Stinking Rich

Jenny Diski

  • Branson by Tom Bower
    Fourth Estate, 384 pp, £17.99, September 2000, ISBN 1 84115 386 9

I find myself nostalgic for the time, long ago, when one thing the very rich and very famous could be relied on to do was shut up. Paul Getty, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace of Monaco wrapped their money around themselves in the form of impenetrable walls and/or designer sunglasses and kept silent while the world wondered and chattered. And you would imagine that if money could do anything for you it would be to insulate you from having to care what other people thought. The people don’t have to vote for you, they don’t have to love you. But even princesses and tycoons have to seem to be democratic and lovable these days. They have to sell their brand by selling themselves. Sometimes their brand is themselves. There are power lists and personalities of the year, decade and century, and however filthy with wealth you are, you have to worry about ‘the people’, you have to care what they think of you. We’ve had our people’s princess, desperate to become the queen of people’s hearts, and we still have the people’s tycoon noisily committed to running the People’s Lottery, apparently free of charge. The pitch is to demand to be seen as ordinary, just like you and me, only richer and more glamorous, of course, because it does the populace a power of good to see heightened images of what they might have been, kitted out in fine frocks and indulging in dangerous sports no one else can afford. And they want it known, these rich people, that in spite of their morale-boosting high life, they devote themselves to the well-being of others, and the greater benefit of the nation. They nurture, they improve, they innovate, they care. They are also – well, they are modern icons – consummate moaners. They complain loudly and publicly about being misunderstood, underappreciated, and afflicted on all sides by the forces of repression, tradition and evil. Since they’re on the side of the people, any attack on them is tantamount to an attack on the ordinary folk they would like us to believe they represent. They are, it turns out, latter-day saints, deflecting and taking on themselves the slights and assaults of the elitist, convention-bound enemy, becoming martyrs and shields of the people. And my God how they whine, how they snivel, how they demand our attention and sympathy.

Still riding on a wave of sentiment that may not have had much more energy left in it, the Princess of Wales timed her exit impeccably. It is tempting to think that Richard Branson also understood, if only unconsciously, that public adulation is likely to tire and turn into its own opposite. Blonde, blue-eyed, apparently artless – like the Princess – he took what seemed to be life-threatening risks by boat and balloon, and nearly came a cropper once or twice, so that he, too, might have gone while the going was still good. As luck (or his carefully-chosen fellow adventurers) would have it, however, he has survived, and it may be that he is about to outlive his popular acclaim. It seemed appropriate that Branson’s grinning face, on the cover of Virgin Publishing’s ghosted autobiography, was seen in virtually every episode of Big Brother, and while the graspingly hopeful housemates came and went, the Branson book stayed, to be taken up by the decreasing remainder as a favourite read. Surely it must have been the devious, miscalculating and ultimately naive Nick who brought it into the house? Nick got sussed by the public and eventually his fellow inmates. Is the same thing going to happen to Richard Branson? He who lives by public relations will die by public relations.

There have, of course, always been those who had their doubts about Richard Branson’s status as a millionaire with a heart of gold, and who have declined on principle to fly on Virgin planes, drink Virgin Cola or wine, invest in Virgin life insurance, wear a Virgin wedding dress, ride a Virgin train or speak on a Virgin mobile. Among these hold-outs, I wouldn’t be surprised, might have been Tom Bower, who tells us that halfway through writing this biography he found himself in receipt of a writ for defamation after an article he wrote in the Evening Standard. One way or another Virgin gets into your life, though Virgin Writs is not, so far as I know, registered at Companies House. The writ arrived after Branson failed to get Bower to agree to submit his unfinished manuscript to him before publication; it was addressed to Bower rather than the Evening Standard. A ploy, Bower believes, to discredit him and therefore the biography. The case comes to court next year.

