Nicholas Crafts, Professor of Economics and Economic History at the University of Warwick, Olivier Accominotti, Assistant Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics and Tobias Straumann, Professor of Philosophy at Zurich University discussed the extent of the Great Depression in Britain—and questioned whether it could be called a ‘ depression’ at all, given that Britain’s experience was both milder and shorter than in other countries. The outer regions of the UK, still tied to the old industrial sectors, such as coal, suffered most from the crash: the structural unemployment that proved a persistent feature of life in these areas probably fuelled the “myth” of the Great Depression. Panellists drew parallels with the two-speed British economy of today, a flourishing southeast with a very different experience of the recession of 2008 to less dynamic regions.

The panel, moderated by Scott Urban, lecturer on International Finance at Hertford College Oxford and a Legatum Institute advisor, agreed that the pivotal factor was that Britain left the Gold Standard relatively early—causing great political upheaval—which turned out to be the most favourable course to take. This gave Britain the freedom to devalue its currency, and to enact its Cheap Money Policy. There was no comparable option in 2008, neither for the UK nor the Eurozone—short of leaving the euro.

Britain’s departure from the Gold Standard had a huge impact on other countries. Had there been an orchestrated global monetary policy, a global monetary expansion might have ensued; instead, Britain devalued its currency and simultaneously introduced new trade tariffs which capitalised on the devaluation and directed gold inflows to Britain.

The seminar went on to discuss the importance of housing construction as an effective transmission mechanism; the impact of persistent unemployment on the memory of this period; the size of the state and its capacity to mitigate disaster through monetary and fiscal policies; the effect of welfare and other changes to the labour market and the legacy of hyperinflation on the mindset of European countries such as Germany and Sweden.

A more detailed write up will be included in volume two of the Legatum Institute's Introduction to the History of Capitalism, available early 2016.

Video Interview with Nicholas Crafts, Olivier Accominotti and Tobias Straumann

About the Speakers

Nicholas Crafts is Professor of Economic History and Director of the ESRC Research Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) at Warwick University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. His earlier career included positions at UC Berkeley, London School of Economics, Oxford and Stanford. His research interests focus on comparative long-run economic growth and the economic history of the 1930s. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the IMF and a consultant for HM Treasury. His recent publications include The Great Depression of the 1930s: Lessons for Today, edited with Peter Fearon.

Olivier Accominotti is Associate Professor in Economic History at the London School of Economics and Research Affiliate at the Centre for Economic Policy Research. He holds a PhD in Economics from Sciences Po Paris and was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, a Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. Olivier’s research interests are in economic history and international finance, especially the international propagation of financial crises, the determinants of global capital flows, the political economy of exchange rate policies and the effect of political institutions on countries’ access to capital markets. His current projects focus on foreign exchange markets and the causes of international financial instability during the Great Depression.

Tobias Straumann is a professor for economic history at the University of Zurich. His main field of interest is Europe's monetary history in the 20th century. He has also widely published on the history of the Swiss banking system and individual financial institutions. Currently he is working on a book about the German crisis of 1931.

Scott Urban manages a boutique advisory service on exchange-rate economics and teaches international finance at Hertford College, Oxford. He is Senior Adviser in Finance and Economics to Oxford Analytica and was previously an international economist at the US Treasury Department. Dr Urban's topical specialties include global growth and crisis. He was awarded the Feinstein Prize at Oxford for his work on the international monetary system and his macroeconomics research is published in top-ranked journals. He has appeared frequently on television and radio.


  • After the Crash; Before the War: Culture and Society in Europe in the 1930s, History of Capitalism lecture with Philipp Blom, Thursday, 19 November 2015 (Details)

About the History of Capitalism Series​

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.