James Bloodworth (writing at Obliged to Offend in December 2011):
Instead of celebrating … the left should reflect on what a
pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
Ever since Margaret Thatcher stopped appearing in public due to poor health, the
fit and proper reaction to her eventual exit from the earthly realm has been
discussed with increasing regularity by the left.
That rolling news will gloss over her legacy with the empty platitudes of the obsequious is entirely predictable. Nor will it surprise many to see the leading lights of the Labour
Party queuing up to shower the former Prime Minister with praise.
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the
dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her
particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many
formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites
now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’
what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never
will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that
there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so
unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters
in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so
emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be
greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she
inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the
Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she
trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it
again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even
if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking
things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however,
is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone
killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the
forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor
Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it
has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher
that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not
particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with
clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do
better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any
political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who
popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our
own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the
psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying
us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly
don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
By James Bloodworth. Cross-posted from Obliged to Offend
I don’t know about you, but before I tuned into the Channel Four show I had no idea what a big fat gypsy wedding was. I assumed it must be something to do with gypsies and weddings, obviously, but I failed to grasp why such a program would ever make it on to television. Lots of people get married, I reasoned, so why should a gypsy wedding be more deserving of airtime than anything else.
So I did it. I tuned in. And now everything has become a little clearer. Despite the assurances of Channel Four that the program is about combating the negative tabloid portrayal of gypsies, the whole thing stuck to the script more comprehensively than a Daily Mail editorial. Smashing stereotypes? Hardly. More like hammering them home with a sledgehammer and a stick of dynamite.
While I am arguably too young to delve deep into the archives of television history (I am 29), I struggle to recall a time when so much of the weekly schedule was filled with programmes designed to allow us, the public, to look down with disdain on other, more marginal groups; and usually under a pseudo-progressive guise of empathising with those on the receiving end of our spiteful laughter.
I do not wish to single out Channel Four here. They are, after all, only commissioning programs they believe (and correctly, in the case of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings) will be popular. Look elsewhere if you prefer. Turn on the Jeremy Kyle show; watch one of Ricky Gervais’s recent offerings; listen to a Frankie Boyle joke; dig out the Little Britain DVDs. Wherever you look this type of “entertainment” has gradually taken over our television screens, pumping up the self-esteem of the middle classes by giving a sly kick to those clinging on to the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Oh it’s just a joke, I can hear you say. Lighten up. You’re taking things too seriously.
So why the pretence of empathy then? Why not simply make television that unapologetically mocks the poor, the deformed, the degenerate and the non-conformist?
For one thing that would require an admission that under all the politically correct plumage, we are perhaps not the welcoming and tolerant a society we smugly and repeatedly profess to be. There are political implications, too. Is popular support for David Cameron’s welfare reforms really about fair play and “common sense”, or have we become so used to viewing those less fortunate than ourselves as the equivalent of another species that we no longer even care what happens to them? The London riots? “Sheer criminality”; the teenagers on Jeremy Kyle? “Chavs”. Travellers? “Gypos”. Simple, comforting, and most importantly perhaps, a way to feel better about ourselves in an era where fatalism has replaced the idea that a better world is possible.
The thing which seems to provoke the heartiest laughter and the greatest mirth of all, I am gradually discovering, is any attempt by the disenfranchised to emulate those more fortunate than themselves. The mock-celebrity names the council estate Mothers give to their children; the scantily clad gypsy girls copying the provocative dance moves of their favourite pop stars; the transsexuals expressing outwardly what they feel inside; the overweight people trying desperately to look how they’ve been told they are supposed to look. How dare they? we collectively seem to ask. Don’t they know their station?
Laughing in the face of the vulnerable seems to have caught on at about the time we finally lost all control over what happens at the other end of society. The global rich no longer listen to us, so instead we spend our time looking downwards and sneering at easier targets. Perhaps we recognise something of ourselves in the powerless, and giving them a good kicking is a sort of masochistic exercise, not unlike electing politicians such Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Whatever the reason, it seems the television equivalent of the freak show is here to stay.
