‘Mr Greedy’ and the downfall of a tycoon

Moneybags: Philip Green once got a £250,000 gold monopoly set as a birthday present. © Xposure

Is Philip Green a villain or a scapegoat? The Topshop boss is under fire for living it up while his employees lose their jobs – but isn’t a rotten society just as much to blame as he is?

At 3pm on 25 April 2016, 11,000 people lost their jobs, wiped out in an instant by the collapse of the department store chain BHS. Worse news was to follow: the company’s pension fund was £571m in debt. Twenty thousand people had lost their pensions.

As the dust settled around the implosion of one of the High Street’s biggest employers, one man was found holding the detonator: Sir Philip Green. The former owner had ditched the company in 2015, selling it on for just £1.

Now, Green faces another blow to his reputation. Arcadia finally collapsed last night. The group is owned by Green’s family and includes big high street names like Topshop. Around 13,000 jobs are at risk.

Yet while his workers, most of whom have already been on furlough for months, face a cash-strapped Christmas, Green is reportedly booked in for a festive break in the Maldives at a resort charging £30,000 a night for some of its villas.

With his flamboyant lifestyle and extravagant expenses, Green has long served as a symbol of the worst excesses of capitalism. He owns no fewer than three yachts, and his 55th birthday party – featuring performances by George Michael and Jennifer Lopez – is thought to have cost around £20m.

In spite of his vast wealth, at the beginning of the pandemic he immediately furloughed most of his employees, letting the taxpayer pay their wages, while he retreated to his boat, Lionheart. Some have criticised him for not contributing any of his own money to support them.

He has also faced allegations of sexual harassment and racism. Two former female employees received large settlements after claiming that Green had put one of his workers in a headlock.

But there is another side of the story. Less than twenty years ago, Green was hailed as a great entrepreneur – even the “king of the High Street”.

His defenders claim that he is the image of a self-made man. He left school at 15, became an apprentice in a shoe warehouse, and set up his first business aged just 23 – albeit with a large loan from his wealthy family.

As a businessman he seemed to have the Midas touch, buying up fading High Street chains and turning them, one by one, into big earners.

Some argue that Green did exactly what our capitalist society has always told people is right: work hard, build a business and enjoy the fruits of your labours.

Now, they suggest, this same society is turning on Green because it would prefer not to confront the greed and selfishness that it has fostered. By turning Green into a scapegoat, we can pretend that problems in business are caused by a few bad apples, and not an entire system that encourages greed.

In reality, they insist, Green is only a reflection of a society that has lost its soul. And it prefers to attack that reflection, rather than take a hard look at itself.

So, is he a villain or a scapegoat?

Rub of the green

Guilty as charged, say some. He has pursued wealth at the cost of everything else, and squandered it on extravagances while his workers lose their livelihoods. He has been accused of harassing and abusing those who work with him. He takes no responsibility for his actions, and refuses to let others hold him to account. He has exaggerated a “self-made man” image belied by his wealthy upbringing.

A fall guy for capitalism, say others. However repulsive Green’s actions are, thousands of others get away with worse every day. We have a culture and a government that encourages people to look out for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Therefore it is self-serving of us to criticise Green while ignoring the part we all play in promoting behaviour such as his.

You Decide

  1. Is it always wrong to be greedy?
  2. Does the government have a responsibility to protect the employees of businesses whose owners run them into the ground?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a man or woman who is setting up their own business. Think about the challenges they face, and how they feel when they overcome them.
  2. Using the kind of argument that you think would most appeal to him, write a letter to Philip Green trying to persuade him to use some of his wealth to protect his employees’ pensions.

Some People Say...

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

Shirley Chisholm (1924 - 2005), American politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that in our society we find stories of dirty business dealings strangely compelling. The last few decades have seen a slew of TV programmes that glorify corporate backstabbing, from The Apprentice to the BBC’s recent hit Industry. However much we might disapprove of the misbehaviour of the wealthy and powerful in real life, there seems to be little doubt that we lap it up on the screen.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not it is ever appropriate to talk about a “self-made man”. Advocates of the label insist that successful firms are usually set up by one visionary with a big idea that they make reality through their own grit and intelligence. But others suggest that most of these people are lucky enough to inherit or borrow money from family members to start their businesses. And they point out that companies rely on skills, education and infrastructure funded by taxes.

Word Watch

Pension fund
A scheme that provides funds for retirees. They usually invest money in the stock market and pay out their returns to their members.
Furlough
A paid leave of absence, during which an employee still receives a portion of their income. As spending collapsed thanks to the pandemic, most European governments had to introduce furlough schemes to ensure that workers would not have to be laid off.
Maldives
A country to the south-west of India, made up of several small islands. It is the world’s lowest-lying country: its highest point is just 5.1m above sea level.
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system based on the creation of profit and its reinvestment in a business to create more profit.
Self-made man
A term invented by US politician Henry Clay to describe a person who, from humble beginnings, rises to a higher standard of living on the strength of their own work alone.
Midas touch
A reference to the ancient Greek mythical figure King Midas, who was granted the power of turning everything he touched to gold. His power ended in tragedy when his own daughter embraced him and turned into a golden statue.
Scapegoat
A person who is unfairly made to bear the blame for the sins of others. The term derives from a Biblical practice in which a goat would be sent into the desert to purge the community of its sins.
Bad apples
A metaphor used to defend a group or organisation by blaming its problems on a small number of bad individuals. The original metaphor in British English had the opposite meaning: that it only takes a few bad apples to spoil a whole crop.

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