Belfast Telegraph

UK needs to urgently start searching for new Bransons

By Stefan Stern

Is Sir Richard Branson a producer? Or is he a predator? A case can be made for either label. But sceptics will not have been surprised to learn that Branson, the founder of the Virgin business empire, has now formally set up his (highly tax-efficient) home on his private Caribbean island of Necker – which is, naturally, part of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) – after saying that he has already lived there for the past seven years.

Branson strongly maintains, however, that he has not left Britain for tax reasons.

First, he sold the West London mansion. Now the Oxfordshire estate has been offloaded to his children.

Faced with a choice between long, wet winters in the UK and sunny days on the tropical paradise that is Necker, the 63-year-old billionaire has, unsurprisingly, opted for the latter. It's not hard to follow his thinking.

Anita Roddick is dead and Branson has departed these shores. This leaves only Lord Sugar as the favourite "unprompted" name to emerge from focus groups when they are asked to identify a leading business figure. And this is not good news. Not good news at all.

The thoughtful, practical case for business is not being made. Business leaders, by and large, keep their heads down.

And, on the rare occasions when they do speak up, the results are not always convincing.

For example, look at the kneejerk reaction of the energy companies to Labour's proposed 20-month freeze on the bills to be paid by customers.

Has there been a serious attempt to engage with the argument? Of course not.

Instead, there have been mumbled threats of blackouts and investment strikes – even as some of the energy giants launch new deals offering a price freeze for two, or three, years.

In the High Street, mobile phone operators promise a service that may (or may not) live up to the allure of the sales pitch.

Coffee chains sell expensive, oversized, but actually underflavoured, cups of coffee.

Try to catch a train and see how much you'll pay for the privilege of standing for an hour or two.

And, meanwhile, we are all hounded in our homes (and, increasingly, on our mobiles) by cold callers, claiming that they can save us money – for a fee, naturally.

In the past, plausible figures, known as 'Captains of Industry', spoke up and were counted. They conveyed a sense of business being a constructive and worthwhile part of national life.

Peter Parker, John Harvey-Jones and Arnold Weinstock, among many others, were household names. Now only WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell seems ready to get stuck into debate on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, business, it would seem, has lost faith in itself and lacks the confidence to make its case.

For more evidence of this, you need look no further than the latest TV ad for the Halifax, which uses up three-quarters of its precious (and very costly) airtime describing the life of an air hostess, before finally (and somewhat sheepishly) admitting that the Halifax is, in actual fact, er, a bank.

We may miss seeing Sir Richard Branson on our TV screens but, in truth, he is due a break. It is time that other business leaders made themselves known.

Businesses cannot complain about what politicians do to them if they are not prepared to explain publicly what they are for – and what they are trying to do.

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