Bower has some important books to his credit. He takes a responsible and well-researched interest in the hidden dealings of the rich and powerful. Tiny Rowland, Mohammed Al Fayed and Robert Maxwell have all received the treatment and been carefully scrutinised. His account of Maxwell’s affairs delved into the murky depths, but he also kept a wary eye on the dubious ethics of the business world around the man, and produced an interestingly complex account of Maxwell’s psychology. The investigation of Branson’s business activities is thorough and compelling, but what is missing, for the satisfaction of the reader and perhaps the writer, too, is the slightest indication of complexity or depth of character in its protagonist. Either Bower has missed it, or Branson is that shallow: a rich man who is of no interest at all. That the self-aggrandising prankster who races to court at every opportunity and continually complains of being done down is lacking substance isn’t news, but still it’s disappointing to find that there is nothing more to him than one thought.

It’s evident that Bower doesn’t like his subject – and not unreasonable of him given that the subject is suing him. The smiling golden boy on the cover of Branson’s autobiography is replaced on Bower’s account by a cold-eyed and menacing prince of darkness. The dislike is much more visible in this book than in others Bower has written. Branson is berated for lacking conscience when at 23 he became a millionaire, although ‘wealth troubled many in that socialist era.’ There were also many it did not trouble. Youthful millionaires who started with a more than decent financial base are not often afflicted by bad conscience, one imagines. Those who are prone to it probably didn’t do what had to be done in order to accumulate wealth. It seems almost unreasonable to berate Branson in particular for having the qualities that failed to prevent him from becoming and remaining wealthy. He is accused in the early pages of an untroubled conscience, a ‘lust for fame and fortune’, a preoccupation with earning money, a disdain for authority and intellectuals, an oily ability to treat and charm susceptible journalists, a canny use of offshore trusts, a ruthlessness that allowed him to dump those who were no longer of use to him: all or some of these must be attributes of anyone who makes a great deal of money (and of many besides). Sometimes Bower seems quite disingenuous in his apparent belief that it is possible to make and keep large sums of money while maintaining the personality of a Poor Clare. It is, after all, precisely that fond and fruitless wish in all of us that Branson plays on as he attempts to maintain the fiction that he is Britain’s favourite do-gooding, fun-loving, once hippie, now laddish millionaire.

He is, of course, a millionaire. The unexpectedly colossal sales of Mike Oldfield’s dreary Tubular Bells saw to that in 1973. The money was salted away in offshore family trusts which have ensured Branson’s own wealth no matter how dire the difficulty his companies might be in. Even at the time only the very gullible imagined he would be using the money to improve the lot of the poor. He’s always been a guy on the make, a capitalist with a talent for PR and camouflage. Before the record shops, he started Student magazine. There is a photograph in his autobiography of the front line of the 1968 Grosvenor Square demonstration – Branson marching alongside Tariq Ali. According to Bower, Branson simply attached himself to the student leaders, who were quite oblivious of his presence, but the press accepted his claim to be in the forefront of the revolution and Vogue featured him as a representative of Britain’s student rebellion, when he actually represented that other side of the Sixties, the rise of the go-getting individualist.

Branson is, if you like, an emotional con artist. But I find myself ambivalent about Tom Bower’s expressions of outrage, just as when I watch or hear one of those programmes that pursue those who prey on gullible consumers. I feel a kind of guilty sympathy with the hounded wrong-doer. What do you expect? They were only doing their job, making money by making promises. Why are you asking them why they did it? Why not ask why people believed them? Why not ask why they were so stupid as to deceive people illegally when it is so easy to do it in a completely legal fashion and be acclaimed for it?

If you think that capitalism and global brand merchandising have a great deal to answer for, and you have a distaste for the vulgarity of publicity stunts involving naked women and pointless feats of derring-do, then you will not much like Richard Branson. You will feel that a life could be put to better use, that money could be better spent, that there is something terribly wrong with a society in which 47 per cent of the public wanted Richard Branson to become Mayor of London and voted him Britain’s favourite boss, best role model for parents and teenagers and most popular tycoon. But Branson does provide an insight into the workings of late 20th-century capitalism and its social forms. He has made himself rich by making himself famous and made himself famous by making himself rich. He has manipulated public opinion because the manipulation of public opinion has never been easier. He presented himself as buccaneer and victim, a virgin forever being interfered with by corrupt and powerful old men, a dewy David battling the thug Goliath. And people, the people apparently, have loved it. They love him being rich, having his own island in the sun, shaming the suits at board meetings, tieless in jumpers knitted by his auntie, getting drunk and randy, blowing millions on hot air adventures in the sky. In his business dealings as well as his public persona, he is a triumph of lack of style over substance. He feeds the friendly hacks, flies them to his island in his aeroplane, lets them mingle with the famous and fatuous, and they dutifully turn out the Richard Branson the public wants. Just a bloke who does with his money what any ordinary bloke, nice as you like, would do if he had any to spare.

