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Richard Branson has a lot in common with Donald Trump. Aside from the obvious – super-rich, super-self-centred, clever at marketing their success through books and other campaigns – they are also both like marmite. You either like them, or you don’t. I don’t like Richard Branson because his public relations side-kick used to bully me when I was a young journalist and I took it for granted that, as people tend to hire people like themselves, Branson was probably a bully, too. It was the 1990s and Branson was doing his best to curry favour with Nelson Mandela and friends and so a carefully controlled message in the media was important to him. Simon Lincoln Reader, a Saffer who lives in London, remembers those days clearly when Branson was among the rich and powerful with Mandela Endorsement Obsession. Since then, I’ve watched Branson bully a whole lot of people, including Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). As The Metro reports, in November 2017 the NHS paid an undisclosed settlement to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Care after the threat of legal action. Now this isn’t necessarily because the NHS was in the wrong in not granting Branson’s company some work; in the UK just hiring a lawyer can easily cost more than the settlement, so many parties pay up purely to limit the legal bills. In his latest diary, SLR elaborates on why Richard Branson has become enemy#1 in the UK. – Jackie Cameron
By Simon Lincoln Reader*
The rich are the first casualties of public opinion in most crises.
In what has been a long relationship with South Africa, Sir Richard Branson has choreographed a series of roles including but not limited to the saviour of a gym chain, visionary aviator, luxury hotelier, entrepreneurial benefactor and cheerful if hyperactive philanthropist. These efforts – all of which have involved careful image positioning – led to undeniable popularity in the country, something that today lies in contrast to his reception in the land of his birth.
It was inevitable that pockets of anger would explode as Britain confronted the impact of Covid-19. But even from the outset, as the government scrambled together the early stages of a plan, Branson’s response was being aggressively anticipated in a way his fellow billionaires’ weren’t. Reading through the litany of comments regarding the uncertainties facing airlines, it was clear that unless Branson reacted to the pandemic with a billion dollar gift to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), he would unleash olympian forces of repulsion who’ve long bemoaned his tax exile status, Virgin’s failed trains, the speed of his internet cable or any of the other misadventures where others have lost yet he has somehow managed to escape with his wealth more or less intact.
So it came to pass that in early April 2020, at the height of the pandemic’s curve and its implications, Branson emerged from his island with the very response cynics were expecting: a request that the UK government loan him 500 million pounds to save Virgin Atlantic.
Some of Branson’s criticism is wholly unwarranted. Having personal experience of him and Virgin, I’ve witnessed social awareness absent from contemporary robber barons such as Bill Ackmann or Paul Singer – even if some of it is poorly disguised vanity. But just like Bill Clinton, Branson suffered Mandela Endorsement Obsession – that transparent condition that saw both the former President and the Virgin founder grasping for every photo opportunity with the late Statesman.
Branson began to experience what was once known in Australia as Tall Poppy Syndrome in the 80s.
“It was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells what did it for me,” Britain’s highest-paid writer Rod Liddle said when describing his contempt, “the torturous, flatulent, pompous drivel that launched Branson’s record career”. “Never trust a hippy,” remarked Johnny Rotten three years later. In the Sunday Telegraph in January 1998, the writer Mark Steyn described the “insidious ubiquity” of the Virgin brand: “The complete Virgin man can board a Virgin Atlantic flight in New York, relax on board with a Virgin V2 CD and a glass of Virgin Cola, land in Britain, take a Virgin Railways train, bump into a supermodel from Branson’s agency Storm (possibly even Kate Moss or Elle McPherson), catch a movie with her at a Virgin Cinema, send her off to the one-stop wedding shop Virgin Bride to book a Virgin Travel honeymoon at a Virgin hotel, decide to drop in for a nightcap at Branson’s gay nightclub Heaven, get blotto on Virgin Vodka, pick up some muscular hunk in buttock-hugging Virgin Jeans and go back to his place, listening to Virgin Radio in the car and, of course, stopping off at the all-night chemist for a packet of Branson’s condoms (Mates, not Virgin).”
Indeed, at the onset of the financial crisis in 2009 when Branson remarked, “companies need to stand on their own two feet, and the weak ones need to go to the wall,” it was to Steyn’s column I returned, as the writer had also documented the occasions where Branson himself had been rescued by the government.
There are even some who are sceptical of Branson’s wealth, estimated to be around $4 to 5 billion dollars. Among these is Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 magnate, who once claimed “Branson doesn’t have the type of money that you need in racing. I know three people you’ve never heard of in walking distance from my house who are richer.” The way Branson manages his wealth in a series of untraceable offshore schemes makes the true calculation virtually impossible, if not more intriguing.
Most critics are, however, unaware of this and probably don’t care. It is his tax status that enrages them. At this point, the analysis extends beyond one individual into a broader study of society – and how we will treat those in future who float to the top.
A sense of cognitive dissonance seizes Britain as vultures circle his legacy. Some insist that if Virgin Atlantic collapses, it will have failed despite the pandemic, not because of. A petition has launched demanding his knighthood be rescinded. Virgin spokespeople who have called into radio stations to defend Branson’s application for the loan – something he is prepared to stake his island on – have been mercilessly dismissed. In every report or opinion post an exhaustion reveals itself: he’s too white, he’s too old, he’s occupied the intersection between capitalism and ego for too long.
Part of this exhaustion involves the political forces. The grouping we could once define as “right” is complacent and unwilling to address the more recent and unsavoury extensions of capitalism such as cronyism or blob economics. Caught off guard by the virus, they have stammered around calls to resist the lockdown. Uncharacteristically, the “left” have been icily accurate in their own responses – whether it is Jeremy Corbyn smugly reviewing the government relief schemes and claiming victory, Ebrahim Patel muscling in on e-commerce or the deistic worship of the NHS – which would already make Hugo Chavez’ PDVZA blush.
Of the two forces, the “left” is in a far stronger position, edging close to the basis of that dastardly political tool “consensus”. A future is in the making – but it has been for longer than we think. If this type of future succeeds, one that is vaguely representative of our current situation, Branson will have become both the feast and the burial of our time.
But even if it doesn’t and we return to relative normality, the behaviour of billionaires, particularly those of the relentlessly self-promoting kind, will be even more scrutinised. This grudge has run a course deeper and longer than the pandemic. In time to come, we will inherit the convergence of an economic catastrophe and the exhaustion creep; it will be this unenviable welcome that awaits those who float to the top.
- Simon Lincoln Reader works and lives in London. You can follow him on Medium.
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