Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World

Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World
Nicholas Shaxson, The Bodley Head, 336pp, £14.99

The first company I worked for was based in the Cayman Islands. It was easy to forget, walking to work in the freezing January rain, that we were a Caribbean business. The Mayfair hedge fund that employed me had only a spectral presence in the Caymans. None of the fund's employees worked in those least lovely of the Caribbean islands; our directors out there had little say in the day-to-day running of the business. The CEO and legal team would jet off to biannual board meetings on Grand Cayman, where decisions would be rubber-stamped by the directors, and then fly out again. The fund paid no tax in the UK despite having almost $60bn of assets under management. The Cayman registration was a tax-avoidance scheme, one employed by many of the funds along "Hedge Row" in Mayfair. Nicholas Shaxson's new book subjects such financial skulduggery to ferocious scrutiny.

This diatribe is a gripping read. Never losing its focus on how companies and individuals, with the collusion of governments, use tax avoidance to cheat those who are less fortunate, Treasure Islands tells the history of tax havens. It is an account illuminated by anecdotes that are often more James Bond than eurobond. At the end of the book, Shaxson issues a call to arms to governments and regulators: abolish tax havens and you will eradicate much of what is wrong with the modern world. If we don't, he writes: "A tiny few will have their boots washed in champagne while the rest of us struggle for our lives in conditions of steepening inequality. We can avert this future. We can because we must." It's heady stuff.

The statistics that Shaxson reels off are astonishing. Roughly a quarter of the world's wealth is held offshore; in the Channel Islands alone, UK tax to the tune of $30bn (£19bn) is lost each year - more than double Britain's foreign aid budget. Shaxson obsesses over this last point - what would happen if the taxes were collected? And if that money were spent tackling the world's injustices? A passage on multinational transfer pricing estimates the tax revenues lost at $160bn: enough to "save the lives of 1,000 under-five children per day".

Tax havens allow companies to avoid paying taxes that might have been used to improve the lot of the poor, but that is not all. Shaxson argues that the expertise needed to negotiate their complexities ensures that rich countries will get richer while poorer nations, lacking the financial know-how, will be left behind. The book is at its best when it traces how the UK and the US have built up virtual empires (the former's closely mapping its colonial footprint, the latter's a result of foreign and trade policy) with a spider's web of offshore tax havens.

Shaxson's polemical style will not be for everyone. Bombast occasionally wins out over nuance and, the nature of the argument being one-sided, some objections are steamrollered rather than addressed. The most obvious of these is that the capitalist system rests on companies' fiduciary duties to shareholders and profit maximisation (read tax minimisation). Tax "efficiency" - and Shaxson does an excellent job of unbundling the doublespeak inherent in this most pernicious of euphemisms - is so embedded in the way that companies do business that talk of abolishing tax havens tout court is simplistic. Treasure Islands reminded me at times of a Michael Moore film: it is so caught up in raging against the system that it relies on the flow of invective to carry the audience along instead of stopping to analyse and dissect.

But all this is part of the charm of Treasure Islands. The best books about finance (hell, the best books about anything) make us re-examine the set ideas we have about the world. I had worked in the City for a good few years before I even questioned the convoluted systems by which banks manage to keep their profits out of the hands of the taxman. And this was in an era when hogwash about corporate social responsibility filled the pages of every multinational's annual report. Treasure Islands correctly identifies tax as "the missing element in the corporate social responsibility debate". It's time this changed. Shaxson shows us that the global financial machine is broken and that very few of us have noticed. l

Alex Preston writes the New Statesman's city and finance column

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.