Metroboom – Lessons from Britain’s Recovery in the 1930s by George Trefgarne. And win a copy!

In my last blog, about the many positive signals for US housing and the massive potential for that to drive US growth over the next couple of years (see here). I mentioned that I’d met recently with George Trefgarne, the author of a Centre for Policy Studies booklet called Metroboom. In it he pointed out how important housing construction had been in the UK’s recovery from the “slump” of the 1930s – I suggested that house building would be a very powerful way for the UK to get out of our current growth problem. As we’ve pointed out before, the UK’s growth performance from the credit crisis onwards is actually far worse than it had been in the 1930s in terms of lost GDP.

Metroboom is definitely worth a read. It certainly adds to the debate on the austerity vs fiscal stimulus debate, and (perhaps controversially) argues that it was a combination of spending cuts and tax cuts that helped to restore economic growth in the UK in the 1930s. The paper also argues that the view of the 1930s as universally gloomy in the UK is overstated. Areas that relied on shipbuilding and coal mining (the Special Areas) did remain depressed for much of the decade, and only re-armament ahead of the war stimulated growth again, but for much of the nation recovery came much earlier. Trefgarne claims that the UK was well ahead of most of the rest of the world in coming out of depression (only Germany grew faster), and that the period was one of industrial and technical innovation (and an obsession with world speed records!), an infrastructure and housing revolution, and improved leisure time (paid holidays, a cinema boom).

Perhaps one problem that we face today, that makes the UK’s 1930s solution difficult to implement today is that the tighter fiscal stance then could be offset with looser monetary policy – a policy tool that Trefgarne says was necessary to run alongside the austerity. As we approach the zero bound in interest rates around the western economies, and when the Bank of England hints that it finds diminishing returns from more and more Quantitative Easing, those monetary tools are unavailable. Olivier Blanchard, chief economist of the IMF, suggests that the reason for the negative fiscal multipliers being perhaps 3 times higher in this current downturn than they had expected them to be (1.5x versus 0.5x) is exactly this effect – monetary policy can no longer offset fiscal policy tightening. Additionally, when the UK came off the Gold Standard in 1931, the depreciation of sterling was very beneficial to UK exporters – I think that this currency depreciation was the most important factor in the UK’s eventually recovery. It’s also interesting to note that at the recent IMF/World Bank meetings in Tokyo (see my video here), Blanchard used the UK in the 1930s as an example of exactly why austerity failed, so the data from that period can be interpreted in very different ways!

I highly recommend you read Metroboom – it’s a short and concise economic history of the UK in that period with some great colour too (Neville Chamberlain at the time was regarded as a dynamic, media savvy “Man of the Year”, the Navy came close to mutiny following wage cuts, and 180 lidos were built in the decade). It’s interesting to have a different view to the commonly held one that the UK’s policies were disastrous whilst the New Deal Keynesian policies of the US proved to be the way to get out of Depression.

We have 20 copies of the Metroboom booklet to give away to the first names out of the hat with the correct answer to this question:

Which famous train broke the speed record between London and Edinburgh in 1938?

Terms and conditions here.  Enter here or email us at

Congratulations to the 20 winners named below – we will be in touch to get your copy of Metroboom to you. My question turned out to be a little ambiguous. I was looking for The Mallard as the answer to the question, as it hit a record speed of 126 mph at one point between London and Edinburgh in 1938. However, the Flying Scotsman set the record time for the entire journey between London and Edinburgh. In light of the confusion I generated, both answers were accepted. Thanks to everybody who entered, and good luck if you are attempting the annual Bond Vigilantes Christmas Quiz!

William Blake, Quilter
Chris Summers, FAMC Ltd
John McLaughlin, Brewin Dolphin
Nigel Farmer, Charles Stanley
Rachel Revesz, Citywire
Harry Rogers, Bentley Reid & Co
Joanna McIntyre, Standard Life Investments
John Slater, Medicas
Chris Spink, Thomson Reuters
Chris Rule, Kingfisher Financial
Herman Bakker, VSB
Jacob Nelson, BIS
John Topalian, Topalian Associates
Neil McHaffie, KM Financial
Mateusz Malek, Killick & Co
Mark Jones, Brewin Dolphin
Debbie Behrens, Charles Stanley
Richard List, J O Hambro Investment Management
Ian King, The Times
Bill Crowley, Independent IFA

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