Brand GB is untarnished

The international rich will still be drawn to the delights of London despite Brexit, writes Sophia Money-Coutts

The World Today Updated 25 January 2019 Published 2 August 2016 4 minute READ

Predicting what this country will look like in 2030 is problematic given that we haven’t known what the situation would look like by lunchtime at several junctures this year. But according to various experts, Britain will remain a big draw for rich foreigners. Not just for Russians, but Saudi Arabians, Qataris, Indians, Nigerians, Kazakhs and so on. The Chinese, too, albeit to a slightly lesser degree because they are not quite as enthralled with the British way of life as the others.

‘I’m not sure that Brexit will discourage the foreign elites from parking their loot in the UK,’ says Mark Hollingsworth, co-author of Londongrad, a 2009 book about the Russian influx. ‘Most who buy property, football club assets and install their families in London are from Russia, the Middle East, the Gulf, Central Asia and India and don’t care that much about the European Union unless it makes the UK an unstable place to protect their wealth.’

Some will counter immediately that of course it is currently unstable. But if you are a tycoon with several billion under your Hermès belt and a longing to live the life of Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham, what’s the problem? The things that make Britain a desirable place to live still exist.

By 2030, let’s say we have King William and Queen Catherine on the throne as glossy heads of state installed in Buckingham Palace. The teenage heir to the throne, Prince George, will be at Eton. It doesn’t look like the Labour Party will bring about their Marxist revolution any time soon, so social niceties such as Royal Ascot and Wimbledon will still be with us.

Our financial services industry will still do everything it can to look after foreign moguls who need their money moved discretely on to a tropical island or freshly laundered. Our legal system will still be viewed as one of the fairest in the world. There will still be multiple concierge and private security companies touting butlers and bodyguards. London restaurants and hotels will continue to cater for rich whims. Consider that several London hotels are so popular that wealthy foreigners have bought them – a Saudi prince owns the Savoy, the Sultan of Brunei owns the Dorchester, the Qataris control Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught.

‘One of my international clients failed to conceal her delight at the post referendum weakening of the pound and is rushing to pay next year’s school fees’

In fact, if anything, ‘Brand GB’ may be enhanced by this year’s events in the eyes of your average tycoon. ‘The attractions of the UK for certain foreign groups will probably be greater than they are today,’ predicts James Bellini, a British futurologist. ‘It will be a more outward looking and self-confident country.’

He cites the same reasons: schools and universities, our property market, London as ‘the cosmopolitan capital of the world’ and our technology sector and vibrant creative industries.

‘In short, the UK will, once again, be a beacon of stability and a country that is inspirational and globally popular, a country at peace with its history and happy to celebrate its traditions − from country house TV drama to royal pageantry.’

Look at schools, for example, one of the biggest draws for foreigners. There is a story currently doing the dinner party circuit that has struck fear into the hearts of the cash-strapped, middle-class Brit with aspirations to send their children to private school. A new father calls up Eton to register his four-day-old son. ‘Marvelous,’ says Eton, ‘that’ll be a £1,000 non-refundable deposit now, and also, if little Algernon is going to be joining us in 13 years’ time, we’re advised to tell you that our annual school fees will be a predicted £100,000.’ Worrying stuff for the Brit, perhaps but not an issue for an oligarch. It is an illustration of how our private schools may become even more elitist within a decade or so.

It is ‘unlikely’ that the reputation of these schools will be dented by the current political shenanigans, says the education consultant Richard Jones, who runs Oak Jones Educational, one of several consultancies which has sprung up in the past decade to cater for foreigners trying to get their children into the British private school system. (Although even some billionaires can find British school fees eye-watering. ‘One of my international clients failed to conceal her delight at the post referendum weakening of the pound and is rushing to pay off next year’s school fees as soon as possible,’ says Jones.)

Then there’s property – whether as an investment or to actually live in from time to time when you’re not in Gstaad or St Barths. Take this op-ed piece from The Moscow Times, published just before the referendum vote. ‘Property is Russia’s first Brexit opportunity. The British pound is already falling … this will dramatically improve the purchasing power of Russian wealth in London: from mansions to flats.’ So don’t panic, estate agents, you won’t be sitting idle. There are a limited number of cities in the world where very rich people can feel secure while strolling the streets and London is one of them, which means owning a 20-bedroom house here will remain a status symbol.

‘It’s seen as a safe haven,’ says Clare Betteridge, a director at RFR Property, another London-based consultancy to the rich. ‘One family office said when investing in London, you know the property will still be there and still be worth something in 50 years.’ Ditto our legal system, widely viewed by the rich as one of the fairest in the world – thus the number of foreign divorces we tend to see in British courts. Most notably recently, there was the divorce between the former model Christina Estrada and the Saudi billionaire, Walid Juffali. She rejected an offer of £37 million aiming for closer to £200 million instead – and was eventually awarded £75 million by the High Court – although she let the side down slightly in court by saying that she needed to be kept in the lifestyle she was accustomed to and that included expensive opera tickets.

‘What was the last opera you saw?’ asked her husband’s QC.

‘The Nutcracker,’ she replied.

Still, ‘London most certainly will remain a hub for foreign elites,’ says a partner at a City law firm who doesn’t want to be named because the situation is currently so sensitive. ‘Foreign elites know the UK judiciary is the fairest and most objective in the world,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘That is incredibly important.’

Of course, it is not just Brexit that is raising questions for rich magnates here. There are rumblings about the new non-dom law coming into effect next April, which means anyone who has been in Britain for more than 15 years out of 20 will be deemed to be domiciled here and have to pay tax accordingly. The Monaco embassy held a party at the RAC Club in November to try and lure tycoons there instead. But although a few will leave, in all likelihood they will keep their property in Britain, keep their children in British schools and simply reduce the number of days they spend here.

The number of single-family offices in London has more than doubled to 1,000 since 2008, and that isn’t going to change overnight. Such is the lure of the place.

‘The Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,’ wrote Voltaire, of London’s Royal Exchange in 1733. ‘As there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.’ And despite the cries that the world is ending which have been loud and often this year, it doesn’t look like much will change − at the top end of the food chain, anyway.