The Europhile Virgin billionaire is reluctant to put his own money where his mouth is
Richard Branson’s and Donald Trump’s Caribbean hideaways — Necker Island and Château des Palmier on St Martin — were both wrecked by Hurricane Irma last month. That’s not the only thing the two ageing billionaires share. They may espouse very different causes — continued British membership of the EU and liberalising drug laws in Branson’s case; economic nationalism, climate scepticism and immigration control in Trump’s — but they both have ridiculous hair masquerading as an ill-fitting yellow wig and have a habit of plastering their brand all over businesses in some of which they have only minor involvement. Virgin Music and Virgin Mobile, for example, are businesses of which Branson has no ownership and that are merely paying to use the brand; Virgin Atlantic, despite being endlessly marketed on the back of Branson’s appeal, is only 20 per cent owned by his businesses. And both men’s opaque business practices and shunning of public listings have led to the true extent of their wealth — Branson’s is estimated at nearly £5 billion by the Sunday Times Rich List — being widely questioned.
They also have the habit of letting paying guests stay in their so-called homes and allowing some of their brand’s magic to rub off on those who can afford it. Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, weekend retreat, the “Winter White House”, is a members’ hotel. Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) — habitually described as Branson’s private island home, as if he were a James Bond villain — is in fact a resort. Before Hurricane Irma, anyone with a spare £3,300 or so could book to stay overnight on an all-inclusive basis in the island’s Great House or celebrate the place’s sheer naffness by staying in a “Love Temple”.
Branson himself holed up in his — or rather, his hotel’s — private wine cellar during the hurricane. In a fine example of hyperbole, he climbed out to demand that the international community fund “a new Marshall Plan” to help those parts of the Caribbean devastated by Irma, and in particular the BVI, to recover. He seems unaware that when the original Marshall Plan was launched Europe had just come out of a war that had killed tens of millions; however tragic the events of last month, Irma had merely killed tens. In 1945 Western Europe had a population of more than 140 million; the BVI have a population of 28,000. Before the storm, this British Overseas Territory had a per capita GDP slightly higher than that of the UK itself. Perhaps what the islands need is not a Marshall Plan but a Branson Plan. With his business interests and experience in travel Branson would be ideally placed to rebuild the BVI’s tourism industry; the other mainstay of the economy, offshore banking, can surely look after itself.
Yet perhaps this is too much to ask: Branson has a habit of asking others to pay for his own pet initiatives. During 2016’s EU referendum, anyone wanting to spend more than £10,000 on campaigning for either side during the two and a half months leading up to the vote had to register as a participant. They would then be able to spend up to £700,000. The vast majority of those who registered as participants were campaigning organisations or individuals, such as comedian Eddie Izzard and artist Wolfgang Tillmans, both Remainers. Two exceptions to this were Branson’s Virgin Management and Tim Martin’s J.D. Wetherspoon. The pub chain spent just under £100,000 of its own funds on its advertising campaign. The story with Virgin is rather different.
In the weeks before the referendum, Virgin took out newspaper advertisements featuring a personal letter from Branson urging people to vote Remain. The campaign cost nearly £500,000 — but only just over half the money came from Branson’s, or indeed Virgin’s, funds. By far the largest donor to Remain causes during the period in which all donations had to be declared was David Sainsbury, Labour peer and the last family member to serve as chairman of the eponymous supermarket chain. Sainsbury spent well over £4 million of his own money on the referendum. He is no stranger to giving away his money, having donated well over £1 billion to charity, much more than the £560 million which, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, remains of his personal fortune.
Amidst the donations from Sainsbury to the official Remain campaign, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Remain campaigns, and myriad smaller campaigning groups, there are a few which look rather peculiar. The Electoral Commission records a donation of £210,000 from Sainsbury to Virgin Management, an outfit which presumably does not have to rely on charitable largesse. It appears that £210,000 of the £488,000 Virgin spent on Branson’s personal letter to the electorate did not come from the company, or indeed Branson himself. It is odd for a billionaire to rely on a less wealthy man to pay for his own communications with the electorate.
If the residents of the BVI are relying on their resident tycoon to rebuild their islands, they may well have a long wait.