Books: Inspired by the Prophet Motive: John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain 1937-1946 by Robert Skidelsky Macmillan, Pounds 25, 596pp ; Was Keynes a Keynesian? Not Invariably, but He Was Always a Star. by Kenneth O Morgan
Morgan, Kenneth O, The Independent (London, England)
MAYNARD KEYNES was perhaps our greatest economist since Adam Smith. In this final volume of his biography, Robert Skidelsky brilliantly describes an ill but inexhaustible titan, ravaged by heart disease, yet with the energy to revive Covent Garden, run the investments of King's College, Cambridge, and sort out madmen at Eton. Never did his intellectual or moral intensity relent. "He never dipped his headlights."
During a high-voltage life, Keynes played many parts. The polemicist of Versailles turned into the polymath of the General Theory, and finally the civil-servant practitioner of power. The pump primer of 1929 became the economic liberal of Bretton Woods. Skidelsky has moved, too. The neo- Keynesian planning enthusiast of 1970 has progressed, via an SDP intermission, to become a Conservative peer. His assessment of Keynes's long-term influence seems more qualified than when he began. But this book still provides a majestic climax, lucid on economic complexities, sensitive on personal relationships and in dealing with Keynes's beloved ballerina wife, Lydia. The aphorisms are often Keynesian in quality ("Keynes's economics were more New Testament than Old"). Author and mighty subject are indeed well matched.
The first phase here was largely domestic. Keynes tried to work out a financial strategy to survive and win the war. But his pamphlet How to Pay for the War, a scheme for compulsory savings or deferred pay, was rejected by Labour. Keynes did not fully appreciate union objections to severe new taxation, and his non- totalitarian, non-inflationary plan for war finance temporarily lapsed.
It came good in Kingsley Wood's famous 1941 budget, with its plan for postwar credits. Keynesian influence also surged into Whitehall, notably in the new Economic Section with supporters like Meade and Stone to challenge Treasury orthodoxy. Amazingly, Keynes also found the energy to launch CEMA, forerunner of the Arts Council. He strove both to pay for the war, and to safeguard the culture for which it was being fought.
From early 1941, he turned to overseas matters, with six visits to the US. Keynes did not see that, financially, America was, like Germany, a long-term enemy. He fought to preserve Britain as an independent nation, retaining the sterling area and the imperial preferences. But America strove to liquidate them. …