Philip Green is the multibillionaire chairman of the fashion retail Arcadia Group, owner of chains such as Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins. With his wife Cristina he has a fortune of £4.3 billion.
He has attracted hostile press before and now he is being reviled as the unacceptable face of capitalism for his part in the downfall of British Home Stores (BHS). On 20 October, MPs supported a motion recommending Green be stripped of the knighthood he was awarded in 2006 for “services to the retail industry”.
Green bought BHS for £200 million in 2000 and sold it recently for £1. Now it has gone bust leaving 11,000 employees without a job. Green’s family had received £400 million in dividends from the company. And they paid no tax on that — the money was paid to Cristina, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco. MPs argued that while he was the owner Green deliberately ran down the BHS pension fund, which now has a £571 million deficit.
Green could yet partially redeem himself in the eyes of the establishment if he agrees to pay a large sum into the BHS pension fund to restore its fortunes. Labour supported the censure of Green, but after the House of Commons vote Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis MP wrote in the Guardian: “Yesterday’s vote was purely symbolic, an act of tokenism… This is the most extraordinary about the whole affair — legally, Green has done nothing wrong.
“…The Tories will have us believe that the BHS scandal arose from the moral failing of one man. But it is the system that is bent. The destruction of the pension scheme is not unique to BHS.”
Lewis’s criticism of the way capitalism works, how it decides who is “acceptable”, was too limited. He confined himself to criticism of the way Green did business and wrote:
“Good business is the lifeblood of the economy”. Good business? What is good business? Business that does not break the laws of the land and pays its taxes? But the laws of the land favour the rich, grind the poor, and make effective trade unionism almost impossible. Lewis wrote: “Green is the product of decades of deregulation and market deference, which have encouraged the use of companies to extract wealth rather than create it”.
Who creates new wealth? Socialists argue that workers new create wealth; the real distinction to be made is not between “good” and “bad” capitalists but between workers and those who employ them, those who own the businesses, consume the profits and, yes, if they can get away with it, asset strip as Green has done at BHS.
All the time that Green was a “good” businessman, he was getting rich from the labour of others, often sweated labour. That is the lifeblood of the garment industry. In 2010, the UK Uncut campaign picketed Topshop stores demanding “Philip Green — pay your tax!” And they were right to do that. But we should go further.
The anti-sweatshop campaign No Sweat had revealed as early as 2005 how Topshop were using sweated labour in the East End of London. Responding to that negative publicity, Philip Green said he would no longer use the factories involved. But he carried on using factories in Bangladesh where sweated labour is the norm. And so does the whole — legal — retail garment industry. No to Philip Green? Yes, and no to all capitalists!