Labour politicians believe that Cedric Brown and other highly paid utility bosses will win them the next election. But has the uproar over top salaries led to any greater clarity about how much people should earn? W G Runciman offers some guidanceby W G Runciman / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
In the whole furore over the pay of Cedric Brown, the chief executive of British Gas, the most enjoyable episode concerned Greville Janner, the Labour MP. It emerged that Janner, the Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on employment, who gave Brown such a hard time in front of the television cameras, was a ?25,000-a-year non-executive director and member of the remuneration committee of Ladbroke’s-whose chairman is paid substantially more a year than Cedric Brown.
Yet it is not as if the outcry over pay has been confined to a few publicity-hungry MPs, hair-shirted intellectuals, and vengeful Trotskyites. Even so studiously moderate-spoken a commentator as Joe Rogaly of the Financial Times was moved to words of reproach. No doubt part of the trouble was that it all blew up when British Gas was both raising prices and shedding employees. Besides, a recently privatised public utility was bound to attract some particularly unfriendly scrutiny.
But why was so much fuss made over a salary which even in the UK is a lot less than many people’s incomes (seven rock stars are each making over ?10 million a year), and would be dismissed as chickenshit by any self-respecting chief executive of a similar sized organisation in the United States?
Cedric Brown started his working life at the age of 16 with a pick and shovel in his hands. This, some have argued, entitles him to feel not at all embarrassed about what the “enterprise culture” has done for him. Could the same be said, for example, of Alan Clark, a very different kind of ardent Thatcherite? In his oh-so-readable diaries, the entry for Christmas Eve 1987 opens with “I’ve got ?700,000 cash in my Abbey National Crazy-High-Interest account. But what’s the use?”-the point being that “I’m not rich enough to have servants.” Yet it is not as if Saltwood Castle and its treasures, plus the Highland estate, the chalet in Zermatt, the house in Wiltshire and the ?700,000 on deposit had all been amassed out of income earned from a sweaty brow-in other words, from a starting-point equivalent to Cedric Brown’s.
And what about the bejewelled wives and daughters of multi-millionaires? Their contributions to the enterprise culture mostly begin and end with helping to organise an occasional charity ball. Or the movie stars whose astronomical incomes are a function of nine parts celebrity to one part acting? And what of…