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Motorboating enthusiast Richard Branson is playing a particularly idiosyncratic game of Monopoly. He would like to mortgage his private Caribbean island. In return, you, the taxpayer, have to buy him Mayfair and Park Lane, all the greens, all the yellows, all the reds, and stick a hotel on every one of them. Also, if Richard lands on Super Tax or Income Tax he doesn’t pay them. And if he gets the Community Chest saying “pay hospital fees”, he refuses and sues the hospital. The only bright side is that he no longer operates out of any of the stations.
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. By way of a recap, the tycoon is seeking a reported £500m government bailout of his Virgin Atlantic airline, and has stated in a blogpost that he is willing to put Necker Island up as collateral to secure lending for his businesses.
Without wishing to ask the cursory amount of questions, is this the same island that seems to get virtually destroyed every couple of years? I do believe it is. So … nice try, hotshot. This feels like being offered the chance to underwrite Richard Hammond’s car insurance. A quick archive trawl confirms that Necker has in recent years been struck by both a devastating fire and a devastating hurricane – which, if I were religious, would probably make me think God was a guy who believed in paying UK income tax. Either way, offering up Necker is arguably the most WTF-tinged piece of collateral action since that late-1980s moment when Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond bought Van Gogh’s Irises at Sotheby’s, using a loan from Sotheby’s, for which the painting itself was collateral. Confused? Don’t worry; the short version is that it ended badly in a number of ways.
But back to the present day, and Britain’s Best-Loved Businessman™. You will note that there has been some debate as to whether this is quite the moment for a man who once sued the NHS, and who has not paid income tax in this country for 14 years, to request a taxpayer bailout. The way Richard sees it, judging by his lengthily defensive blogpost on Monday, is that he’s lifted so many people up. And he has. Mainly women – and bodily. The sheer volume of archive photos of a guffawing Branson carrying some stilettoed lovely, usually in water, makes it a genre all of its own. If he ends up being unable to fly passengers, I almost feel he could personally heft every single one of Earth’s promotions girls across the oceans, like an alarmingly veneered St Christopher.
“As you know,” Richard’s appeal for funds continues, “creating positive social and environmental impact has always been at the heart of this brand.” Richard? Richard? IT’S AN AIRLINE. I guess the galaxy-brained question is: can our rapidly heating planet afford NOT to bail it out? While you ponder that, I’d direct you to Richard’s recent assertion that aviation will be carbon neutral “sooner than we realise”. And I’d encourage you to speculate on how soon it will be before Richard requests UK or US bailout money for his Virgin Galactic enterprise, where space travel has been “set to be a reality next year” for a good 12 years now.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see Branson as anything other than the classic “billionaire philanthropist” (is there any other kind of billionaire?) who declines to accept that public finances would be in rather better shape if people like them contributed their fair share. Philanthropy starts with paying tax. With the best will in the world, it isn’t enough to imply the only reason you operate out of a tax haven is because you like the weather.
Of course, Richard is very far from the only billionaire entity to act like this. Even the trillionaire firms, Amazon and Apple, do it too. Rather than contribute the full amount to various countries in the traditional way – like all the boring little nurses and teachers and ordinary people do – they get away with the absolute barest of minimums, then swoop in flashily with “aid” initiatives, with which they can be personally associated when something’s gone tits-up.
Take announcements from the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has made much of the fact that the company has donated millions of protective masks to US healthcare workers, but whose firm paid £3.8m in tax on £1.2bn UK sales not so long ago. (And this is before you even get to the Amnesty reports and lawsuits in which they are accused of aiding often lethal child labour in their cobalt supply chains in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Can the kids get a mask, Tim? No? OK, final offer: a trowel instead of a stick?)
Instead of the coronavirus crisis bringing some kind of reckoning for tax-avoiding opt-outs, it is simply making the biggest culprits even more shameless. We look likely to be obliged to knit the tech firms ever more tightly into the fabric of our states, for instance, via tracing apps and the data-based arm of any exit strategy. Meanwhile, they are accused of using the pandemic to weasel out of what relatively little they already owe. Last week, industry lobby group TechUK – which represents firms including Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – announced that the government should “look again” at the new 2% digital services tax, and delay liability for a year to give these firms some “breathing space”.
Well, of all the metaphors to go for right now … Let’s hope they manage to catch a breath, even as they look guaranteed to emerge from the pandemic vastly richer and more powerful than before. For Branson, the days of being able to just style it out may be numbered.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist.