A briefing from ukpublicspending.co.uk
The National Debt was made possible shortly after the Glorious Revolution, when William III arranged to sell debt securities through a syndicate of London merchants. The syndicate became the Bank of England, and the securities founded the National Debt.
When charted in pounds sterling, in Chart 1, the National Debt looks huge. Looking back over the last century, the debt back in 1900 doesnt really register. But by charting debt as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Chart 2, you get a look at government debt compared to the size of the economy at the time.
Chart 2 tells, in stark detail, the story of the British Empire. It was built on the National Debt. Throughout the 18th century the National Debt grew and grew, from nothing at the end of the 17th century to about 60 percent of GDP by the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1715.
In mid-century the Carnatic Wars in India, the Seven Years War against France and the American War of Independence caused another ratchet in National Debt up to 156 percent of GDP in 1784.
But that was just the beginning. The Revolution in France and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars led to another explosion in military spending and the National Debt rose to 237 percent of GDP in 1816 after the battle of Waterloo. The rest of the 19th century was spent in drawing the debt down, to a low of 25 percent of GDP in 1914. That was just before the outbreak of the Great War in Europe.
In the 20th century the UK government has increased the National Debt to fight wars and to mitigate economic troubles.
At the beginning of the 20th century in 1900 the National Debt stood at a very manageable 30 percent of GDP and dipped to 25 percent of GDP by 1914 despite the intervening Boer War. But the Great War, World War I, caused an explosion in the National Debt up to 135 percent of GDP in 1919. Then, in the economic troubles of the 1920s it rose to 181 percent in 1923 and stayed above 150 percent of GDP until 1937. The National Debt dipped to 110 percent of GDP in 1940 before soaring to 238 percent of GDP after the close of World War II in 1947.
After World War II the National Debt was slow reduced down as low as 25 percent of GDP in 1992. Thereafter it fluctuated in the 30s and 40s until the financial crisis of 2008. The National Debt is expected to exceed 100 percent of GDP in the aftermath of the crisis.
The real risk from government debt is the burden of interest payments. Experts say that when interest payments reach about 12% of GDP then a government will likely default on its debt. Chart 5 shows that the UK is a long way from that risk. The peak period for government interest payments, including central government and local authorities, was in the 1920s and 1930s right after World War I.
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Prepared by Christopher Chantrill.
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We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State