Sir Philip Green’s reputation today lies in ruins. As the headline on the report in The Times puts it, “Billionaire’s greed led to collapse of BHS”.
How, one may ask, did he get away with taking vast sums out of this company, before selling it for a pound to a man who was manifestly quite unfit to own or run it?
Part of the answer is that Sir Philip had a lot of help from his advisers in the City, who were handsomely rewarded for lending a veneer of respectability to his shameless activities. The Financial Times today chronicles the abject role played by Goldman Sachs, and there were many others who should have known better.
Capitalism depends on a code of morality. When those who own or run companies enrich themselves with indecent and grotesque eagerness at the expense of their pensioners and employees, trust collapses and the whole system becomes unsustainable.
In 1973, a Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, coined the expression “the unacceptable face of capitalism” to describe the excesses then being committed by Lonrho. The phrase has now been applied to BHS by the committee of MPs who looked into what went wrong there.
Michael McManus reminds us, in his absorbing new study, Edward Heath: A Singular Life (Elliott & Thompson, £25), that Heath only coined this expression – his one enduring contribution to the political lexicon – by accident. As the journalist Simon Hoggart explained:
“He did say ”the unacceptable face of capitalism’, but he didn’t intend to. Heath is short sighted, but usually too vain to wear glasses. Commenting on the Lonrho scandal in the House, he read from a script provided for him by Number Ten. But he couldn’t quite make out the words typed on the page: ‘This is an unpleasant and unacceptable facet of capitalism’ – a far less memorable phrasing.”
Theresa May is well placed to provide the necessary condemnation of Sir Philip’s behaviour. She understands how totally unacceptable this sort of thing looks to the great majority of voters.
But it would be a great mistake to imagine that there is some perfect legislative answer to this scandal. A code of behaviour is of more value than regulation so detailed, and so perfectionist, that it stifles legitimate enterprise as well as the kind of shameless plundering which has occurred during booms reaching back to the South Sea Bubble and beyond.
The public shaming of Sir Philip is part of the cure for this disease. If it impels him to see that the BHS pensioners are properly treated, so much the better.