Why the British are out-shopping Europe

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has visited the local high street or suburban shopping centre in recent weeks – and, to judge by the crowds thronging the aisles and the cars queuing for parking spaces, that is most of us – can testify that our enthusiasm for shopping is undimmed. Others may have lost their nerve in the wake of the global economic slowdown and the terrorist attacks of 11 September, but we British have carried on spending.

Anyone who has visited the local high street or suburban shopping centre in recent weeks – and, to judge by the crowds thronging the aisles and the cars queuing for parking spaces, that is most of us – can testify that our enthusiasm for shopping is undimmed. Others may have lost their nerve in the wake of the global economic slowdown and the terrorist attacks of 11 September, but we British have carried on spending.

We may, of course, have become so uniquely inured to forecasts of doom that we have learnt to dismiss them on the grounds that, at least some of the time, the worst does not happen. The list of fears we are currently refusing to face includes possible leaps in tax rates or unemployment, the dwindling of our future pensions and a fall in the value of the pound if the euro turns out to be a success.

Now, though, it seems that the wave of consumer confidence we are riding may not be so irrational after all. New figures show that this year's seasonal spending spree has a sound economic foundation. We have, dare we say it, been doing rather well as a nation – even though sectors such as the big airlines and tourism have faced hard times since 11 September. In the past decade, our average wealth has overtaken that of the average German and French citizen, taking us from 10th to 4th position in the European Union in terms of per capita GDP. At the same time, our economy has grown faster than that of any of the 12 countries about to adopt the euro.

So while we may be deluding ourselves about the dangers ahead, our current sense of wellbeing is eminently justified. It is not only that most of us feel richer, but we actually are richer: richer not only than we were, but than our most comparable neighbours. No wonder we have been hitting the shops so assiduously, and no wonder so many of us are heading away for the holidays. After all, our currency is also worth more against most of the eurozone currencies than it was 10 years ago.

The beneficial exchange rate, it is true, distorts the picture to an extent, enhancing the value of our wealth against that of our neighbours – an advantage that could rapidly shift. But exchange rates are also a measure of international confidence: they show that it is not only we who feel good about our financial circumstances, but others as well. And anyway, confidence breeds confidence. So perhaps we are right to just relax and enjoy our good fortune.

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