The Diary of a Capitalist column from the November 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
So Manchester United football club is being sold. Or not, as the case may be. Martin Edwards, who owns 500,000 shares, just over half the total, has the controlling interest. How do you get control of a great football club? Perhaps Edwards got up early as a youngster, cleaned the players' boots, laundered the strip, swept the terraces, and saved up all his money to buy the shares one at a time? Well no, actually. His father (a rich businessman) owned the shares, and left them to young Martin when he died.
Now Martin wants to sell, no doubt to put the money into something even more profitable. Though he has done very well out of Manchester United, thanks very much. He draws a “salary" of £85,000 a year (Guardian, 19 August), plus the interest on his shares, for duties which appear to consist mainly of sitting each week on one of the best seats in the ground and watching the most exciting football team in the country. But obviously Edwards thinks his money will do better elsewhere. So he looks round for a bidder. And up pops another businessman, Michael Knighton, who promises him £10 million for his shares. He also has to promise to buy the other 49 per cent plus of the shares on the same terms (as the present take-over law insists), and promises another £10 million to make improvements at Old Trafford. That makes £30 million in all. He then tells the assembled journalists that "£30 million is not a lot in commercial terms" (Guardian, 19 August). That is quite right of course. To any solid capitalist, like myself for instance, £30 million isn't a lot. But I wish to God he wouldn't announce it publicly. Whatever will all the groups of workers presently being offered an annual wage-adjustment of less than the inflation rate (i.e., a drop in pay)—ambulance staff, for example, and classroom teachers— think about that? A worker high enough in the rat-race to receive £10,000 a year (never mind the millions on less) would have to slog his guts out for precisely 3000 years to get his £30 million—assuming, that is, he could get his food, clothes, housing and so on free during all that time. And Knighton tells the world “that £30 million is not a lot in commercial terms".
Knighton will have to cure himself of the urge to tell the truth if he has capitalism's long-term interests at heart.
Now, it seems, Knighton is having trouble completing the deal. At first he claimed he was alone in the purchase: “I am Mr Big, I'm not fronting a consortium" (Daily Mirror, 4 October). Then he had to admit he did have backers. Then it transpires that Knighton's original backers have dropped out, and he is looking for other backers, or buyers. Knighton told the press "he was still seeking partners, as as I said at the start'. In fact that is precisely what he did not say" (Guardian, 5 October). In effect Knighton is hawking round his option to buy Edwards' shares, and David Murray— a millionaire who bought control of Glasgow Rangers—thought he might make a profit of £5 or 6 million on the deal (Guardian, 5 October).
Journalists reproaching Knighton for telling a few small porkies should remember that people don’t make fortunes by adhering strictly to the truth. The real criticism of Knighton is that he is a small boy (in capitalist terms) trying to push in among the big boys—playing out of his league, so to speak. As the Mirror (7 October) said, he tried to buy United "without having the full funds to go ahead with it”; he is “no more than a cheapskate”.
In other words, if he was a dearskate. and could afford it, it would have been all right.
The papers are bemoaning what's happening to Manchester United. This magnificent football club, they wail, centre of dreams and devotion for many thousands, is being auctioned off like a joblot of odds and ends down at the local market.
For example, Pat Crerand, former Manchester United midfield star, in the Daily Mirror (6 October): “I could honestly weep for what is happening to my beloved United...the heart is being torn from the club...distress and suffering...we just can't go on like this”. And why the anguish? Why, "Knighton is just trying to make money". He is merely "coming in to make a fast buck".
Where have these people been all their lives? Living on Mars? In a capitalist society everything that can be given a price is for sale. Food, clothing, houses, and most other things too—you can have them if you can afford them. Honour, virtue, discretion, confidentiality—all will crumble before a big enough offer.
In fact, it’s got to the point where former United footballing stars can make money out of the "distress and suffering” of the club by producing articles in the tabloids.
It reminds me of a well-known story. Two guests at a high-society dinner table start talking. The man says to the woman, "Would you sleep with me if I gave you £5 million?"
The woman was taken aback, but thought it over.
"Well, yes, all right”, she said finally. "For £5 million I’d be mad not to."
"Would you sleep with me if I gave you £5?" asked the man.
“What do you think I am?" demanded the woman indignantly.
"We've already decided that", said the man. “Now we're trying to fix the price.”
Capitalism is a system where almost everything is for sale. It only remains to fix the price.
Journalists have spent most of the last week outdoing each other with vivid turns of phrase to describe the sale of Manchester United football club. One came up with: "Britain's best-loved football club . . . being bought and sold like a box of kippers” (Daily Mirror, 6 October).
Socialists, of course, know as well as I do that kippers are produced and distributed solely by workers (whether managers or shopfloor hands, white-collar, blue-collar, or no-collar). All capitalists do is to seize a profit at each stage, like a gang of blackmailers holding the useful part of society to ransom. They know that it’s only lack of class-consciousness on the part of the working class that allows capitalists to “own” industries, and impose the wage and price system on the rest of society.
So Socialists will want to ask why a box of kippers should be bought and sold like a football club.
Now the story in the papers is that Knighton has not been able to come up with enough financial backing to buy the club, and Edwards and the present board of directors are so embarrassed by the hostile publicity that they are prepared to buy back Knighton’s contract for £11 million. This, if it happened, would give Knighton a profit of £1 million on the deal, which would mean that he had made "£20,000 every day since his bid was made public on August 18" (Guardian, 7 October). Knighton says “I have spent every waking hour over the last three months working on the deal” (Observer, 8 October), implying he is entitled to his profit. But ambulance crews, who have spent nearly all their waking hours for the last three months and longer taking sick people to hospital, would be glad to get only part of the suggested daily profit—as their whole annual salary.
Workers can work all that out just as well as I can. So Knighton would be doing capitalism a great service if he quietly faded from the scene, before attracting more unpopularity for one of capitalism's basic features—buying and selling.
I wish Martin Edwards and the other rich men on the United board of directors could decide what proportion of the shares he owns. On 5 October, for example, at least three figures appeared: 51 per cent (Guardian, page 16); 50.2 per cent (Guardian, page 1); and 50.04 per cent (Mirror, back page). Only one of them can be right. All these figures presumably came from the wealthy directors or their accountants. Since we capitalists like to bamboozle workers by pretending we’re richer than they are because we're so much cleverer, it’s embarrassing when it turns out that we can’t do simple sums.