In July 2015, at a party to mark the tenth anniversary of London’s Fashion Retail Academy, Tony Blair lauded Philip Green, the college’s sponsor, as “the person who thought up the dream and dreamt the dream into reality”. Less than a year after this saccharine tribute, Green became a pariah. On 25 April 2016, British Home Stores, the dowdy retailer he sold to serial fantasist Dominic Chappell for £1, entered administration. It did so with debts of £1bn and a pension deficit of £571m – the numbers that motivated Green’s fire sale.
Oliver Shah, the 34-year-old business editor of the Sunday Times who exposed Green’s misdemeanours, recounts how the billionaire made a reputation and lost it. In the months following BHS’s collapse, Green was typically described as “the unacceptable face of capitalism” (an epithet first applied by Ted Heath to Tiny Rowland in 1973). Yet the tendency to isolate the individual should be resisted. It is comfortable – and convenient – to attribute corporate failures to overweening ogres (Robert Maxwell, Dick Fuld, Fred Goodwin). Sharks, however, need water in which to swim.
Damaged Goods is not merely an indictment of Green but of his enablers. Shah does not spare his own trade – or his own paper. Confronted by journalists, Green would deploy “the carrot of leaks about other people’s deals and the stick of his ferocious temper”. So important was the relationship with the Sunday Times business team that Green titled his unpublished autobiography Lucky 5766 (the extension number of the paper’s business editor).
With the media’s connivance, Green cast himself as a rags-to-riches upstart disturbing the patrician City of London. But the supposed proletarian grew up in an affluent family in Hampstead Garden Suburb and boarded at Carmel College, an Oxfordshire private school where fees exceeded Eton’s and the purple uniform was sold at Harrods.
Green’s early years, however, were not without strife. When he was just 12 his father died suddenly of a heart attack aged 49. Green left school at 16 with no O-levels – and a ferocious desire for validation. In the London fashion trade he thrived as a “job buyer” – retrieving excess stock from badly-run or bankrupt companies and selling it for a profit. In the 1980s and 1990s he became, in Shah’s words, “the most talented asset-stripper and trader of his generation”. Green bought the ailing chain Jean Jeanie for £65,000 in 1985 and sold it for £3m a year later. He mercilessly dismantled the 108-year-old Sears fashion empire, offloading its brands while retaining a property portfolio worth £300m.
In 1995, Green reaped £36m after selling Sports Division to JJB Sports. The payment coincided with his family’s move to the tax haven of Monaco (“a sunny place for shady people” in Somerset Maugham’s description), where they have lived ever since. 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 – the legal owner – did not. Yet such avarice did not deter the award of a knighthood by the Blair government in 2006. 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.
As the owners of BHS and the Arcadia Group (which included Topshop and Miss Selfridge), the Greens enriched themselves. In 2005, as he loaded the Arcadia Group’s balance sheet with debt, Green paid his wife Tina a £1.2bn tax-free dividend. “It destroyed his judgement, his humanity and in some respects his soul,” an unnamed friend remarks. This, at least, would account for Green’s contemptible conduct. “What’s he ever done? I paid for all this,” he replies when a guest compliments his son’s bar mitzvah rendition. “He can’t read English. Mind you, he is a fucking Irishman,” Green remarks of the Guardian’s former financial editor Paul Murphy. “You’re absolutely fucking useless,” Green tells 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.”
When he levels the same threat at Shah on the morning of 23 April 2016, the journalist is unbowed. Green did not reckon with the Sunday Times’s tenacity (Rupert Murdoch, a wealthier man, simply ignored his calls) nor with MPs such as Labour’s Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, whose ascetic integrity is the antithesis of Green’s vulgarity.
Even after a payment of £363m to the BHS pension fund, and a retail downturn, the Greens retain a £2bn fortune. But they have shed all moral credit. Green, it transpired, knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The retailer exemplified an era that has mercifully receded, when Labour and the Conservatives competed to fawn over corporate titans and when warnings were dismissed as “the politics of envy”. Green was not the cause of this broken system – merely a symptom.
Damaged Goods: the Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street
Portfolio, 320pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 11 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce