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THE RETURNS OF THE PRODIGAL
TAX EXILE

Continuing Coverage of the Expatriate Issue

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

By Gary McMahon


George Harrison started it, the rising tide of rich and famous malcontents. He wrote the song in 1966, when meditation wasn’t on his mind. World peace had nothing to do with it. What he had was a tax return that pushed 98 percent. That’s one for you, 19 for me. “Taxman” foreshadowed the exodus of émigrés to Monaco, Spain, France, California, New York and beyond, as Britain’s biggest export became its rich people. Britain in the Seventies leaked more defections than the Iron Curtain. Self-imposed exile was a sign of success. Once you left the departure lounge, you had arrived.

A run of socialist governments believed it wasn’t right that a person could reap astronomical percentages more than the next man for a day’s work, and they decreed that anyone so privileged ought to put most of it back into public services. Big businessmen and stars of screen and popular music felt they shouldn’t have to if they didn’t want to — and they didn’t want to.

And they didn’t have to — not if they relocated. It was an offshore tax dodge, but the account holder, not just the account, went offshore. Dirk Bogarde took a ship to the South of France in 1968 — for 20 years. David Bowie claimed sanctuary in Switzerland and New York, via Berlin. Freddie Mercury landed in New York by way of Munich. In 1974, Tom Jones defected to LA, eight years after his heartfelt hit “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” Rod Stewart fled to California in 1976. Michael Caine told London’s Evening Standard in January that year, “I took my decisions and I’ll pay my taxes and stay in England,” and then he moved to LA. Oliver Reed told Woman magazine in July 1981, “I just couldn’t be a tax exile. I could pay a lot less taxes if I moved, but I must live in Britain. It’s my culture, my home, my heritage. A lot of people have said the same thing and then left, people like Michael Caine. Not me though, I’m staying.” And then he uprooted to Ireland after an interlude in the Channel Islands, and was buried there in 1999.

Sting co-wrote “Dead End Job” with the Police in 1978. Sting sang, “I don’t wanna be no tax exile,” but he covered his options with a double negative and relocated to Ireland in 1980. From his haven, he canvassed governments to contribute more to famine relief. Sean Connery settled in Spain in 1974 and later made a beeline for the Bahamas. John Lennon, who contributed the advice to those who die about declaring the pennies on your eyes in “Taxman,” went to New York, while “the quiet one” who started it all stayed home. Mick Jagger came out about his status in 1972, with the Stones’ Exile on Main St., from his haven in Paris before following Lennon one last time to the Dakota Hotel. Ringo followed his star to Monaco. So did Roger Moore after a sojourn in the South of France, and when James Bond needed new suits for Moonraker, the London tailor had to travel to France to reach his inside leg. Vintage Bond director Guy Hamilton had a chance to direct Superman in 1977. But when production moved from Italy to Britain, Hamilton bowed out rather than blow his exemption status. You see, exiles had to limit stays in Britain to qualify for tax exemption.

It couldn’t happen in America: Americans would forfeit citizenship, for one thing. There was another forfeit in the UK: Bad press was bad business for public figures. Tax exiles were cast as unpatriotic and selfish, taking no interest in the common good. Stars set about rehabilitating their image, and how remarkably they succeeded is a sign of our transformed political landscape. The Guardian (January 15, 2005) reported Sean Connery’s objections to the stigma: Connery reframed his exile as a political statement. He would return, he said, when Scotland won independence. Roger Moore was known as a generous man long before he emigrated, so his reputation needed no spin when he devoted himself to the United Nations Children’s Fund in 1991. Charity is what’s left when you don’t have socialism.

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