Decline and fall

I was always a bit ambivalent on the idea of a public holiday to mark the death (and life) of Her Late Majesty: there were (and are) better, cheaper, and more enduring things that could (have) been done. And the more so when the day chosen seems less to do with Queen Elizabeth (whose funeral and burial were a week ago) and more to do with the Prime Minister’s schedule. But here we are.

It seemed like a good day to potter in the old data and see how things went, in terms of relative economic performance, for the independent countries of which the Queen was monarch throughout her reign – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Back in 1952 there were a few others – South Africa, Pakistan, and (as it then was) Ceylon. The other current realms (PNG, the Solomons, Belize, and so on) were not independent until later.

In the table below I started with Angus Maddison’s collation of historical GDP and GDP per capita (in purchasing power parity terms) estimates. I used the Western Europe and “offshoots” (NZ, Australia, Canada and the US), the east Asian countries that are now very prosperous (Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and (South) Korea), included a few representative central European and South American countries, and included the other 1952 realms (South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon).

My main interest was comparing rankings from 1952 to those now. But if one starts from 1952, some people will make (not entirely unreasonable) objections about it being just after the war, and so the numbers may flatter countries that had little or destruction in World War Two, so I’ve also included 1939 numbers where (most cases) Maddison had them available. And for the most recent period I’ve included rankings for both GDP per capita and (my preferred focus) GDP per hour worked.

(UPDATE: This table replaces the original one in which I had inadvertently given Uruguay’s the US’s 2021 GDP and vice versa)

There are all sorts of extended essays one could write about relative growth performance over the decades/centuries for different groups of countries, but here my main interest is just in the four Anglo countries of which the Queen was monarch from 1952 until a couple of weeks ago. That picture is not a pretty one. 70 years ago all four countries were in the very top grouping, and these days not one of them is. Not in any way the fault of Her Late Majesty of course: she and her Governors-General act only on the advice of respective sets of ministers in each country, but a poor reflection on the countries concerned, and their successive respective governments nonetheless. New Zealand, sadly, has been by some margin the worst of them.

If I were inclined to be particularly gloomy – okay, I am – one could even note that the extent of the drop down the league tables for these stable democratic rule-of-law countries, isn’t materially different to the drop experienced by Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, none of which enjoyed uninterrupted democratic governance over those decades. South Africa has had a similar drop down the league tables too.

I have my own stories about why most of the seven countries (Anglo and South American) have done poorly, but I don’t claim to have any particularly compelling tale about the UK and the extent of its continuing relative decline.

11 thoughts on “Decline and fall

  1. Interesting that Denmark has been so continuously prosperous over the period, what is it exactly that they consistently get right to maintain this prosperity? Simple explanations for Switzerland (tax haven – as well as more recently Ireland) and Norway (oil and gas) don’t apply to Denmark.

    Also is Uruguay’s GDP per capita in 2021 really that high?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops. I had advertently shown Uruguay with the US’s GDP in that column and vice versa. Have now corrected the table.

      I’m not sure there are explanations wholly specific to Denmark: my interpretation tends to focus on strong performance of a phalanx of NW European countries over time (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Swtizerland, Denmark). Relative to NZ however, Denmark which was once a big dairy and meat (bacon) exporter to the UK, has location going for it and quite subdued population growth over a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michael

    Isn’t the 2021 GDP per capita PPP for the US $69,544 and not $22,058?

    Just checking that our superpower isn’t in terminal decline along with Russia.



    Liked by 1 person

  3. If you consider the Anglo nations besides the US as a block, the first interesting question is why have they collectively moved down the chart over this timespan? In light of recent events and the likely prognosis following on from them, a better question might be, why have the continental European (particularly the north, central) states done unusually well since the second world war? It seems to me that a combination of cheap energy and a rapid population growth in the 50s and 60s followed by an extreme throttling of that growth from the 70s were very both factors in driving strong economic growth and productivity (perhaps also rebuilding post ww2). Both factors are about to abruptly end and so the next 50 years will not look so positive. If the US de-couples from the European security scene, as is so often threatened, then having to also fund local security will be a serious drag on their economies…

    A separate question is why NZ has moved down within the Anglo non US block to the extent it has done. I think your earlier posts on this point remains the most compelling explanation…


    • Interesting hypothesis (I’m probably a bit less sceptical on NW Europe’s prospects, partly no doubt from remembering a time a few decades back when everyone was down on Europe and its econ performance/prospects, and yet here we still are with half a dozen of the highest productivity countries).


      • I guess you are referring to the period late 90s early 2000s where Germany was the “sick man” of Europe – this is of course just before the Euro was introduced. Germany was against it in principle but quickly benefited from the fact it could continue to export with an artificially cheaper currency (being basically half DM half lira). In my view this gave them a huge boost at just the point where they were having to think about serious reforms to the political economy. Sadly a missed chance for them and if the benefits from the Euro are now waning as China buys less capital equipment for manufacturing, then they will face a tough future. The recent events around gas and sanctions (Russia was also an important market for manufacturing equipment) have just exposed the decay already present.

        The other neighbours you mention (Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria) are similar because they are simply satellites connected to the larger German supply chain…


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