Travelling Across Poland Showed Me That Britain’s Economy Is Broken

By 2030, the average Polish family may be wealthier than their British counterparts.

by Aaron Bastani

16 December 2022

‘In Britain, the hallmark of most town centres isn’t curious businesses, or civic renewal, but the battered spectacle of chipped paint, shuttered windows and betting shops.’ Photo: Adobe Stock

When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2007 the UK was, on a per-head basis, one of the richest places on Earth. According to the International Monetary Fund, it was not only wealthier than Germany and France – two similar-sized countries against which it has historically measured itself – but Finland, the US and Australia too. Enjoying a well-funded welfare state, with world-class healthcare at its heart, alongside a growth model similar to the US, it seemed the birthplace of capitalism had re-invented itself for the new millennium. Not only was it home to some of the largest companies on the planet, and arguably its most successful financial centre, but consecutive Labour governments had overseen spectacular falls in pensioner and child poverty. 

What happened next has, by now, become a familiar story. The global financial crisis, which started that year, marked both the end of a particular growth model and the beginning of a period of stagnation from which the country is yet to emerge. Today, the United States has a GDP per capita more than 50% greater than the UK. Elsewhere, places such as Canada and Finland are distinctly more prosperous. Future historians will struggle to comprehend not only why this happened, but how the orthodoxy powering such failure was cheered on by the country’s political and media establishment.

Although Britain’s decline has unfolded over 15 years, 2022 rapidly accelerated such trends. Rising inflation has been a challenge across Europe, but in the UK real wages fell by an average of £76 a month, every month, across the year. While talking heads in the media are incensed that 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the highest number in a decade, given how quickly millions have become significantly poorer it’s a surprise that figure isn’t higher. What is more, the role of the south-east in the British economy obscures a greater tale of decline beyond it. 

But graphs and charts only take you so far. That is why travelling abroad, particularly to those places Britain regards as peer nations, is increasingly instructive. 

Unlike 15 years ago, anyone who visits the Netherlands, Scandinavia or Canada today will immediately find themselves in a much wealthier society. Such a difference is qualitative rather than by degree. There are fewer empty shop fronts and more independent businesses. Restaurants and cafes are bustling in a way that has become strangely unfamiliar across much of the UK. Those nostalgic relics of a bygone age back home, department stores and bookshops, remain relatively common – and in some places even conspicuous. Most notable of all, to me at any rate, is seeing young adults spend significant amounts of money on just having fun. Whenever I meet young British emigres in places like Stockholm, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, it feels like they’ve used a cheat code.

None of that is to say these countries are perfect. Walking through Vancouver’s downtown eastside is a shocking experience for anyone from Europe. If you have never been, imagine LA’s Skid Row only worse and without the sunshine. Elsewhere the spiraling cost of housing in Canada has reached crisis levels, while Covid inflicted lasting scars on retailers. But all of these feel closer to unsolved problems, and a question of priorities, than signs of a country in freefall. In Britain, meanwhile, the hallmark of most town centres isn’t curious businesses, or civic renewal, but the battered spectacle of chipped paint, shuttered windows and betting shops. Those businesses that survive, let alone succeed, do so against the odds. 

But while I was already aware that our standard of living was in decline relative to northern Europe and North America, last week I was taken aback by the affluence on show in Poland – until recently a middle-income country most Brits associate with cheap labour. Yet travelling around much of the country I discovered tidy, prosperous cities, busy restaurants and cafes, businesses that combined originality and intrigue, and commercial districts which were anything but identikit. Meanwhile, the young people I met, although eager to highlight issues such as the cost of housing, lacked the pessimism you generally encounter when speaking to their counterparts in the UK. 

Of course, it is important to highlight that much of the country, particularly its east, still contends with economic deprivation. Cities have benefited from the same trends which have disfigured rural communities. Meanwhile, infrastructure is wildly mismatched from west to east, hardly a surprise given its division among three great powers – Russia, Germany and the Austrian Empire – until a century ago. And yet in each of the places I visited – Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw – I encountered a sense of optimism one rarely finds in the UK. Each felt as affluent as any English city beyond London, if not more so.

The data confirms my intuitions with the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch recently outlining how, on present trends, the average Polish family will be wealthier than their British counterparts by 2030. For Slovenians, that moment is expected to arrive in 2024. 

But that speculative observation comes into high definition when you look at the data on the two countries’ respective cities. According to the OECD (using GDP per capita, PPP) cities like Warsaw, Poznan, Krakow and Wroclaw are all wealthier than Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester – let alone Newcastle or Middlesborough. Personally speaking, I found the difference immediately obvious. Among the former, restaurants were packed on weekdays, there were few empty shop fronts and rough sleeping was an aberration rather than a feature. That is before mentioning the seemingly ubiquitous presence of trams and affordable public transport. This is also expressed in certain health indicators: Poland enjoys a significantly lower maternal mortality rate than the United Kingdom, while accessing a GP is far easier. 

There are of course tremendously wealthy people in each of the English cities mentioned above – it’s just they live among a sea of fellow citizens who are struggling by European standards. While our wealthiest earners rival the most prosperous Germans and Norwegians, last year the lowest-earning British households had a standard of living 20% weaker than their equivalents in Slovenia

In 2020, The Economist wrote how “other countries have poor bits. Britain has a poor half.” Yet after the events of this year, even that sounds optimistic – at least by the standards the country imagines for itself. The UK, especially outside London, is increasingly just a middle-income country with a smattering of rich people. Visit the Nordics, the Netherlands and, yes, Poland, and you’ll see what I mean. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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