The riots of August 2011 should have put paid to the idea that we could go on laughing at the underclass forever. It didn’t though; and if you want a picture of the future, you could do worse than imagine a Vicky Pollard-type figure being hurt and humiliated publicly – forever.
By James Bloodworth, cross-posted from Obliged to Offend
Workers at Primark in Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for strike action after the company attempted to impose a pay freeze on its shop staff for the second consecutive year. Primark’s staff are paid just £6.84 an hour, yet in the past two years the company has seen its profits soar to an estimated £644 million. Union reps are meeting next week with strike action in February looking increasingly likely.The fact that a call for industrial action by staff at Primark has made the news at all is testament to how organised workers’ struggle has become something of a rarity in recent times. This is reflected in the trade unions themselves, where there has been a steady decline in members in the last 30 years. Six-and-a-half million people were in a trade union in 2010, down from a peak of around 13 million in the late 1970s. These figures also conceal a large discrepancy between public and private sector membership, with only 14 per cent of private sector employees being members of a union compared with 56 per cent of those in the public sector.
Media superficiality would have it that trade unions are little more than a quaint irrelevancy to 21st century life. The economic downturn has added to the scorn heaped on anyone viewed as rocking the boat by popularising the notion that the burden of the financial crisis is being shared equally. “Get on with it” perhaps best describes the attitude of most of the print media to discontented workers; and in the case of the Primark dispute bosses see nothing wrong with telling staff to meekly accept their lot – despite the fact that there undeniably is a great deal of money swilling around.
This attitude is not confined to the bosses of Primark, either. In Britain’s lightly regulated labour market employers increasingly have the power to do what they want to a degree unthinkable since the First World War. A recent report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – and published by the Independent revealed that Britain’s largest supermarket chains are paying their staff poverty wages while making huge profits and raising executives’ salaries.
Not only has years of anti-union rhetoric affected how large companies treat their workers, but it has also had a discernible impact on the Left, which increasingly spurns trade union activity in favour of occupations, protests and flash mobs. The idea of autonomy is at the heart of the tactical switch; and the sacrifice and solidarity of the strike feels grey and outdated compared to the free-for-all of the tent city and the high-octane exertions of the Black Bloc. Little do they realise it, but even today’s protesters have adopted some of the commitmentless individualism of Thatcher-Blairism.
The political assault on trade union activity has been reignited recently, with Boris Johnson, a Mayor elected with the first preferences of just 19 per cent of his electorate, calling for a minimum turnout threshold on industrial action ballots. Others fantasise about going further, openly musing on whether “we” (meaning in reality society’s top 1 per cent) should permit strikes to happen at all.
Scratch an anti-trade union politician, however, and you will find the same contempt for democracy that has in the past lobbied against everything from the right of working people to vote to the right of the poor to receive medical treatment. For many the workplace already remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.
It is not as if the law as it stands comes down in favour of those democratically withdrawing their labour, either. There is in reality no such thing as the right to strike in law in Britain. Walk-outs are only possible because unions have immunity from any subsequent claims for damages.
Extending democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism will not be done by erecting a tent in one of capitalism’s bustling metropolises, nor by inconveniencing shoppers in Regent Street. It will come through the tireless and unglamorous struggle of those, like the workers at Primark, who realise that by standing together they can claw a little back from those who would make off with everything given half the chance.
Trade unions are by no means perfect, but if the left is to become relevant again it must rediscover the notion that social justice begins at work.
By James Bloodworth at Obliged to Offend:
Instead of celebrating when Thatcher dies, the left should reflect on what a pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’ what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however, is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today than ever.
