Lots of people have told me that the UK is the world's fifth richest country. I've heard BBC news reporters say that too, and politicians. This, so the reasoning goes, is one of the main reasons why freeing ourselves from the EU will be easy. The UK is too rich and so too powerful for the EU to mess with. Or, as someone told me, and I kid you not: we showed them who's boss in 1918 and in 1945 and in 1966. That was in Glasgow from a fellow Scot and it took a while for the last one to dawn on me.
It is all terrific, really, except for one thing. The UK is far from being the world's fifth richest country (which is in fact the United Arab Emirates). If it were, it would be reasonable to wonder why so much of it looks like Eastern Europe just after the wall came down. The evidence of your own eyes is not wrong. True, the UK is the world's fifth largest economy, or thereabouts, in terms of GDP. That means the value of all the goods and services produced by the economy. But that is not the same thing as being rich.
If you want a measure of how rich a country is, you have to divide its GDP by its population. In that way, the UK is either the 20th, 22nd or 24th richest country depending on where you look (IMF, World Bank and UN, respectively). China, with an economy many times larger than the UK's, is either the 67th, 72nd or 75th richest country.
In terms of countries, the US is the world's largest economy, and China is
second. However, if you include the EU, its economy is the second largest
(according to the World Bank) and not far behind the US. In some reckonings, the EU is the larger of the two. Either way, China is third. While the UK economy might be the sixth largest, the distance between it and the top three is enormous.
The fact is that the UK is relatively poor in comparison to many other Western democracies. Ireland is richer. Norway is far
richer. The UK has a small manufacturing base, which, along with what comes out of the ground, is where all wealth originates. Yet the UK is lining up to give away its influential membership of the world's largest and most powerful trading bloc.
My concerns about this were deepened by the recent television debates
between candidates who had applied for the post of the UK's unelected leader. One way or another, they were all saying the same thing. Each claimed to have a fantastic
plan and fantastic
negotiating skills. In the unlikely event that problems were to arise, they would be solved easily by means of solving them. Whenever it was his turn, Michael Gove talked straight into the camera. It made him look as if he were on day release from an asylum for the criminally insane. Rory Stewart, who at least tried to get the others to say what they would actually do, gave up in a fit of huffy petulance.
Dominic Raab, who couldn't be from an asylum because he surely would not have been let out, was going to fix everything by restoring the country to an absolute monarchy. Sajid Javid bummed about what a great guy he was for going to a state school. Boris Johnson's performance was a reminder of how easy it can be to mistake mendacity for cleverness. There was another candidate but I can't remember anything about him.
Overall, the event reminded me of the bank chiefs' appearance before a
parliamentary committee after the 2008 crash: such low quality people in charge of something so important.
Perhaps I am being uncharitable. Despite we British – including we Scots –
having bestowed upon ourselves the virtue of being reserved and understated, the opposite is more like the truth. Radio 4 is on as I write. A reporter has just described the current situation in the Gulf as incredibly grave. I suppose it will be very incredibly grave if shooting starts. We indiscriminately pepper our language with intensifiers. Andy Murray has announced that his refurbished hip feels amazing. We have invented degrees of perfection so that people can commit themselves to giving 110% effort to something or other.
Even John Lewis is into overstatement. After I bought a bed there one of the questions in their service evaluation was, Do you love John Lewis? Nowhere did it inquire if the bed appeared to have been made by Norman Wisdom or if the mattress was shaped like a parallelogram. (Mark you, it was fantastically cheap.)
So, when these candidates, the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable,
say they have fantastic plans and that they will triumph easily in any EU negotiations because they have fantastic negotiating skills, perhaps they are just doing the usual British overstatement thing. But sadly no. Their plans and negotiating skills really are
fantastic, and that is precisely the problem.
Over the years I have voted for just about every non-fringe party there is. I
have cast my votes in context and based on what seemed best at the time. In any event, whatever way I've voted, I have never quite understood the intense and unalterable life-long hatred that some people harbour for one or other of the two main parties. But I am getting there, quite rapidly.