s this salivating from the economically challenged and opaque Institute of Economic Affairs:

“A more exciting move is that we will no longer have to comply with the EU’s Code of Conduct on Business Taxation.  The Code was an attempt to stifle tax competition, by preventing EU countries from introducing advantageous tax regimes to attract foreign investment. Removing it gives the UK much more freedom to design its own tax system to make us a better place for both domestic and foreign investors, countering any negative Brexit effect on investment.”

Expect this chorus to grow louder.

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Step back and ponder it all for a minute.

The the Brexit vote is increasingly seen as having been a response to inequality, and to unresponsive politics. But the fragmentation that Brexit implies – and would be implied by fiscal devolution for London — will exacerbate precisely those raw wounds that the vote has so powerfully exposed.

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