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Covid-19: Small independent nations performing better

Dodging the bullet: nimble and agile

The UK is “almost the most centralised developed country in the world”. These are the words of Sharon White the then second permanent secretary to the treasury.

This centralisation of power and wealth is damaging. It entrenches poverty, drains resources and wealth away from more marginal communities, and weakens communities as people are forced to move away to find opportunities.

But it’s also now apparent for all to see that this monolithic centralised state is also damaging to our health.

Prof Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics, said recently that the UK’s highly centralised system of government, and its NHS, do not respond well to crises and challenges that require flexible, fast and effective local responses.

“It does appear that some smaller countries and federally structured nations like Germany seem to have been more flexible than the somewhat monolithic approach in Britain”.

(Guardian)

The UK has amongst the highest number of Coronavirus deaths in the whole world during the first wave of this terrible pandemic.

There is a combination of factors why this is the case: Incompetence, certainly; ideology, definitely; but also, the size of the State. It’s no surprise that, in Europe at least, the worst results can be found amongst the largest States – UK, France, Spain and Italy.

Large states might work well at a time of war – they can draw on vast resources and mobilise huge numbers of people to go to the killing fields. But this is not a war. All of the nuclear missiles in the world; all of the aircraft carriers, tanks, bunker buster missiles etc are entirely worthless in coming to terms with a virus. More people have died from pandemics and epidemics across the world since the turn of the last century than have died because of internal or external state aggression, yet the difference in the amounts spent on combating both issues could not be starker.

The UK’s vastly expensive Trident missile programme has remained idle and completely useless in the face of a submicroscopic virus, which has killed more UK citizens in the last 3 months than the amount killed by Osama Bin Laden and his cultist followers, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or any of the others ‘aggressors’ which the UK have gone to war with recently.

The theory of bigness

In his excellent book ‘The Breakdown of Nations’ Professor Leopold Kohr explains his theory of size, and how “there seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness”.

In it he explains that for democracy to work it must work on small levels:

“Man’s greatest happiness lies in his freedom as an individual. This is inseperably connected with political democracy. But democracy, in turn, is inseperably connected with the smallness of the collective organism of which the individual is part – the State. In a small state democracy will, as a rule, assert itself irrespective of whether it is organised as a monarchy or republic, or even as an autocracy. Paradoxical as this may sound, we do not need to go to great length to realize the truth of this proposition.

“The small state is by nature internally democratic. In it the individual can never be outranked impressively by the power of government whose strength is limited by the smallness of the body from which it is derived… He is physically too close to forget the purpose of its existence: that it is here to serve him, the individual, and has no other function whatever. The rulers of a small state, if they can be called that, are the citizen’s neighbours. Since he knows them closely, they will never be able to hide themselves in mysterious shrouds under whose cover they might take on the dim and aloof appearance of supermen… Since the citizen is always strong, governmental power is always weak and can, therefore, easily be wrested from those holding it. And this, too, is an essential requirement of democracy.”

Kohr goes on to explain that he is not referencing the roll of the state, but its physical and geographical size.

The UK is a Titanic State. The distance between those in power and the ordinary citizen – or subject – is so large that an ordinary person has no real chance of influencing on the Government’s decisions. On the other hand, those who have access to the decision makers have either had to climb the greasy poll or can buy their way through the door.

The Government makes some efforts to understand public opinion through focus groups and the like. But this only serves to turn the individual citizen into ‘average joe’, or as Tony Blair famously referred to them, Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. This in turn results in the oppression of the masses, where the concerns of smaller groups within society are ignored. The individual citizen is gone, and democracy has failed.

Put simply, large states fail the people they are meant to serve. Democracy is merely a façade. As far as the UK is concerned it is a plutocracy with a splash of aristocracy (and an increasing tendency towards kleptocracy) which serves to maintain the class divide and keep people in their place.

Failure

And how has this state failed Wales!

The UK’s abysmal failure in dealing with this crisis, and the fact that the Welsh Government (albeit belatedly) started to do things differently has led to a significant upswing in support for independence.

When voices on social media started to express the fact that Wales could do things differently, they were shot down by unionist trolls claiming that an independent Wales (and Scotland) couldn’t afford the funding packages put together by the UK government to support the economy and individuals during the lockdown.

Even senior UK Government Ministers, including the PM and the Chancellor, made such claims.

They are patently absurd, as the renowned economist Richard Murphy pointed out recently,

How do these unionists explain how other, smaller countries have managed to pay for their lockdowns?

Of course, the economic impact of the coronavirus, and the debt that has been amassed because of it will be less in most other countries because they reacted quicker. The Government’s appalling failure in dealing with the pandemic early on will result in it being far more costly for them. We had three months’ notice from China, and even six weeks’ notice from Italy. We knew it was coming. Other countries who locked down sooner were able to open up much sooner, with less disruptions and more importantly less deaths per head of their populations.

The irony is that it is these smaller countries that have fared better during this crisis.

Slovakia

Slovakia, with her population of 5.4 million and GDP of $19,000 per capita has recorded the lowest number of Covid-19 deaths in the EU. Slovakia swiftly introduced lockdown measures soon after the first case was reported. By late April, a little over a month later, it was easing lockdown restrictions. The Ministry of Finance in Slovakia expects the economy to recover to pre-Covid levels by the end of next year. Here in the UK we aren’t expecting it to recover until the end of 2024.

Iceland

Iceland, an island nation with a population of not much more than Cardiff, have also managed to come to terms with the virus. As of 24 February they have suffered ten Covid related deaths, and a little over 1800 confirmed incidents.

Iceland took the disease seriously and set up a rigorous trace and isolate programme with strong social distancing measures. They also carried out a massive testing programme, having tested more than 14% of the county’s entire population. This meant that they didn’t need to lock down.

The first economic assistance package introduced by the Icelandic government in late March totalled 8% of its GDP. That’s an equivalent of a £5bn economic package for Wales. It has since made further announcements to help the economy, which is also reliant to a large degree on tourism. Iceland’s economy is also expected to recover in 2021.

Faroe Islands

Finally, I’d like to look briefly at a country which, like Wales, isn’t independent, (but with greater autonomy) but has managed to tackle the virus spectacularly. The Faroe Islands.

The Faroe Islands has a population about the size of greater Llanelli.

But, though small and isolated in the north Atlantic, to date no Covid-19 related deaths have occurred in the Faroes Islands. How did they manage this? Thanks to the humble Salmon.

Twenty years ago, the islands salmon suffered an infection which could have crashed the Faroes economy. Salmon accounts for 90% of its economy. Consequently, the government brought in a stringent testing regime for the salmon with a dedicated laboratory.

The infrastructure was already there, and when Covid-19 came along they simply adapted.

Shortly after the first confirmed case, measures were swiftly put in place, and suspected patients went into quarantine. A few weeks later restrictions were being lifted.

Smaller is better

The point of these three examples is to show, quite simply, that smaller states (or governed regions) as Kohr said, are much more nimble and responsive to major challenges, and have far better resilience and ability to react swiftly in the face of a crisis.

A country’s size, be it population, geographic, or economic is a factor – smaller is better.

These examples (and others – just look at Denmark, Aotearoa, Finland) show that small states are preferable. When smaller states get it wrong (as might be the case in Sweden) then the effects are felt by fewer people, and others learn from those experiences. But when they get it right, then lives are saved and communities bounce back quicker and stronger.

The UK has failed the people of Wales.

The evidence suggests that an independent Wales would have dealt with the crisis better and earlier.

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