A tribute: Professor Nicholas Crafts CBE FBA 1949-2023

October 11, 2023 | Blog
Home > A tribute: Professor Nicholas Crafts CBE FBA 1949-2023

Nick Crafts was the most distinguished British economic historian of his generation. He was born in 1949 at Nottingham, England and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated as the top student in the Economics Tripos in 1970. After just a year of graduate studies he took a lectureship at Exeter before moving to Warwick in 1972 and then on to University College, Oxford in 1977, where he was lecturer and praelector. He became professor of economics at Leeds from 1989 to 1995 and then professor of economic history at the LSE from 1995 to 2005 after which he returned to Warwick until his retirement in 2019.

Nick was an early observer of the Cliometrics Revolution that was sweeping across the United States at the time of his visiting assistant professorship at Berkeley, and he was one of the pioneers in applying the approach in Europe, establishing an annual Quantitative Economic History Conference in Britain. He established a worldwide reputation on the basis of important contributions in many areas of economic history, but perhaps his most important and far-reaching work was his radical reinterpretation of the First Industrial Revolution, which occurred in Britain between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries and marks the first transition to sustained economic growth. As such, it lies right at the heart of the discipline of economic history.

His path-breaking book, British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, first published in 1985 and reprinted 4 times, presented a radically different view of the Industrial Revolution as a more gradual process than previously believed. This book also set the British experience firmly in a European context, an important methodological contribution, which continues to affect the way that European economic history is written today. Crafts demonstrated convincingly that earlier writers had exaggerated the growth rate of industrial production and hence of total national output during the Industrial Revolution. From this he was able to demonstrate that the British economy must have been richer and more developed in 1700 than previously thought. As well as dramatically changing our view of the Industrial Revolution itself, this view also cast an entirely new light on earlier periods of economic history. If Britain was already quite developed on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, then this opened up the possibility of earlier episodes of growth and development, and encouraged a whole new wave of research on early modern and medieval economic history, the effects of which are still being felt in the discipline to this day.

He later made important contributions to our understanding of the development of the British economy from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Much of this work is summarised in his book Forging Ahead, Falling Behind and Fighting Back: British Economic Growth from the Industrial Revolution to the Financial Crisis. (CUP, 2018). With an endogenous growth framework in the background he stressed that the potential for growth varies widely, both across countries and over time, so that slow growth in in one era may represent better performance, relative to potential than another. Key elements in achieving or falling short of potential are the effects of the institutional environment on incentive structures for innovation and investment.

Within this framework he argued that British growth faltered rather than failed in the late nineteenth century and that growth potential was greater in the United States due to its large market size and a configuration of its factor endowments that favoured directed technological change in progressive sectors. The two World Wars were major setbacks and, although from 1950 to 1973 the British economy grew faster than ever, it fell short of its potential. This was partly a penalty of the early start and partly the result of polices, which from the 1930s onwards, included tariff protection, a complicated tax system with high marginal tax rates, the nationalisation of large swathes of industry and misdirected R&D effort. Although growth subsequently slowed, relative to potential, economic performance improved due to three key elements. One was the reforms undertaken by the Thatcher governments (1979-90) that included tax reform, industrial deregulation and privatisation of state enterprises and the dramatic reduction of the power of trade unions. Another was the rapid adoption of ICT. And the third, stressed elsewhere in his work, was the competition-enhancing effect of Britain’s membership of the EU from 1973.

Nick was a masterful lecturer. In his lectures he dissected often conflicting and confusing literatures to provide a clear analytical roadmap for students with limited economics. Unlike many, he wanted to give big first year lectures that most faculty try to avoid. As well as lecturing his own students, Nick gave many other talks, ranging from visiting American students, to public lectures, to groups in the City. No matter the group, he would always describe attendees as “punters”. They had paid in time, and sometimes in money, to hear him speak, and as such he always took his responsibilities to them seriously. That did not mean he dumbed things down in the search for popularity; on the contrary, he set high standards for those attending, as well as for himself. After a lecture on the Gold Standard he remarked “The punters didn’t like that one. They never do. But you can’t say you have studied economic history if you don’t know how the Gold Standard worked.” Nick was, as many former students can testify, a Gold Standard lecturer.

Nick was very heavily involved in economic policy throughout his career, and was unrivalled in the way that he used economic history to inform his policy conclusions. He was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research from 1985, serving as Director of the Human Resources Since 1900 Programme between 1989 and 1991. From 2010 until his retirement in 2019, Nick was the founding Director of CAGE, an ESRC-funded research centre at Warwick. In recognition of his achievements he received many high honours. He was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy at the young age of 43 and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2014 he was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to economics. He also served as President of the Economic History Society, President of the Royal Economic Society, and was Fellow of the Economic History Association and Fellow of the Cliometric Society.

Nick’s retirement from Warwick in 2019 was marked by a gathering of the great and the good for a two-day soirée that included keynote lectures and research presentations by many of Nick’s former graduate students, now distinguished academics in their own right. After retiring from Warwick Nick moved to a part-time post at Sussex where he continued to teach and research. Sadly, his retirement was all too brief and he died on 6 October 2023 after a lengthy illness. Over 50 years of energetic teaching and research he reshaped British economic history and hugely influenced generations of economic historians. He will be sadly missed.

Steve Broadberry, Bishnu Gupta, Tim Hatton and Tim Leunig


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