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
James Bloodworth of Obliged to Offend reviews Arguably, by Christopher
George Orwell once wrote that ‘every line of serious work
that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly,
against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’
Today, many right across the political spectrum like to pick and
choose from Orwell according to taste, stressing either the democratic,
socialist or anti-totalitarian aspect of his work at the expense of the
multitude – the resulting ‘legacy’ depending very much upon the political
persuasion of those doing the accounting.
Christopher Hitchens, the
one-time darling of the left, has in recent years uncomfortably skirted this
same political dividing-line. He has at once attracted the scorn of his former
comrades for his alleged shuffle to the right, while in the process gathering a
substantial number of followers whose admiration rests almost entirely upon the
premise of him having ‘come to his senses’.
On the surface, the nature
of Hitchens’s politics depends, in a similar fashion to Orwell’s, almost
entirely upon whom one is talking to.
His latest effort, Arguably, is a collection of essays spanning
the past decade on politics, literature and religion. The prose (which is
unsurprisingly of an extremely high standard, even if at times Hitchens employs
rather too much Look-at-me vocabulary) comes with an added element of tragedy
due by the fact that Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he wrote
a substantial proportion of it. This may, in fact, be Hitchens’s very last book.
In common with Orwell,
Hitchens stature as a political writer was firmly cemented towards the end of
his life (I sincerely hope Hitchens goes on to live a lot longer), his
reputation as controversialist par
excellence truly coming with his repudiation of the left and his
articulate opposition to monotheism.
Importantly, were Hitchens alone in
rejecting the conventional left/liberal, post-9/11 politics, his bravado and
bluster would likely be much less potent. (Hitchens’s politics were never about
posture alone; but one should not underestimate the importance of showmanship to
the Hitchens brand). As it happened, there were others on the left who also
viewed the attempt on the back of 9/11 to conflate John Ashcroft with Osama Bin
Laden as crass moral equivalence; or as Orwell put it 70 years before: ‘the
argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all’.
The problem with the notion that Hitchens, after 9/11, simply did the obligatory
shuffle to the right, or as David Horowitz puts it (underwhelmingly, considering
his own political trajectory), had ‘second thoughts’, is that a substantial
proportion of the left really did climb
into bed with reaction during this period, and continue to do so whenever a
group points AK47s in the direction of the United States and its allies.
This was not confined to the debased remnants of Stalinism, either. The
editorial of the liberal-left New
Statesman of 17 September, 2001, written by then-editor Peter Wilby,
appeared to blame Americans themselves for the 9/11 attacks – for ‘preferring
George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader’. A few weeks later, the Oxford
Academic Mary Beard wrote approvingly in the London Review of Books about the ‘feeling
that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming’.
Arguably, however, also
shows Hitchens at his dogmatic worst; and at times he resembles Isaac
Deutscher’s description of the ex-Communist who, having recanted on his previous
belief system, is ‘haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his
former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society,’ and who ‘tries to suppress
his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of
extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness’. In Hitchens’s essays on Iraq,
as Jonathan Freedland points out: ‘The absence of evidence (of WMD) is deemed
not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of
WMDs in the immediate past.’
While it may be simplistic to simply write
Hitchens off as a ‘Neo Con’, he has very little to say on traditional left-wing
domestic concerns, such as economic or social policy; and it seems increasingly
clear, if only by omission, that interventionism is not the only ‘consensus’
that Hitchens now uncritically accepts.
In a 2008 interview with Prospect,
Hitchens, a man who lives in extremely comfortable surroundings in Washington,
showed a thinly-veiled contempt for those whose lives are made bearable by the
British benefits system, dismissing the welfare state as ‘little more than
Christian charity’. In a recent article for Slate in the aftermath of the
UK riots, Hitchens also appeared to take the establishment line that the unrest
was ‘sheer criminality’ (as one Tweeter put it at the time – ‘yes, we know it is
sheer criminality; the question is why are our youngsters sheer criminals?’).
While much of the British left is right now busy mobilising against the greatest
cut in living standards in a generation, in the same article Hitchens glibly put
‘the cuts’ in brackets and ridiculed the term as an ‘all-purpose expression…
used for all-purpose purposes’.
