The National Debt: A Short History published by Martin Slater

31 May 2018

The cover of Martin Slater's book, 'The National Debt: A Short History'

Martin Slater today publishes his book, The National Debt: A Short History, with Hurst and Co., giving a fascinating and very clear account of the national debt from medieval times through to the 2008 financial crisis and beyond. He will celebrate the launch with an event in College on Monday 11 June at 5:30pm, to which all members of the current Hall community and alumni are warmly invited (find more details here).

Martin is an Emeritus Fellow at St Edmund Hall and was an Economics tutor here from 1980 until his retirement in 2013. He explains the motivation behind writing his new book as follows: “In 2014, I gave a talk at the Hall’s day of commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. The talk was about the economics of the war. I was struck by the astronomic economic costs of the war (we all know very well now about its costs in human life, but the economic costs were, in their own way, just as astonishing), and the legacy of debts it left behind. However, the story also had some uncomfortable resonance with the post-2008 financial climate, where the issue of national debts had again become a matter of acute political debate. After the talk it seemed to me there might be some benefit in drawing out the links between the two periods.

“But I soon discovered that, although there is no shortage of highly technical economic, and very detailed historical, academic literature on national debts, there is no simple overview of the concepts and the whole history which would be accessible to the general citizen trying to make some sense of the debates currently raging about austerity. The nearest such that I could find was a book published in 1930! So, since I had retired and had time on my hands, I tried to fill in the gaps as best I could, tracing the history backwards and forwards.

“Eventually, my daughter persuaded me that there was a potential book here. The publishing industry required rather more persuasion – academic publishers thought it was too popular, popular publishers thought it was too academic. One popular publisher replied: ‘my eyes just glaze over after two pages of national debt’! But eventually – through the good offices of Jim Ferguson, former Junior Research Fellow of the Hall – I found Hurst & Co., and I hope we have managed to make the national debt interesting to a general reader.

“In the media the citizen is confronted by two diametrically opposed narratives. On the one hand the national debt is a disaster waiting to happen: it is massive, growing out of control, and will soon take us the way of Greece if we don’t do something about it. On the other, the national debt is a supreme irrelevance, hardly more than an accounting fiction; interest rates are as low as anyone can remember and the government has no difficulty in borrowing as much as it wants. Even the otherwise well-informed citizen has little information on which to make a choice. Which is dangerous, because very serious economic consequences hang on the choice, and this is one of the most fundamental decisions in a democracy. I hope my book fills in some of the gap between the two extremes, allowing people to gain some perspective and make up their own minds more confidently.”

At last year’s St Edmund Hall Research Expo, Martin gave a short talk, looking at the national debt from a historical perspective, which can be watched on our YouTube channel.

More information about The National Debt: A Short History, can be found here, where it can also be purchased. Martin will give a short presentation, followed by drinks, at the official launch event on 11 June.

Launch Video

Martin Slater's talk on the UK National Debt, given at the College's Research Expo

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