A Rich Country

‘This shouldn’t be happening in the sixth-richest country in the world.’

You’ll see this cliche bandied around often. When used it’s trying to invoke a sense of duty through creating a sense of shame, that by us having this wealth as a country we should inherently share it more equitably around. It can be in relation to many things: teacher pay, homelessness, clean energy. Take this vintage use of it in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 conference speech, a classic of the genre:

Shouldn’t it be a source of shame that the United Nations – the United Nations – had to take our government to task this year over the shocking fact that 14 million people are living in poverty in the [sixth]* richest country in the world?

As an increasingly-old lefty, I understand what Corbyn was trying to invoke here and why, and I’ve often thought along these lines myself (namely in relation to the noticeable increase in homelessness you can see day to day). I’ve felt the shame looking at poverty while also having this notion I lived in a rich country. But I’ve come to realise this line is not only ineffectual, it actually misses what it means to be a ‘rich country’.

The UK is not a ‘rich country’, rather it is a country where some rich people and corporations happen to reside.

GDP (as Corbyn alludes to above) is a quite frankly an almost useless measure of wealth. It’s a made up number, it’s a guess, something imagined by those in ivory towers after the war to somehow conceptualise the value of any given country. I understand it’s importance – governments and countries can rise and fall by the power of this mythical figure, and so governments and countries are naturally obsessed with making it grow robustly. But it’s a key example of where the metric has become more important than what is being measured itself. So calling ourselves ‘rich’ on this basis is murky at best (read more on this here).

There’s no denying there is wealth in the bounds of our borders as a nation, but let me put it this way: the mean should not be the measure. Nor should the ‘gross product’ be.

Here’s an example: you have two gardeners, each with the same budget. One gardener chooses to distribute funds equitably around his garden, perhaps puts in some pretty little flower beds, rolls out some lovely lawn, has some promising trellises (excuse me, I may have been listening to Gardener’s Question Time a little too much). Meanwhile, the other gardener chooses to have a barren mud patch with a jacuzzi in the corner. In both, the ‘wealth’ of the gardens is the same, but the beauty, the ‘richness’ is only truly evident in one.

The UK is becoming more and more like the second garden.

Take our median and mean salaries. The median average salary for full-time workers in the UK is £31k, where as the mean £38k. People often use these terms interchangeably, but there’s an important distinction between the two. 

The median is the middle value when a data set is ordered from least to greatest. (So if you have 11 people it’s the 6th person). The average meanwhile is the total value divided by number in the dataset. So why’s this important? It’s important because they’re different. To have the two values as different, means someone, somewhere is skewing the average, either upwards or downwards. In this instance, no surprises for who is doing it – the wealthy. 

UK wages have stagnated for most of us – it’s no surprise almost everyone is on strike. UK incomes were just 9 per cent higher than in 2005, compared with 40 per cent in Germany and 39.8 per cent in France. Added to that, the fact that while we all applauded furlough at the time, basically the government accidentally pumped about £450 billion into the pockets of the rich during the pandemic and that money, funnily enough, hasn’t trickled down – it isn’t hard to see where all the money is concentrated.

Our GDP may say we’re rich because basically we’re a massive garden with a lot of jacuzzi’s stacked up in one corner; in 2020, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 43% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. 

And this is what I mean when I say we should stop saying we’re a rich country, we simply aren’t. A country can’t be ‘rich’ when most of it’s people aren’t by any measure, whether through relative salaries, purchasing power or access to the country’s wealth.

For most people, this is unsurprising: walking through the decaying cities and towns of this land, most of us will recognise we are at best a deeply unequal, fading power. Our public services are in constant crisis. Many of us don’t do anything productive, and even if we do our wages stagnate. We can’t even do the simple things like keep our streets tidy

What does it mean to be a ‘rich’ country? Or what should it mean? What better captures what a rich country is? For me, we could start with the spirit of this quote, from a former mayor of Bogota:

An advanced city is not one where the poor can get around by car, but one where even the rich use public transportation.

I’d argue to be a ‘rich country’ means for the country as a whole to be richer, and that should measured by levels of poverty, productivity, public services and contentment. A rich country cannot be defined by whether there are a few exceptionally wealthy, with the rest of us picking for scraps. 

When Corbyn et al, myself included, try to shame us in someway to cough up wealth we haven’t got by invoking the ‘rich country’ line, it’s the wrong strategy – it misses how most people feel about themselves, about the country, and that plays into the hands of entrenched wealth as they manipulate people to support policies that help them and hurt everyone else.

So let’s drop the cliche and use a line that better explains the condition of the nation. And in the meantime, you’ll find me in the garden. Or my neighbour’s jacuzzi.

*Corbyn made a mistake in his speech, stating we were fifth, when we were in fact sixth: https://fullfact.org/economy/uk-sixth-or-ninth-richest-country/ 

Featured image credit: maul_cosplay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s