Dismissing Hitchens as a Neo-Con or a
free-market zealot is indeed a rather pointless exercise; it is, however,
necessary to acknowledge that he no longer notices or much cares for the
struggles of the working class. If it is not part of the dramatic fight against
totalitarianism (which I have no wish to downplay), then it does not seem to
appear on Hitchens’s radar.
Orwell, in a reply (dated 15 November, 1943)
to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for
European Freedom, stated that he didn’t agree with their objectives.
Acknowledging that what they said was ‘more truthful than the lying propaganda
found in most of the press’, he added that he could ‘not associate himself with
an essentially Conservative body’, that claimed to ‘defend democracy in Europe’
but had ‘nothing to say about British imperialism’. His closing paragraph
stated: ‘I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian
totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.’
like many British journalists of his generation, has spent much of his career in
the shadow of Orwell. He has also spent perhaps a small proportion of it waiting
for his very own Orwell moment – a moment when he could take on his own side in
the way Orwell took on sections of the left over its appeasement of Stalinism.
Despite the bluster and fear-mongering (not-to-mention the genuinely repulsive
politics of the Jihadi movement), Islamism is not Nazism or Stalinism; and
Hitchens, however good his prose may be, is no Orwell. In defending the gains of
liberal democracy against its totalitarian enemies, Orwell never dumped his own
A cross-post from James Bloodworth of ‘Obliged to Offend’
Almost 40 years ago, on 28 January 1972, United States President Richard Nixon signed his war on drugs into law. Drugs are “public enemy number one”, said Nixon, and drug addiction had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”.
In the 40 intervening years, the US government has spent some £2.5 trillion attempting to destroy the illegal drugs trade at a horrendous human cost – both at home and abroad.
In Mexico 34,612 people have been killed since December 2006 when President Philip Calderon initiated the country’s war against the drug cartels. According to the BBC, the US/Mexico cross-border drugs trade is worth an estimated $13bn (£9bn) a year. A US state department report estimated that as much as 90% of all cocaine consumed in the US comes via Mexico.
Around the world a “clampdown” on drugs continues unabated – from Russia to the US to Columbia to Afghanistan. The same failed policies are being repeated time and again, flying in the face of all the evidence and leaving behind a trail of devastation and a pile of bodies.
In Britain, Professor David Nutt was sacked in 2009 as chief drugs advisor by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for scientifically challenging the hysterical culture of current drugs debate. In the US, the discourse around prohibition is equally mired in falsehood, with attitudes unlikely to change unless there is a spread of the violence that plagues Mexico across the border and into the US.
In June of this year, a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy argued that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. Previously a 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that, “the total number of drug users in the world is now estimated at some 200 million people, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the global population age 15-64.” The report went on to say that “In…North America [and] Western Europe, abuse levels remained constant for opiates…In Europe…cocaine use continues to expand.”
Globally, the illegal drug trade supports a worldwide crime empire second only in value to oil. Yet while Latin America functions as a violent narcotics sweatshop for the nouveau riche of London and New York, more visible consequences of prohibition in Britain can be seen on the pallid faces trying to catch the eyes of shoppers on many of London’s most famous streets. Brushing them aside as they ask for spare change is easy enough of course, but you won’t get rid of them that easily. Nick Davies, in his excellent book Flat Earth News cites a confidential Downing Street report which was leaked to the press in 2005 claiming that black market drug users were responsible for 85% of shoplifting, between 70 and 80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.
