The British honours system has long been a cause for national shame – titles are doled out to political cronies, party donors and failed MPs. But what little reputation it maintains is sullied by Philip Green’s knighthood.
MPs are now once more calling for the honour’s removal should allegations of sexual harassment, racist abuse and bullying against Green be proven (Labour peer Peter Hain yesterday used parliamentary privilege to name the billionaire retailer as the businessman behind a press injunction).
Indeed, the Commons previously voted unanimously in 2016 to remove Green’s knighthood following his avaricious plunder of BHS (and a resultant £571m pension deficit). Green, unlike former RBS head Fred Goodwin, narrowly retained his honour following a pension contribution of £363m (a small dent in his £2bn fortune) and a decision not to ban him from holding directorships.
But all of this risks obscuring another question: why was the businessman knighted in the first instance? New Labour, Peter Mandelson said in 1998, was “intensely relaxed” about “people getting filthy rich”, but he added the often forgotten proviso: “as long as they pay their taxes”.
Green’s wife – who resides in Monaco (“a sunny place for shady people” in Somerset Maugham’s description) and is the legal owner of his companies – did not. But this did not prevent the award of a knighthood to her husband by the Blair government in 2006.
The year before, as Green loaded the Arcadia Group’s balance sheet with debt, he paid his wife a £1.2bn tax-free dividend. “It destroyed his judgement, his humanity and in some respects his soul,” an unnamed friend remarked in Oliver Shah’s essential biography Damaged Goods. This, at least, would account for Green’s contemptible conduct. “What’s he ever done? I paid for all this,” he replied when a guest complimented his son’s bar mitzvah rendition. “He can’t read English. Mind you, he is a fucking Irishman,” Green remarked of the Guardian’s former financial editor Paul Murphy. “You’re absolutely fucking useless,” Green told a female buyer at BHS. “I should throw you out of the window but you’re so fat you’d probably bounce back in again.”
But though Green can appear almost uniquely ogreish, the tendency to isolate the individual – “the unacceptable face of capitalism” – should be resisted. The businessman’s rise would not have been possible without the connivance of sycophantic politicians, fawning journalists and impotent regulators.
When New Labour’s popularity collapsed, Green pledged his loyalty to David Cameron and George Osborne (“They understand what needs to be done,” he said of the pair’s austerity programme. “They get it.”) Green was rewarded in August 2010 when Cameron appointed him to lead a review of public sector efficiency. The result was a David Brent-like, 33-page PowerPoint presentation that suggested using video-conferencing to reduce hotel expenses.
The mere removal of Green’s knighthood would not be adequate compensation. But it would at least demonstrate that a grotesquely indulged individual can no longer game the system.