One of the most oft-quoted reasons for opposing the idea of independence for Wales is that we’re too poor. The idea has gained so much currency that even Plaid has fallen for it in recent years. But is it true – and what does it even mean?
One common way of judging how rich or poor a country is by looking at the country’s GDP – or more specifically, the GDP per capita. It’s not an entirely unproblematic basis for making an assessment. It tells us nothing about the relative cost of living in a country, for instance – so the population of a country with a low GDP per capita and a low cost of living might actually feel better off than the people of another country where both figures are higher. It also tells us nothing about the way wealth is shared out in a country – so the population of a country with a low GDP per capita but where the wealth is evenly shared might feel better off than the people of a country with a high GDP per head and huge inequality.
But, even with those caveats, GDP per capita is as good a starting point as any to assess where Wales fits. Here’s a series of charts, setting out GDP per head using three different methods of assessing it (that’s another problem with using GDP as a basis – the definition and method of calculation aren’t exactly clear either). Wales, of course, simply doesn’t figure in the charts at all, being considered solely as part of the UK.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t make a guess as to where Wales would fit, though. There seems to be a general acceptance that the GDP per head in Wales is around 75% of that of the UK as a whole. Using any of these three tables, it’s easy enough to see where a country with 75% of the UK’s GDP per head would sit. What does that tell us?
- On IMF figures, Wales would be in 24th place. Only 150-odd countries worse off than us.
- On World Bank figures, we’d be in 27th place, again with 150-odd countries lower down the table.
- On UN figures, we’d be in 31st place, with another 160-odd countries lower down the table.
- In each case, the list of countries lower down the list than Wales includes at least 15 (i.e. more than half) of the independent member states of the EU.
So if an independent Wales would be rich enough to be a middle-ranking member of the EU in terms of GDP, why are so many of us convinced that we’re too poor to be independent? Part of the answer is that we are accustomed to drawing the comparison (or having it drawn for us) with too narrow a range of comparators. In fact, the usual range of comparators is one – the UK. And for sure, it’s easy to look at the south-east of England in particular and see ourselves as poor. But if we look out across the world, it becomes obvious that we’re actually one of the world’s richer countries.
None of that means that independence for Wales would be easy, or problem-free. It would not. Taking responsibility for our own future; taking our place in the world – these are hard options not soft ones. The soft option is to continue to close our eyes to any wider analysis and hide behind our perceived poverty.
Too many people in Wales have become too comfortable avoiding the question, trying to put it off to a later date, as far as possible into the future. For too long, the case for Wales taking responsibility for its own future hasn’t even been put – and the one thing that I can more or less guarantee is that no argument ever got won by not being put. It’s time for that case to be put before the people of Wales.
This article was first published by John Dixon on his blog