When Bower digs beneath the lack of substance to see how Branson actually operates, he makes it sound like a state of perpetual panic. In 1999, apart from his airline and rail franchises, all of Branson’s major companies were trading at a loss. For decades, his trick has been to keep things afloat and the City on his side by shifting money around between profitable and failing parts of the business. Part of his charm and popular appeal is his public admission of ignorance. In 1999 he gave a Millennium Lecture at Oxford and apparently told the admiring students that only those who rejected university would become millionaires. Industry was dead, only brands would be of value in the future. It is not necessary to know about the things you are marketing. He knew nothing about music and the airline business. ‘Get the right people around you and just incentivise them.’ Bower gloomily sums up the speech and the beliefs of ‘Britain’s greatest entrepreneur’: ‘Ignore education, ignore expertise and ignore technology. In a citadel of academic excellence, Branson had preached anti-knowledge.’ Probably the students in the citadel of excellence loved it.

In fact, Branson’s instincts seem rather frail, or at any rate to be related to sheer survival rather than innovation. Airlines, cola, finance, Internet access, mobile phones, gas and electricity provision: all these commodities were already well established by others. He is always a step behind, complaining loudly how unjust it is that by being ahead of him others are stopping him from being in front. Even though he started later, it’s plain not fair that anyone should be in front. And, proving that shouting loudly is a very effective form of argument, people in authority are inclined to agree with him, or at least not to want to become unpopular by disagreeing with him. He revels in being the little man held back by the big bully, though you come to suspect after reading Bower’s book that little bullies are just as obnoxious. He decides to market Virgin Cola, and complains that Coca-Cola is taking unfair advantage of being the market leader, by, as it were, being the market leader. Actually, he seems to complain about anyone fighting back (or just carrying on as normal) when he has entered the ring. The long court and publicity battles with BA were of that kind. Branson accused British Airways of ‘dirty tricks’ when it appears to Bower that BA did little more than any business would do to maintain its edge. He railed about their powerful monopoly as if it were preventing Virgin Atlantic from flourishing, when BA had little more than 30 per cent of the market and Virgin Atlantic consisted of no more than a handful of planes, fewer than other independent airlines. Price wars among suppliers are just what the consumer needs, Thatcher used to say. But Thatcher-loving Branson, the Tories’ favourite capitalist (also, of course, New Labour’s favourite capitalist), moaned about BA cutting prices and it simply not being fair to him. He went to court against others, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always gaining the publicity edge as the people’s champion in the sweater being bullied by the faceless ones in suits. Quite why Virgin Atlantic had a God-given right to survive (it was never the cheapest way to fly to the States and it always had the least leg room) isn’t clear. The answer seems to be that Branson is a very nice man and jolly well deserves to be a success in all things.

Bower dismisses the idea that it is fun being a Virgin employee. It seems that they are very likely to be badly paid, overworked and then given the boot when they are no longer useful. Worse than all that, they are frequently obliged, according to one ex-employee, to witness the boss ‘exposing himself all over the place’ at parties. Bower goes into some detail about Branson’s personal relations with women and his penchant for cross-dressing, but this, too, fails to make the man more interesting – and is irrelevant to his argument. Much more pertinent is the regularity with which people he worked with were sacked and financial partners outmanoeuvred by fancy legal footwork. He cried when he announced to his staff that he’d sold Virgin Music, but flatly refused to share with those who lost their jobs any of the £560 million he made from the sale. But that’s business for you.

