There is no law that says you should be polite. Standing aside from someone getting off a train, opening doors for the elderly and those with push-chairs, paying your pension bills before paying your dividend, these are all things we expect of each other.
Philip Green has consistently not broken the law. He has however broken the rules that society lays down for bosses, that they keep their promises to others, before they make promises to themselves.
I watched newsnight last night and wished that this distinction had been better made by Frank Field, a man who I greatly admire for putting others before himself. I went to hear him speak in Oxford one cold winter night. I stayed on after to ask him a question and after I’d finished I went to get my coat
Frank; “have you got far to go tonight”
Me; “I’m taking the bus up to park and ride”
Frank; “Would you like a lift, I think it’s on my way”.
Frank Field was then a Government Minister and I travelled with him in a posh car, he dropped me at the car park, I have never spoken with him again but I remember the kindness which defines my opinion of him.
So when Field stated that Philip Green should have his knighthood stripped, I knew why he said it. It’s because of the moral compass that Field has and Green hasn’t and because that knighthood is recognising that Green is what he isn’t – a gentle man.
I wish that politicians could talk in simple terms of right and wrong and use phrases like “society expects” because I think they are entitled to. We elect politicians to be bold as Frank Field has been and to uphold a bigger law than the technicalities of clearance surrounding the payments of dividends or the sale of pension liabilities.
But last night, I felt that Frank was being too cautious, fearing that should he speak out against the moral vacuum surrounding Green and his advisers, he could prejudice other enquiries, some civil, one criminal into the goings on at Arcadia, BHS and the Retail Acquisitions Group.
We saw the havoc on the Isle of Wight following Dominic Chappell’s bankruptcy, printers who paid their bills (though Chappell didn’t), even the owners of the cafes whose businesses had suffered from Chappell’s reckless failures.
But Chappell, like Green, appears to have done nothing illegal.
Putting yourself second is part of the social contract that polite society enter into. It is an assumption that underpins trusteeship of pension schemes and it is assumed by the Pension Regulator that both scheme sponsor and trustees will do the right thing. There is no evidence that the trustees of BHS did not do the right thing, there only mistake seems to have been to assume that they were dealing with a decent and honourable sponsor.
The reason I do not want more regulation on trustees and sponsors, more “iron fist” is because I still believe in the velvet glove. I do not, as some do, think that the age of chivalry is dead, that employers and trustees will not do the right thing (if given the chance not to) and I don’t think that most bosses are like Philip Green.
If I felt they were , I would go and live in Scandinavia or Germany or even France where there is still a social contract of the type I am talking about. There is such a contract in Britain and it worked for the pensioners of Kodak and I think it may work for the pensioners of Tata Steel and it may yet work for PPF (which incidentally isn’t-yet- in the PPF).
Risk sharing of a pension deficit means members, trustees and employers all accepting a share of the problem, and- by working together- helping each other out. When there is trust between the boss and the employee, when the trustees are properly consulted and when the Pensions Regulator is on the inside and not on the outside, risk-sharing can happen.
But no-one trusts Philip Green any more – except to put himself first.