The British love the idea of the National Health Service almost as much as they hate the idea of fat-cat billionaires, so the news that one of the country’s fattest corporate felines, Sir Philip Green, launched what is being billed as a “foul-mouthed tirade” against an NHS choir is being held up as incontrovertible proof that Green truly is “the unacceptable face of capitalism” as he was termed in a Parliamentary debate last year.
The disgust and revulsion in which “Sir Shifty,” as Green has been dubbed by the British media, is held, is not just standard-issue British begrudgery of billionaires.
Green’s emergence as a popular hate-figure goes back to the collapse of a legacy British chain store he once owned, British Home Stores (BHS), which he offloaded to a dubious consortium of failed businessmen for £1 in 2015.
In 2016 the company collapsed, with a £571 million deficit in its pension scheme.
Critics calculated that Green and his family collected, quite legally, some £586 million from the company in dividends, rental payments, and interest on loans over their 15-year period of ownership.
Since the collapse, Green has consistently promised, in vague terms, to “sort” the pensions issue; the U.K. pensions regulator is understood to be seeking £350 million from Sir Philip, who is said to have offered £250-300 million.
But then Green appears to have other financial priorities, such as his £100 million superyacht Lionheart, on board which he entertains fashion royalty such as Kate Moss.
There have been many opportunities to criticize Green’s spending habits. In 2012, the family apparently shelled out more than £3 million to fly 150 guests to Mexico for a birthday party. Rihanna and Stevie Wonder were reportedly flown in to provide the entertainment.
Green’s extravagance attracted ire over the festive season when it was revealed he spent his New Year in a $20,000-a-week Miami rental—while distressed BHS pensioners struggled to make ends meet.
Green argues that the opprobrium that has been heaped on him is unwarranted, and says that from 2004 onward BHS was only kept alive by loans from the rest his empire.
His arguments have fallen on deaf ears, and it is not just the newspapers who hate Green; Parliament has joined in the national egging.
A damning Parliamentary report into the collapse of BHS accused Green of asset stripping, alleged that BHS was subject to “systematic plunder” by Green, and concluded there was “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which [Green] received his knighthood.”
Despite such criticism, it is clear that Green has had an extraordinarily successful career. A middle class south London boy who walked out of his elite Jewish boarding school at 15 to take a job working for a shoe importer before setting up his first business importing jeans with a £20,000 loan from his family, Green was once the hero of the British high street.
The flagship store of his Arcadia group, Topshop, became a byword for ballsy British fashion and a generation of young women flocked to its sassy designs. His other brands included high street stalwarts such as Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, and Burton.
But taking on BHS proved calamitous for his reputation.
He was labeled a “billionaire spiv” during one Parliamentary debate and there is now tremendous pressure to strip him of his title, which was awarded by Tony Blair in 2006.
There are suggestions that the “Forfeiture Committee” is holding back, hoping to maintain some leverage to encourage Green—who is apparently fond of his accolade—to cough up for the BHS pensioners.
However, Green’s latest outrage, and one that may prove the tipping point, has been to insult the members of an NHS choir.
The row began after members of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir, who had a Christmas No. 1 in 2015 with a cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” in which they wore outfits donated by Arcadia, refused to perform at an Arcadia Christmas party in order to show their support to the thousands of BHS workers who lost their jobs after the company collapsed, the Daily Mirror has reported.
Green retaliated, in an act of extraordinary pettiness, by allegedly demanding the choir return clothes his company gave them for the video, allegedly telling manager Jonathan Shalit: “Everyone is taking the piss out of me. Tell your fucking choir to perform at the party or pay me back for the fucking clothes.”
A source told the Mirror: “The choir were furious with how they were treated. It just goes to show the company has no compassion.”
As 2017 dawns, Philip Green is less popular than ever. He may be rich as Croesus—but it is never wise to pick a fight with NHS workers.