Who are these fleeing artists?

Independent, Thursday 23 June 2011

Panic stations! The UK’s high tax regime is causing the country to bleed talent, according to the distinguished composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. He warns that the 50 per cent tax rate on the highest earners “could be the nail in the coffin of Britain PLC”, causing a shortage of creative talent and costing the country billions in lost revenue. Who will be left for him to collaborate with?

First, let me point out that the quote comes not from yesterday’s Lloyd Webber broadside on the subject but another article two years ago, when he made an almost identical apocalyptic forecast. The imminent demise of what politicians like to call the “creative economy” is a favourite theme of Lloyd Webber’s, repeated so often that there’s a widespread belief (which he denies) that he once threatened to leave the country himself.

His latest salvo was inspired by the singer Adele, who has apparently just received her first big royalty cheque and is reeling from the amount she’s paid in tax. Maybe it’s time for her to line up beside Tracey Emin, another tax-moaner, who really did threaten to leave the country a while ago. “I’m simply not willing to pay tax at 50 per cent”, Emin declared, although as far as I’ve been able to establish she’s still here – and packing in visitors to her retrospective show on London’s South Bank. Lloyd Webber doesn’t actually mention any big names who’ve left the country since his warning of an imminent exodus two years ago. He says he recently had dinner in Toronto with an unnamed cinematographer who’s moved to Canada because he doesn’t see why someone with a young family should have to pay tax at 52 per cent (I think that must include National Insurance). So who are all these creative talents who’ve upped sticks and gone to countries with more favourable tax regimes?

A quick search comes up with an almost random list of celebrities who’ve opted to live abroad for one reason or another. It appears that the racing driver Lewis Hamilton has shifted to tax exile in Switzerland without my noticing, while I can live without his fellow driver Jenson Button (now a resident of Monaco) since I never knew he was British anyway. Then there’s a clutch of knights, including the actor Sir Sean Connery and the entrepreneur Sir Philip Green, which makes me wonder about the value of the British government dishing out all those honours.

Have you noticed that it’s never the poor who use the pages of national newspapers to moan that the country is losing its brightest talent? The common factor among folk who complain about the UK’s tax regime is that they’re well off, live in lovely houses and could actually afford to relocate to somewhere like Monaco.

They also tend to justify their tirades by complaining about the decline of the UK, citing “rubbish services in everything from health to education” and the “third world” state of Heathrow Airport, to pick two key phrases from Lloyd Webber’s latest article. Anyone who thinks British airports compare with those in developing countries obviously hasn’t used Lungi airport in Sierra Leone, which had just introduced flush toilets when I was there last year.

But the real point is that average national income is very low in West Africa, which means tax revenue is so low the government can’t afford world-class public services. High taxes and decent services – ours aren’t “rubbish” by any standard, even if delivery is sometimes patchy – are signs of affluence, and to be welcomed by anyone who believes in social justice.

If a handful of affluent celebrities is unhappy with the situation, they’re welcome to say so. But they shouldn’t expect sympathy. I work in the UK’s “creative economy” and I might just start a trend by announcing that I have no intention of leaving the country.

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