Billionaire Richard Branson wades into Brexit debate with factual inaccuracy and dubious credibility
Sir Richard Branson appeared on Sky News UK this morning, announcing that his ‘Virgin Galactic’ project is back in the ‘space race’ to send passengers into space.
Whilst being interviewed, he couldn’t miss the opportunity to air his views on why the UK should remain a member of the European Union.
Sir Richard seemed to focus on a popular-but-false ‘benefit’ of the European Union, crediting it with creating and maintaining peace in Europe since WWII. This is a typical scaremongering fable, since almost all Britons are now smart enough to be aware that it is NATO who provides this security.
— A Brexitarian Rebel (@A_Liberty_Rebel) February 18, 2016
So, let’s look a little closer at this man, since he is putting his opinion forward to the UK nation as someone who has a credible opinion, in the best interests of the UK.
Tax avoidance (the sort of allegation being levelled against Google et al currently) is not illegal. There are many ethical and moral arguments against it, but it is not illegal. It is merely structuring your business to ensure you pay as little tax as you possibly can, using legal loopholes in the cumbersome tax regulations.
Tax evasion, on the other hand, is the deliberate breaking of rules to deceive the taxman over your tax bill.
Richard Branson grew his Virgin ‘empire’ from a lowly record label and discount music retail outlet. In 1971 his business was struggling, his rock-bottom prices draining cash reserves.
Branson came up with an elaborate scheme to fool UK Customs into thinking he was exporting his records, but then returned them to his London store to be sold, thereby avoiding a 33% tax levy.
Innocent mischief or serious tax fraud is irrelevant. This man saved his infant business by deliberately ripping off the UK taxpayer, finding it an amusing anecdote for his book in later life.
Switzerland & Tax Avoidance
In 2011, Branson’s Virgin group was reporting to be moving a key part of operations to Geneva, Switzerland. This was a blatant attempt to reduce and avoid UK taxation (legal enough, but ethically a little ‘diverse’ for a moral campaigner like Branson).
By March of 2010, his Virgin Enterprises division had a total tax liability of £10.1m after a £4m tax rebate. What was more concerning was they had accrued a corporation tax bill of £26.9m (a figure that tax accountants deemed very high, given the turnover of the division).
The great American taxpayer rip-off
Virgin Galactic is the space travel project which has been a dream of Branson for over a decade. Spaceport America is the base, a sprawling purpose-built facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Whilst 700 customers are reported to have paid up to $250,000 (£153,000) in advance for a ticket, many are becoming uneasy at the delays and obvious safety concerns, given the project was supposed to be providing 100 flights a year from 2010 (700 per year from 2015) yet the only flight was a failed ‘test’ in 2014 resulting in the death of a revered test pilot.
What most people are unaware of, however, is the cost of this vanity project to the taxpayer in New Mexico. Promised jobs and a high profile, historical space port, the taxpayers were coerced into agreeing to fund the $225m facility, seeing no return since.
Back in 2005, the British billionaire convinced New Mexico’s Governor, Bill Richardson, to finance the entire construction of Spaceport America on the basis that it would become the bustling headquarters of his ambitious new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.
The $225 million (£138 million) cost of construction was therefore, Branson argued, less an expense, more a canny investment.
Voters in the deprived region were promptly asked (and agreed) to approve special taxes to pay for the project, swayed by promises that the facility would earn their community a lucrative place in the history books.
Man of the UK people or part of the establishment con?
Sir Richard Branson has always been vociferous in his criticism of unfair business practices, human rights issues and wades into UK political debates from time to time.
One would have to ask how, given he lives on his own luxury island in the British Virgin Islands, staffed by 60 and open to up to 24 fee-paying guests (the island can be booked for a mere $53,000), Sir Richard will feel the effects of #Brexit in any fashion resembling that felt by the average UK voter?
This island, called Necker Island, is located among the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Purchased in the 1970’s for approx. $200,000, this is not a place likely to feel much disadvantage either way when the UK votes on EU Membership.
Purchased in the 1970’s?
Not long after the rescue attempt of Virgin by Branson by illegally evading UK tax to prop up his failing business?
Could one conclude that this island was purchased indirectly from the proceeds of that very crime, or money made from those proceeds?
No, Sir Richard. We value you as a UK business leader and we respect your mostly ethical attempts to earn your billions. We’re not sure, however, that parading incorrect facts, under the cloak of your fame to fool UK voters, is something you should be doing.
Sky News paraded this opinion, lacking in factual accuracy or credibility, with full knowledge their UK audience could be influenced, yet never presented any one to repute his claims.
Sir Richard has already proven to be pro-EU, and was another of the completely WRONG advocates of UK entry into the Euro. What a disaster that would have been, if we had listened to him then, eh?
Welcome to the campaign to con the UK public into rejecting #Brexit and remaining a member of the rocky project, rumbling towards a Federal Europe.
References and Further Reading
- A Portrait of the Billionaire as a Young Tax Cheat. Slate. 27 May 2014.
- Virgin Enterprises’ Geneva move could help avoid millions in tax. The Guardian, 27 July 2011.
- Sir Richard Branson ‘to relocate part of Virgin empire to Switzerland’ in blow for British economy. Mail Online, 27 July 2011.
- Why the only thing Branson has fired into space is his ego: 700 VIPs have paid £50m for tickets into orbit. But six years after the Virgin boss promised blast off, his space ship STILL isn’t ready. Mail Online, 19 September 2014.
- Branson spaceship explosion: The ‘missed’ warnings. The Telegraph, 1 November, 2014.
- Virgin Galactic confirms 20 cancellations after spacecraft’s crash. South China Morning Post, 6 November 2013.
- Failure To Launch: How New Mexico Is Paying For Richard Branson’s Space Tourism Fantasy. Buzzfeed, 21 March, 2014.
- Virgin threatens to pull out of projected spaceport. The Guardian, 13 January, 2013.
- NATO vs The European Union. The Economist, 10 April 2003.