A nation of shopkeepers
Andrew Hubbard

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Andrew Hubbard


A nation of shopkeepers? Not any moreā€¦

Napoleon was supposed to have said that England was a nation of shopkeepers. He almost certainly didn’t (indeed I doubt that he actually uttered most of the quotes attributed to him) but the phrase has stuck. Would it still be true today?

Not according to the latest statistics from HMRC on PAYE receipts. These are a reasonable reflection of what people in the UK actually do in order to earn a living. The figures are expressed as percentages of total PAYE receipts rather than numbers of employees so perhaps they do reflect a bias towards sectors with higher average wages. However, I suspect that in most of those sectors the vast majority of individuals are on low to medium wages, so I doubt that there is too much distortion.

So if Napoleon (or more properly Adam Smith, who definitely did refer to a nation of shopkeepers) were to borrow a TARDIS and land in the middle of London today he would have to say England is a nation of…‘individuals involved in financial and insurance activities’.

That phrase does not roll off the tongue, but it is the largest single category in the current statistics – 16.1 per cent of total PAYE receipts come from this sector.

Shop keeping – if we extend the definition to wholesale/retail and motor vehicle repair, which is the official description, is not even second – at 10.5 per cent it falls behind professional, scientific and technical activities at 11.3 per cent.

Manufacturing is the only other category in excess of 10 per cent - it creeps over the line at 10.1 per cent. The two largest public-sector-dominated activities – health and education – come next at 8.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent respectively.

It is interesting to look at the trends – the statistics go back to 2004/05 – but, inevitably, there have been changes in the categories during that period so a strict like-for-like comparison is difficult.

Manufacturing has declined steadily throughout the period, from a starting point of 14.6 per cent whereas retail etc has more or less stayed in the same place.

The most volatile sector by far has been financial and insurance. This went down to a low of 13 per cent during the financial crisis: it has crept back up, but with some ups and downs, as you would expect. Perhaps the biggest surprise is construction, which is now lower (4.3 per cent) than it was in 2004/05 (5 per cent).

These are of course percentages and so what we are looking at here is the way that the PAYE cake is divided up rather than the total amount of PAYE collected. But they do give a good snapshot of current employment patterns.

Had comparatives been available just after the war, when PAYE was introduced, the picture would have been very different. Agriculture, fishing and mining would have been hugely important – now between them they account for a fraction over 1 per cent of the total PAYE collected each year.

Any predictions for what the split might be by the end of this century? Please comment below.

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