In a contest to decide the Least Popular Man in Britain, there would be politicians and peers jostling for position with villains and the odd soap character, but Cedric Brown would be running as the short- priced favourite. Few people have the power to excite the combined outrage of tabloid headline writers, broadsheet columnists, Home Counties matrons and the Prime Minister, but the chief executive of British Gas - the man with the 900 per cent salary increase - has managed, albeit unwittingly, to unite the nation.
What is curious about the flak flying in Mr Brown's direction is how much of it is aimed not at him - his talents, his achievements, his suits - but at his house. The Sun took one look at his neo-Georgian home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and said "That's the Booty of Gas"; together, the tabloids have exhausted their clich dictionaries finding words to describe "fat cat" Cedric's domestic lifestyle. The Browns, Cedric and Joan, live, variously, in a "luxury home", a "mansion", "seven-bedroomed neo-Georgian luxury", or in an "antiques-laden home" surrounded with "three acres of manicured garden" in a "leafy, private road" with a "chauffeur- driven, silver M-reg Mercedes" (though actually, it's a Jaguar) parked outside.
The image of Cedric Brown's awkwardly proportioned and all too unlived- in neo-Georgian house is one that appears to have gripped the public imagination. It seems to sum up all the many reasons why Mr Brown has become Private Enterprise Enemy Number One over the past few weeks.
The tabloids are out to get him because he is prospering at a time when the economic certainties of the Eighties have long been flushed down the avocado toilet suite. The middle classes dislike him for earning too much money and then squandering it on a decidedly non-U home and lifestyle. The Establishment wants the fellow blackballed: aside from not having the right address, he is the man most likely to lose the Tories the next election. The Labour party like the idea of Mr Brown only in so far as he will help do for Mr Major. And Mr Major himself is painfully aware that Cedric Brown, a man earning five times his own salary, has all the timing and sense of occasion of the gas man who comes to investigate a leak with a fag smouldering between his lips.
Most of all, the tabloids have got it in for Mr Brown for living the very lifestyle that the majority of their readers aspire to. Mr Brown is the boy next door made too good ("fat" in tabloid talk), the Yorkshire lad who has grafted 44 years with British Gas and its predecessors to reach the top, and, having got there, is reaping what he considers to be his reward (or "market value" as he would say). That reward comprises a salary of £475,000 (47 times that of your average Joe at British Gas), a £600,000 incentive deal, £1m worth of share options, a £180,000 annual pension on his retirement in five years' time and, of course, that "mansion" in suburban Bucks.
At a time when the professional middle class are no longer sure of the kind of job security that once guaranteed a seven-bedroomed home with three acres and a Jaguar, and when market values mean wage-cutting for counter staff at British Gas, no wonder Mr Brown's secure and cushy suburban home life is the envy of Express and Sun readers alike. "As long as these swine have freedom to bury their toffee-noses in the trough," the People thundered, "they will swallow as much silver as their bloated bellies can carry."
The middle-class sophisticates' view of Mr Brown is equally damning. They see in his house the vulgar symbol of a man who obviously earns far more money than he knows what to do with. Imagine the house we would buy if we earned half a million! A real Georgian rectory. A Jacobean farmhouse. Maybe even a city-centre flat converted from a warehouse and done up in chic minimalist style. We'd sooner live in the dog house than a house like Cedric Brown's. The criticism is all the more stinging because to belittle an Englishman's home is to cut the man to the quick.
Curiously, while Cedric Brown and Brown Towers have been the target of flak from all sides, Richard Giordano, Mr Brown's chairman, has sailed quite comfortably through this unseemly squabble over money. Mr Giordano, an American as self-made as Cedric Brown, earns £450,000 a year from British Gas working a three-day week (the other two days, he notches up a further £550,000 in director's fees). But, unlike his chief executive, Mr Giordano understands the value of a good address, or three. A chap, even a bloody Yank, must be all right if, like Mr Giordano, he has a flat in Cadogan Square, an apartment in Manhattan and a weekend house in Martha's Vineyard (where he stows his 63ft yacht). He even wears hand-made shoes.
Immediately before privatisation in 1986, the chief executive of British Gas (Brown's current position) earned £50,000; that salary has risen 900 per cent since then, vastly above the rate of inflation and little to do with British Gas, a monopoly in private hands, having become 900 per cent more efficient. This was the magic of Thatcherism working for Cedric Brown and his ilk.
As it happens, Mr Brown's spick-and-span "antiques-filled home" is almost identical to the one Mrs Thatcher bought in an executive cul-de-sac in Dulwich, a south-east London suburb, as a retirement home for her and Denis. Barrett's designed and built his house: it might even be called "Thatchers". Cedric Brown's domestic style is the apotheosis of the Thatcher dream, an England neatly creased, nicely polished and never less than profitable. It has nothing to do with old money or the World of Interiors, and even less with the international glitz of Hello!. It has much to do with the houses shown in women's magazines such as She and Homes and Gardens, where none is featured unless it is brand new or else modernised to the point where it might as well be, an interior world where sofas are free from dog hairs, carpets are never threadbare, beds are always made and you could eat your TV supper from the floor of the centrally heated double garage.
Mr Brown is not toffee-nosed; he does not live in a world where one's friends are all "marvellous people" or where one "nurtures mammoth hangovers" after weekend drinks parties. He is simply doing what the majority of Sun, Express and People readers would do if they could afford to turn up the gas.
Nor is the silver from Mr Brown's trough - a crew-cut lawn, a bastardised Palladian faade set a hundred yards back from the road (a public road, by the way) - any different in weight from that earned by the great public- spirited captains of industry of, say, 60 years ago. Mr Brown has been criticised by politicians of both sides of the House for earning 47 times as much as British Gas showroom staff; yet, Frank Pick, chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board from 1933-40 (when he shaped what was the world's finest integrated urban public transport system) earned £10,000 a year, 43 times as much as a bus driver, and in 1935 London bus drivers were among the best-paid workers in Britain.
We warm to Frank Pick not simply for his professional achievements but for the fact that he chose to live in a particularly civilised, architect- designed Arts and Crafts house in an orchard on the edge of Hampstead Garden Suburb, was the greatest patron of the arts in Britain this century, was a member of the Reform Club (when the name meant what it said) and, when not travelling by Underground, was chauffeured in a handsome black Daimler. Prime ministers found him as admirable and as daunting as they find Cedric Brown insensitive and suburban.
Cedric Harold Brown: the very name, his values, way of life, aspirations and luxury home are as monumentally English as Nigel Mansell or a "jumbo G & T, ice'n'slice" sunk at the Mock Tudor bar of a Surrey golf club. Mr Brown's sumptuous pay rise is badly timed, but perhaps the one sure lesson to be drawn from this porcine tale of greed, envy and hot air is that we get the leaders, the business executives and the luxury, antiques- laden neo-Georgian homes we want and deserve.
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