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Dominic Lawson: Tracey gets her taxes in a twist

Few bleats are less attractive to people than threats by the rich to quit the country

If you want to make politicians look foolish, ask questions about culture. Most of them are philistines who will pretend to have an interest that they have never possessed; or, more embarrassingly still, they will try to say something that makes them appear "cool", not realising that bright young voters can spot such insincere posturing from several miles away.

Hence we have David Cameron, being asked in a pre-Conservative party conference interview with the Spectator which artist he would most like to paint his portrait, and naming ... Tracey Emin. Sounds very glam; except that Tracey Emin is not a painter of portraits – or of anything else, for that matter. I have it on the highest authority – which is to say my brother-in-law, Charles Saatchi – that Tracey Emin is an "installation artist".

Perhaps this is what David Cameron meant: he wants to be installed in Number 10 Downing Street by Ms Emin. If so, I wonder if the Conservative leader has ever set eyes on her most famous work, "My Bed". The only time I saw it, at the invitation of its owner, I made the mistake of approaching too close, not realising that the blue carpet was part of the "installation". "You're standing on the art," said Charles, and at that point I felt something move a little beneath my foot: it was one of Tracey's condoms.

David Cameron's overtures to the author of "My Bed" are, in fact, part of a peculiar mating ritual between Ms Emin and the Conservative Party. Five months ago the artist told the Sunday Times that "the Tories would make a difference... I wish we had a government with more pride about the arts." Now she has told the same newspaper that she is "very seriously considering leaving Britain" because "I'm simply not willing to pay tax at 50 per cent".

Emin already has a holiday home in France, and added that "this Labour Government has had no understanding for the arts. At least in France their politicians have always understood the importance of culture and they have traditionally helped out artists with subsidy and some tax advantages".

I think Ms Emin is deluding herself if she believes that, as Prime Minister, Cameron would introduce subsidies especially for artists; come to that, neither will he be in a hurry to remove the 50 per cent tax band, being terrified that this would play into the hands of his political opponents who paint him as a wealthy man intent on defending his own class interests.

Besides which, there are few bleats less attractive to the general public than those emanating from wealthy people complaining that they will desert the country for tax reasons. Andrew Lloyd Webber was associated with the story that he would leave the country in 1997 if New Labour got in: the composer insists that he never made such a threat and never would do so – his anxiety to emphasise this point serves only to demonstrate how damaging such a story can be, as Tracey Emin might soon discover.

Lord Lloyd-Webber, like Tracey Emin, has a home in France. I am sure that he would be the first to warn her that the French tax system, taken as a whole, is hardly more welcoming to the wealthy than that imposed here by New Labour. Partly because of this, the French parliament is now making great efforts to attract such people, and to reverse the brain drain that has been steadily moving across the channel in this direction; last year it agreed a partial exemption from wealth tax for people moving to France over the next five years.

This is what always happens when governments start to impose too heavily on the wallets of citizens with a readily exportable talent. Thus, under the last "old" Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, the British Government brought in dramatic tax reliefs – going all the way up to 100 per cent – on work carried out abroad by British-domiciled artists and performers. The reason was clear: to dissuade such artists from moving overseas altogether and making their entire earnings free of UK tax. These concessions to British performers were scrapped by the Conservatives when they cut the top rate of tax down to 40 per cent; such inducements were no longer necessary.

Perhaps the most biting of all complaints by over-taxed British performers was one in musical form: "Taxman", by The Beatles. Older readers will recall George Harrison's lyrics: "Let me tell you how it will be/There's one for you, nineteen for me/ Cause I'm the taxman/ Yeah, I'm the taxman. /Should five per cent appear too small/ Be thankful I don't take it all/ Cause I'm the taxman/ Yeah, I'm the taxman." The late George Harrison was not exaggerating: Harold Wilson's Labour Government had introduced a "supertax" of 95 per cent on the very highest band of income, in which The Beatles – because of their huge popularity – were caught.

Those were the days when the "brain drain" from Britain – predominantly to the United States – was a matter of continuous anxiety to Whitehall. The then industry minister, one Tony Benn, was so concerned about the phenomenon that he made several trips to American universities, appealing to the Britons there to return home to the joys of Blighty.

Of course, it had not occurred to Mr Benn that a reduction in tax rates for the most successful was the message the American-based Brits really wanted to hear from him. Mr Benn was rightly concerned, however; it was not just performance artists who had gone West – the country can do well enough without them – but scientists and innovators of an entrepreneurial bent, the very people most vital to a nation's economic base.

It's fair to say that the situation is not so stark 40 years on. A top rate of 50 per cent is among the highest in the world – the same as Cuba's, in fact – but even in the US, when you add state tax to federal tax, the top rate combines to about 45 per cent. On the other hand, one effect of globalisation is that young people, especially before they have started their families, are more open than ever to the idea of making their homes and their careers in foreign lands; and isn't Tracey Emin among the most prominent of those collectively immortalised as Young British Artists?