Many of Britain’s 300,000 heroin users suffer health problems such as septicaemia, hepatitis, ruptured veins and, occasionally, overdose. What much of the public discourse around drug addiction ignores, however, is that almost all of the harmful effects of heroin are caused not by the drug itself, but by toxic contaminants which are added by unregulated and unscrupulous street sellers. In the respected Merck health journal they are clear about the effect prohibition has on drug content and quality:
“Long-term effects of the opioids themselves are minimal; even decades of methadone use appear to be well tolerated physiologically, although some long-term opioid users experience chronic constipation, excessive sweating, peripheral edema, drowsiness, and decreased libido. However, many long-term users who inject opioids have adverse effects from contaminants (eg, talc) and adulterants (eg, non-prescription stimulant drugs); cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic damage from infections such as HIV infection and hepatitis B or C, which are spread by needle sharing and nonsterile injection techniques.”
Opponents of legalisation will evoke the possibility of increased drug use as a consequence of the legal availability of hard drugs. The likelihood of this happening, however, must be set against a backdrop of worsening drug conflict in the developing world and increasingly dangerous substances being peddled on British streets; not to mention the fact that drug-fuelled crime shows little sign of abating any time soon.
Legalisation is not necessarily the solution, but may be the least bad option. The other option, if you can call it that, is to let the bodies continue to pile up for another 40 years.
Above: It is claimed that this police attack on a 16 year-old girl sparked the riot (h/t: Tami P)
Guest post by James Bloodworth of ‘Obliged to Offend’:
Some on the Left are interpreting the riots in Tottenham and Enfield as a sort
of awakening. After the student protests and anti-cuts marches, the underclass
has entered the arena, bringing to the television screens of Middle England the
realities of life in Britain’s inner cities they had up to now forgotten or
Indeed, until a few days ago, the only time those rioting would
have made it onto television was as comedy material for the sketch writers of
Little Britain or as fodder for patronising reality shows.
It is true of
course that if governments refuse to distribute wealth it will be done using
force. After all, the rich have been “looting” the country for years in the
guise of clever accounting, only to be given knighthoods and lionised
by the media in the process. When disenfranchised youth do the same, the
mainstream predictably sound-off like a Telegraph editorial about “violent
thugs” and “feral youth,” ignoring the underlying deprivation at the heart of
What seems to have passed some by, however, is that
disenfranchised youth burning and looting sports gear has far more in common
with the “greed is good” mantra than it does with the cooperative control of the
means of production; and when the cameras are switched off, it is the lives of
the poor which will be blighted by these riots, not the gated communities of
Kensington and Chelsea.
What large-scale looting demonstrates is that it
is the battle of ideas where the Left is playing catch-up in Britain’s poorest
areas. While middle class universities are hotbeds of youth radicalism, for the
poor it is often the language of neo-liberalism that motivates. Aspirational
rhetoric sounds different on the council estates of Woolwich or Peckham; but it
is widespread and accepted all the same. Popular hip-hop music promotes not
solidarity, but a desire to escape “the ghetto” – often by any means necessary.
“Get rich or die tryin” was how American rapper 50 cent put it; and while
“Fiddy” is very much out of fashion these days, the narrative of getting rich at
all costs is still conspicuous to say the least.
If you live in one of
the above mentioned areas, the only realistic way to achieve celebrity or get
rich – what actually matters if you
watch television or turn on the radio – is to “loot” in one way or another. If
that means breaking into shops, burning houses or selling drugs then so be it.
The difference between this and those who deny funds to services through tax
evasion is that when young black men “loot” the BBC will call it “totally
unacceptable”; in the case of the former it will be put down to an individual
becoming “tax efficient”.
What someone does in a business suit however
does not become ok simply because it is repeated by a person wearing a
tracksuit. Neither is to be celebrated; and unthinkingly doing so does little to
help those living in Enfield and Tottenham and who aren’t rioting, such as the
elderly, terrified and barricaded inside their homes. Forgetting such people is
one of the luxuries of the academic left, who can at times cling on to trendy
terms such as “uprising” and “revolt” in a desire to attach themselves to youth
and their attractive and dangerous anger.
In this vein, what the riots
appear to demonstrate is not simply the consequence of the rampant free market,
but the retreat of the Left from the council estate to the ivory tower.
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.