If Sir Philip Green had been a character in a Victorian novel, he’d have come to a sticky end. Immensely rich, a Conservative Party donor, responsible for the bankruptcy yesterday of BHS, from which he is reckoned to have siphoned off at least half a billion pounds before he cunningly offloaded it, leaving his workers with no jobs and no pensions; a tax-dodger on a monumental scale; owner of several luxury homes, three yachts (why does he need three?), one of which resembles those great aggressive-looking sharks that we see sometimes in the Stockholm Archipelago, and a private helicopter: all for no discernible benefit to humanity at large. And who do you think gave him his knighthood? Yes, TB himself. Anthony Trollope (The Way We Live Now), HG Wells (Tono-Bungay), even Kenneth Graham (Toad in The Wind in the Willows), would have delighted in writing an unpleasant nemesis for him.
For that’s how the Victorian and Edwardian literati treated their entrepreneurs. They despised them. According to an influential book published by the American Martin Wiener in 1981, English culture and the decline of the industrial spirit 1850–1980, this partly explains Britain’s modern economic failings.‘High culture’ in later nineteenth century Britain had been notably unsupportive of urban capitalism. Most artists ignored it; some novelists expressly attacked it (Dickens, Gaskell). As a consequence, even successful businessmen, and especially their progeny, used their dodgily-gotten gains to escape from the stigma of being ‘in trade’, and set themselves up as non-productive jumped-up aristos, fatally for enterprise. That argument was seized on avidly by the Thatcherites. Sir Keith Joseph, one of the most zealous of them, presented a copy of Wiener’s book to each of his cabinet colleagues. You can see why Thatcher was such a philistine; even a proud one. The British literary world had no complementary Ayn Rand to to bolster capitalist egos, by presenting entrepreneurs as heroes. Hence Britain’s long post-Victorian economic decline. That’s the story.
So Thatcher and Joseph set out to reverse this trend; pretty successfully, if measured by the ‘enterprise’ they stimulated, albeit less so if judged by the medium- and long-term benefits of that enterprise, as we can see today. Philip Green is a product of this reversal. He represents exactly the kind of entrepreneur Thatcher admired. She is known to have respected ‘Jewish’ enterprise in particular, and Green probably exemplifies this too – educated as he was at an Orthodox Jewish boarding school, Carmel College in Oxfordshire, known as the ‘Jewish Eton’. I have to say I find this rather unsettling, seeming as it does to confirm a certain stereotype. (Please don’t put me down me as anti-Semitic. It’s a difficult slur to avoid these days.)
And no, I’m not in the least envious (see below, April 12). I’d hate Green’s life-style, as related in this press report: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/25/bhs-philip-green-family-millions-administration-arcadia. Even the play-girls. (At my age.) So let’s hope the Victorian novelists’ curse awaits him ultimately. In the meantime there must be some suitable fat-cat-weight-bearing lamp-posts around…