Cross-posted from ‘Obliged to Offend’
Sir Richard Branson is widely held up as an example of entrepreneurial success.
Not in the mould of the ruthless tycoon sat atop a shiny tower counting piles of
cash, but as the face of a new breed of capitalist who, at the end of the
20th-century, “tore off their ties, threw open their shirt necks and fretted
about their employees’ spiritual well-being,” as Terry Eagleton puts it.
Richard Branson is essentially a man of the “Cool Britannia” era. “We
are seriously relaxed about people becoming very, very rich,” Peter Madelson
said at the time; and this was reflected in people like Branson. It was no
longer a source of shame to have “loadsamoney”. Class, that old chestnut of
20th-century politics, was no more, or so the establishment liked to think.
Still lingering here and there like a bad smell, but on the way out,
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it didn’t take long before the rich
began to view the payment of tax as something they could be seriously relaxed
about, too. What would at one time have been shameful became over the course of
30 years something like a badge of honour. This did not restrict itself to those
at the top of society, either. Even members of the working class – those on the
receiving end of today’s government cuts – can at times be heard referring
disparagingly to the “tax man”, implying a dark, shadowy figure in it simply for
what they can get. Perhaps it is indeed language that is of greatest importance
in this respect, for one can hardly boast of “asset maximisation” when
well-aware they are depriving not an anonymous and shadowy “tax man”, but
terminally ill children of otherwise affordable cancer treatment, or pensioners
of the ability to heat their homes for more than a few hours a day.
Recently I wrote an article highlighting the behaviour of Bono and U2
when it came to the payment of tax. In it I quoted Jim Aiken, a music promoter
who helped stage U2 concerts in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s. What he said
epitomised Bono and the new breed of ego-driven capitalist in a sentence: “U2
are arch-capitalists – arch-capitalists – but it looks as if they’re not.”
Looking beyond the self-glorification and ferocious publicity campaigns that
characterise Bono’s “charitable giving,” U2 were simultaneously cutting the feet
from under their own government’s ability to provide for the very poorest in the
world – the very people Bono feigned the greatest concern for.
A similar thing could be said of Branson, whose first company, Virgin Music, started amid
a sophisticated purchase-tax fraud that Branson himself admitted in 1971. The
company was sold in 1992 for £560m and Branson went on to build his business
empire from there. Despite a public persona as the amiable People’s Capitalist,
Branson, according to Tom Bower, author of the book Branson, has spent “a lifetime building
a fortune on hype, misrepresentations and…a criminal conviction for tax
Branson’s business interests would always come ahead of any
notion of the public good. For years Branson campaigned in Westminster for the
privatisation of the rail network, one of the most disastrous sell-offs of
public assets during the Thatcher era. Today Virgin Rail remains dependent on
state money, aggressively protects its monopoly, and is subject to an exorbitant
number of passenger complaints. (Bower, 2005)
Another of Branson’s obsessions, his “lifetime ambition,” according to a millennium
lecture he gave at Oxford, was to take over the running of the National Lottery.
As Bower points out, “possessing the lottery would bequeath a vast cash flow in
management fees and endless free publicity to Virgin by association while
Branson anointed the lottery’s millionaires. By controlling the lottery, Branson
would never again need to bother with dicey enterprises like cola, clothes,
cosmetics or even mobile phones. Most important, he would reverse the crushing
humiliation he suffered by two rejections”.
News surfaced today that Branson is planning to
move Virgin’s brand division to Switzerland in a switch that is likely to save
the company millions in tax revenue. The move is being undertaken, in the words
of Virgin, “to co-ordinate…international growth and brand management,”
whatever that means.
Commenting on Virgin’s historical tax record in
Britain before the latest move was announced, Richard Murphy from Tax Research
was already less-than complimentary, saying: “I didn’t think
Virgin paid any tax here, let’s be blunt about it. It’s been remarkably poor at
Whatever the case, the British treasury – and by that I mean
hospitals, schools and care homes, to name but a few – is about to become
several million pounds lighter, and no amount of rolling-up the shirtsleeves,
hairspray or aspirational rhetoric is going to change that.