What Britain’s organised criminals think of Brexit

The UK’s narco moguls are yet to join the debate about leaving the EU. 

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No one has asked the narcotics industry what it thinks of Brexit. They should. This industry relies on cross border trade and the movement of both people and commodities. Like the banks, the car manufacturers and the supermarkets, drug dealers will be impacted by Brexit.

But the decline of the UK narcotics industry will have a knock-on effect on the mainstream economy. This sector contributes around £10bn to the British economy, and such profits are now included in the nation’s GDP. It also provides regular investment for real estate and banking – the City of London is said to be a favourite with drug money launderers. When combined with prostitution, its 75,000-strong workforce makes it the second largest private employer in the country behind John Lewis.

So far, the UK’s narco moguls have been taciturn on Brexit.

This is, perhaps, to be expected. There is no umbrella-style federation for wholesale distributors of cocaine. The UK gangland’s kingpins keep their presence in the UK economy subterranean. And yet, official reports show that organised mobsters monitor international affairs to exploit geopolitical developments.

Brexit will be no different. Which begs an obvious question: does organised crime favour a hard or soft Brexit? To find a possible answer, I approached Professor Richard Hobbs, a leading international criminologist based at the University of Essex. As someone who has conducted in-depth research of organised criminals, Hobbs has first-hand knowledge of the British underworld.

“The guys who I know who are seriously involved in crime,” says Hobbs. “Talk to them about Brexit, they’re generally right-wing, they’re Little Britainers… and they are complete and utter hard Brexit… They like Ukip. I know some of these old boys and they do measure up to all the stereotypes and they have a picture of the Queen in their cells when they are banged up, as they frequently are.”

You might expect those involved in the UK drugs business to favour a frictionless European market and free movement. But it seems organised crime is far removed from the cosmopolitan criminal capitalists portrayed in the BBC’s McMafia.

McMafia is blown out of proportion”, concurs Hobbs. “For the people involved [in Britain’s illicit markets] they would be shocked and horrified if you told them they are transnational organised criminals. They would laugh in your face”.

Yet the jingoism of the older generation aside, there is no coherent organised crime position on Brexit because the business itself is decentralised and highly fragmented.

“The point is that there is no class of people who are organising,” observes Hobbs. “You’ve not got someone at the top making decisions. It’s not a James Bond [villain], stroking a white cat, making decision about how they’re going to deal with Brexit. Organised crime works on a network basis. But each section is almost separate.”

The ultimate red line for the criminal fraternity is not sovereignty but money. And with money, pragmatism and not ideology reigns: “The way that organised crime works is not the way we are told in the media…It’s very pragmatic – it’s day to day, month by month.”

Pulling out of the single market and creating hard borders will pressurise margins. The criminologist Ann Sergi anticipates the price of drugs will invariably increase which means that narcotics become adulterated with substances likes fentanyl or users may opt for synthetic alternatives. More deaths by overdose is the likely result.

But Hobbs notes that a hard border will not starve the UK’s stoners of trafficked drugs. Brexit or no Brexit, UK borders are susceptible to illegal trafficking: “We are so reliant on containerised traffic but only very few containers are checked. This is not going to change. We haven’t go the manpower.”

And here’s what interesting. If you asked a management consultant to conduct a strategic analysis of Brexit for organised crime, the opportunities would outweigh the costs. In Northern Ireland, as one report by The Economist showed, leaving the customs union will only make the running of contraband between north and south more lucrative. And the limits on legal immigration will create a demand for labour, which immediately creates a market for people trafficking. All helped by the fact the UK police will be more isolated and weaker as a result of Britain leaving Europol.

Mike Marinetto lectures in business ethics at Cardiff University Business School. His research interests include deviant globalisation and illegal markets. Written with thanks to Prof Richard Hobbs.