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A Magazine for Sheffield

Lies about Country: The lies we're told and the lies we tell ourselves

The crisis has shown us that so many of us want to act like citizens.

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Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash.

One of the reasons for our slow response to COVID-19 is that we are blinkered. We can only see what our national media wants us to see and when we are made aware of something outside our national borders it is presented as foreign: hostile or irrelevant.

The same is true of economics. When our lying Prime Minister says we are the fifth-richest economy this is reported as fact, even when anyone with modest curiosity can quickly discover this is nonsense.

Firstly, it ignores the impact of looking at the real value of our currency. If you do that, by using data on purchasing power parity, then it turns out we are currently the ninth largest economy, but not the ninth richest. The UK is a relatively populous country. The 'true' measure of economic wealth is GDP per head of population, and by that measure the UK is the 27th richest economy; a second division team at best.

But things look really different if you look inside the UK. Again, our national media tend to look at everything from a London perspective, while ignoring the huge internal disparities in national wealth. For instance, per capita GDP for London is £46,482 compared to £20,740 for Yorkshire. If we map this data back onto the international league tables, it turns out that London would be the fifth wealthiest country in the world, richer than Brunei, whereas Yorkshire would be 39th, roughly the same as Estonia; about to be relegated to the third division.

Of course we might thank our lucky stars that we are part of the same country as London, assuming that some of this wealth is redistributed back to Sheffield. Those bankers must surely be good for something?

Last week the Centre for Welfare Reform published an analysis of all public expenditure in Sheffield (benefits and services) compared to the national average. This is what we found:

  • Per capita public spending in Sheffield is £8,761.
  • Per capital public spending in the UK is £11,642.
  • Citizens of Sheffield therefore receive on average £2,881 less in public spending than the national average.
  • This is equivalent to a loss of £1.7 billion from the economy of Sheffield.
  • Local government in Sheffield controls less than 15% of public spending in our city.

We will be told that this is all our own fault. It's the failure of the North, of Yorkshire and of Sheffield to compete. But this is another lie.

London's wealth is not built on growing things, making things, 'competing' or doing anything worthwhile. It's built on exploitation by the banks, those glassy-mirrored edifices that loom over the capital's skyline. Thatcher gave to the banking sector the power to quite literally make money and it exploits that power by creaming off resources for itself. Central government adds to this injustice by pretending to distribute resources to the rest of the country, while holding back much of that money for itself.

If those who occupied these positions of power had a different skin colour from the rest of us we'd call this exploitative system 'colonialism'. But we do not see it like that. Instead, while we might moan about London and 'the Government', we are much more likely to blame ourselves or those to whom we give the impossible job of trying to run local government in these hostile conditions.

We dream the dream that we all live in the same country, where everyone is equal and where we're all in it together. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will help us wake from this cozy but dangerous fantasy.

The crisis has shown us that so many of us want to act like citizens - helping each other out, not waiting for permission, making decisions together. Perhaps we will find some sense of civic pride and begin to organise to reclaim democratic power for Sheffield and its 142 local communities.

But perhaps the biggest challenge will be confronting the false assumptions about economics that shape so much of our political debate. We might recognise that real wealth is not made by bankers or politicians; real wealth is made by mothers, farmers, care workers, cleaners, artists and all those who do things of real worth and value.

Because the biggest lie of all is that money can measure anything of true value.

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