The lottery is Branson’s latest grand passion. Once again he took the competition to court, claiming that Guy Snowden of GTech had tried to bribe him to drop his bid for the franchise. The case was based on a note (the original of which was never found) Branson said he made of the bribe when Snowden was invited to lunch. Quite why Snowden waited to be invited to lunch by Branson before offering the bribe was never explained, but Branson won the case and made GTech’s ambitions look very ugly compared to his own non-profit-making People’s Lottery. When in 1994 Camelot won the lottery franchise, Branson screamed: ‘I’ve been robbed’ – and burst into tears. He threatened to take the then regulator, Peter Davis, to court for negligence and maladministration as he had once appealed to the High Court when a decision for a television franchise went against him. The regulator, fearing a judicial review, explained why the People’s Lottery had lost. In Bower’s words:

Camelot planned four times more retail outlets to sell tickets than Virgin; Branson’s projections of the money to be raised for good causes ranked only as average among the eight applicants; and the amount Branson anticipated generating for the whole lottery fund was the sixth lowest. On other assessments, Branson’s bid ranked bottom . . . Oflot’s calculations showed that Branson proposed to take out more in service charges than Camelot and contribute less to the fund of good causes. His hugely vaunted promise of a non-profit-making lottery was suspect because the ‘profits’ appeared to be hidden among ‘administrative costs’.

In the six years since that bid, things have not gone entirely well for Branson, in spite of the knighthood he received from Tony Blair. The stakes were very high for his new bid for the lottery, according to Bower. ‘His failure to fulfil his predicted successes in many different Virgin enterprises, his recurring financial losses and the inscrutability of his offshore trusts were persistent sources of unease. To remove the doubts, Branson established an unnamed holding company without shareholders and seven non-executive directors to supervise the People’s Lottery, his new private company.’ Camelot’s bid was rejected by Dame Helena Shovelton because of doubts about the probity of GTech. But Branson’s bid was not accepted either. Although, as Bower puts it, ‘the billions of pounds of lottery money flowing perfectly legitimately through a private company with a single shareholder would place Branson in an unprecedented position of power and influence,’ Shovelton had problems with his bid.

In particular . . . the Commission had identified how the financial claims of lottery players might not be protected if Branson’s lottery became insolvent, lost its licence or failed to raise as much money as he predicted. In Shovelton’s opinion, Branson’s proposals on those crucial financial issues were ‘so conditional and so uncertain’ that the Commission harboured ‘significant concerns about the financial viability of the People’s Lottery if the ticket sales were much lower than expected’.

Branson was sent away to sort out some more substantial backing, Camelot won a judicial review suggesting that they had been treated unfairly by not receiving similar treatment and Shovelton resigned. It seems that the final decision will be make or break for Branson’s ambitions and credibility.

Branson claims that only brands count, and up to now he seems to have been proved right. People appear to think that all things Virgin have their best interests at heart. They are amazed to discover that having been told by Branson in his ads that Virgin PEPs would be the cheapest in Britain, they were actually subject to a 4 per cent commission which made them the third most expensive. They were astonished to find that instead of Virgin trains being ‘fun’ and despite the promises to ‘increase quality and bring down prices’, they routinely ran late, were overcrowded and cost up to 30 per cent more in fares. There was a time when we knew that people who made a great deal of money were not likely to have other people’s best interests as their prime motive. In spite of decades of universal education we seem to have gone soft in the head. Nothing Branson has done since his teenage years, when he avoided paying purchase tax on record sales, has been illegal. Much of it has not been pleasant, humane or straightforward, but that is allowed in the accumulation and protection of wealth. Perhaps we choose to admire Richard Branson because we cherish the hope that one day we might find ourselves fabulously wealthy, and we’d like to think of ourselves in that golden future as being nice as well as stinking rich. Richard Branson sits in the soggy parts of our minds and represents the possibility of our dreams coming true and not having to despise ourselves. What is Tom Bower doing to our fondest hopes by suggesting that Branson might not gleam through and through? If we can’t believe in Branson, the people’s millionaire, what can we believe in?