The National Debt

A Short History

May 2018 9781849049412 256pp
EU Customers


While it is central to today’s politics, few people fully understand the National Debt and its role in shaping the course of British history. Without it, Britain would not have gained–and lost–two empires, nor won its wars against France and Germany. But Britain has also been moulded by attempts to break free of the Debt, from postwar Keynesian economics to today’s austerity.

Martin Slater writes a vivid tale coloured with some of the most dramatic incidents and personalities of Britain’s past–from clashes between King and Parliament, American independence and war in Europe, to the abolition of slavery, the development of the Union and the role of leading figures such as Pitt, Gladstone, Adam Smith and Keynes.

From medieval times to the 2008 financial crash and beyond, The National Debt explores the changing fortunes of the Debt, and so of Great Britain.


‘An interesting and important read . . . pithy yet penetrating . . . Slater is a shrewd and entertaining guide.’The Telegraph

‘An invaluable book on one of the UK’s most remarkable instruments of power: the National Debt.’ The Financial Times, Summer Books of 2018

‘[A] lively history, taking in wars, empires, constitutional change and slavery, of the National Debt from medieval times to the 2008 crash and beyond.’ — Times Higher Education

‘Interesting . . . the National Debt has been used by brilliant minds such as Keynes to save the nation, and by shysters throughout the ages to kick the can and to obscure who is really paying for what.’ —New Statesman Books of the Year 2018, as chosen by Neil O’Brien

‘Slater’s account of the origins of the National Debt, and of its management up to the nineteenth century, is the clearest, most illuminating and most convincing that I have read.’ — The Society of Professional Economists

‘This sprightly written book surveys the history of National Debt from the Middle Ages until the financial crisis of 2008 . . . an even-handed account.’ — Choice

‘Slater’s work is much more than a technical treatise. His book is an invaluable guide to the evolution of the national debt and its interaction with the economy and society.’ — Journal of Modern History

‘Slater has done a superb job, combining a fantastically clear explanation of what the National Debt actually is with an entertaining account of its history. This remarkably readable book will appeal to many a concerned citizen.’ — Evan Davis

‘Short, clear and readable. Slater shows how the National Debt has been enveloped in a miasma of misunderstanding and misinformation, and valiantly sets out to clear up the mess.’ — Robert Skidelsky

‘A tremendously satisfying book. Slater does not just recount and enliven history; he also explains the evolution of economic theories that influenced politicians, divided economists, and that continue to fire up public debate. A must-read for all those concerned by austerity.’ — Ann Pettifor, author of The Production of Money

‘A comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of Britain’s National Debt over the centuries. Slater provides much-needed perspective on why, and when, our government should borrow.’ — Alistair Darling

‘A timely reminder that, while financing the growing National Debt since 2008 has been relatively easy, the road ahead will likely be far less steady.’ — Vicky Pryce

‘A fascinating tour of British economic history.’ — Jonathan Portes, author of 50 Capitalism Ideas You Really Need to Know

‘Slater has written insightfully about one of the biggest economic issues of our times. Placing the National Debt in its historical context, this book is a must-read on whether our debt levels are too high.’ — Linda Yueh, author of The Great Economists


Martin Slater was Economics Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford for over thirty years before retiring in 2013. He has also served as Oxford’s Economics Sub-Faculty chair and as a managing editor of Oxford Economic Papers. Principally an industrial economist, recent years have stimulated his interest in the peculiarities of debt.

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