For many people of an entrepreneurial bend, Richard Branson is their hero. But the shadow chancellor has turned his venom on the world’s most famous Virgin.
It began with a photo on a train, but has now moved onto to a row about tax.
The kick-off point for this row is odd. People stand on trains, it happens a lot – it happens to this author, a lot. The Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stood on a train and it has raised a storm in a Virgin tea cup.
Virgin’s claim is that on the particular train that Mr Corbyn was forced to stand on, there were, in fact, plenty of seats. Mr Corbyn replied, but he wanted to sit near his wife.
To a bystander, it feels ever so slightly about a row over nothing. But not everyone is interpreting it this way. To the Tory press, this is an example of that nasty Corbyn trying to whoop up an anti-capitalism controversy. To those who are pro-Corbyn, it’s an example of the media seizing on trivia and twisting it to suit their bias. Labour MPs who are anti-Corbyn seem to have joined forces with the Tory press, others cite this as an example of underinvestment in the UK’s railways.
Jeremy Corbyn himself said: “The reality is that there are not enough trains, we need more of them and they’re also incredibly expensive. Isn’t that a good case for public ownership?”
Sir Richard Branson tweeted: “Mr Corbyn & team walked past empty unreserved seats then filmed claim train was ‘ram-packed’.”
Now John McDonnel has entered the debate, accusing Sir Richard Branson of being a tax exile, suggesting that Sir Richard should be stripped of his knighthood.
Mr McDonnel said: “The whole purpose of the honours system is undermined when the rich and the powerful can collect their gongs without giving anything back. It is even worse when tax exiles are given honours.”
But is there something bigger going on?
A few years ago, being as tax efficient as possible was something people did. It was even expected. As for tax exiles: well how many of us would do things differently? Attitudes are different now. The consensus has swung against it. Groupthink has swung from seeing tax avoidance as a mark of machismo, to the unacceptable face of capitalism.
Yet to many, Sir Richard is a hero.
Sure, you can see why Sir Philp Green is not going down so well at the moment, you can see why Mike Ashley’s management techniques at Sports Direct are not endearing him to the media, or indeed his own workers. But Sir Richard Branson? Really?
And this leaves us in a tricky situation.
Let’s not turn entrepreneurs into villains – this country needs them to be heralded as superstars, every bit as heroic as our Olympic champions. This country needs entrepreneurs more than it needs public investment into railways – although both would be nice.
The problem we have with taxation in part relates to globalisation; in part, it relates to short-sighted government policy. The only way you are ever going to truly end the practice of living abroad to save tax, or corporates saving tax by basing their operations in domains with low tax regimes, is with some kind of international tax harmonisation.
But the very country’s that would benefit the most from this, are the very countries that are most opposed to such as an approach.