Panama Papers lay bare how billions can be made by exploiting of political power

The Mossack Fonseca law firm, at the The Arango Orillac Building, in Panama City (AP)

The Panama Papers (no need for a link – all media outlets, everywhere, and for the foreseeable future) will doubtless provide interesting reading for generations, and confirm what many of us had long suspected.

Here are a few observations.

The rich are different. I don’t mean the rich of yesteryear, who were rather few and far between, but quite charming when you met them. I mean the new rich. Whereas the old rich made their fortunes by brewing or distilling – essentially selling the public something it wanted to buy – the new rich make their money through the exploitation of political power and influence, which may not always involve breaking the law. They live in a world remote from the daily reality of the rest of us. The sums they shuttle between bogus companies in Panama and other places are enormous, measured in billions.

Of course, they do their best to keep it all secret, and these financial transactions are all shrouded in baffling mystery – just working out the money trail is almost impossible. They do this, not because they have anything to hide, but because they know that the rest of us would simply not understand. On this last point they are, of course, correct.

Secondly, the Third World is growing, and growing much faster than we suspected. We all knew that Congo was a spectacularly corrupt, along with places like Equatorial Guinea, and of course, let’s not forget Kenya. The misappropriation of public funds in such places is endemic. Thieves don’t submit accounts, but it is assumed that roughly 80 per cent of public money in Africa goes astray. But it is not just the usual suspects who feature in the Panama Papers. Russia is there too, and so, tragically, is Ukraine. But so is Iceland – not a Third World state, but in Scandinavia, for goodness’ sake. And so too is Malta, which once, not so very long ago, was run by honest men and women. Both the Prime Minister of Iceland and that of Malta are under pressure at present. How this plays out in these islands will tell us whether these places are only temporary recruits to the Third World, or destined to stay that way.

Thirdly, the huge volume of the Panama Papers will not only ensure that this saga will run and run, but it will also provide protection for many of those involved. The various British people will get away with it, perhaps, because all eyes will be on the convoluted business dealings of Mr Putin and his chums. Moreover, the sheer complicatedness of the Panama Papers (you probably need a law degree to work it all out) will lead to reader fatigue, and provide ample opportunities for whackjob conspiracy theorists. A few people will be able to dust down their Savile Row suits and walk away from the wreckage relatively unscathed.

Finally, there seems to be no mention of the Vatican, at least not yet. A financial scandal without the involvement of the Vatican bank? Doesn’t seem right, somehow.