I’m no apologist for oligarchs, whether they be from Russia or anywhere else. I have been writing for years about how dirty money was flooding into London’s property market, helping to price out ordinary people who just want a home.
The government should have taken action decades ago to prevent kleptocrats from laundering their money through London property and their reputations through our libel courts.
These matters could have been addressed quite easily by prohibiting property from being held in the name of overseas private companies and by reforming libel laws to stop the wealthy from threatening journalists and anyone else with eyewatering legal bills.
Yet I feel uneasy at the speed at which things seem to have turned – to the point at which government ministers seem to feel entitled to seize property and other assets without much in the way of evidence that they are ill-gotten gains. Yesterday, housing secretary Michael Gove told a committee of MPs that the government was thinking of speeding up legislation to make it easier to seize assets under so-called 'unexplained wealth orders' – which force people to provide an explanation for how they came by their money, or lose it.
It might sound reasonable enough in the context of Putin’s cronies with property in London, but it runs somewhat counter to the principle of being innocent until proven guilty. Could I prove that every penny in my bank account, or every pound with which I bought my house two decades ago, was honestly earned? I am not sure the required documentation exists. It is all too easy to see how heavy-handed legislation passed hurriedly to deal with Putin’s cronies could end up being used against ordinary taxpayers.
What must it feel like to be an honest Russian business owner in Britain at the moment? Much as some might like to think of Russia as being made up entirely of oligarchs and peasants, such people do exist. They will have been chilled to hear Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, propose that every single Russian citizen living in Britain have their visa cancelled and be ejected from the country. Among the people Sir Roger would like to deport back to Russia are dissidents who came to Britain to escape Putin’s dictatorship, who already suffer the possibility of being served a dose of Novichok. They are people we need on our side; not trying to treat them as if they were the Russian leader’s henchmen. And to think that only a few weeks ago Sir Roger was trying to pose as the Conservative party’s moral conscience over partygate.
Go after Putin’s cronies by all means, and disarm their wealthy London lawyers (how about large fines for lawyers who use threatening letters, just as we prosecute Twitter users who made threats?). But please don’t let us descend even slightly towards the level of Putin by undermining the rule of law and having a state which helps itself to fistfuls of individuals’ money at a whim. And let’s stamp out anti-Russian prejudice before it has a chance to take hold. Ordinary Russians, just like Ukrainians, are Putin’s victims too.