Books interview with Richard Davenport-Hines: “The great lesson of John Maynard Keynes’s life is generosity of spirit”

Richard Davenport-Hines talks to Matt Elton about his biography of the renowned economist, which sets out to offer a more rounded picture of the man's motivations, desires and teachings

John Maynard Keynes

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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In context

Born on 5 June 1883, John Maynard Keynes attended Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge before being enlisted to advise on British economic policy during the First World War. He became hugely influential in this field throughout Europe from the 1930s until the 1970s, particularly in the approaches to macro-economics and the relationship between employment and demand first outlined in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). The term ‘Keynesian’ was so widely used that he later joked that he didn’t see it as applying to his views. Keynes died in 1946 at the age of 62.


What inspired you to write this book?

I like writing biographies of people whom I admire and whom I think other people should admire. I really think Keynes is worth emulating as a person, because he was so generous, so benevolent and so considerate of other people. I find intelligence an exciting subject to write about, and he was obviously super-intelligent, so I sort of hope that it’ll be infectious.

Why did you decide to title this biography The Universal Man?

Lots of people had commented through the years that they really wanted to know about Keynes as a human being and as a cultural force, and that they’d found the economics – although obviously completely basic to why we think about him – really quite off-putting and difficult to follow in detail. So I wanted to write a book in which the economics wouldn’t send readers into a coma. The way to approach Keynes without doing that was to look at what I identified as the seven different ‘lives’ that he lived through, and concentrate on those with the economics on the edge of all of them.

Englishmen of his generation from a certain background were brought up to believe that intelligent people compartmentalised their lives. They weren’t to mix all their friends or lovers up together, and were to keep public and private separate. I wanted to show how Keynes did this, because it was crucial to how he achieved so much.

And he’s really inspiring because he did do so much. He worked so hard: as chairman of a major publishing company, as one of the most important people in administration at his Cambridge college, as an author, and as patron of the arts. He did all of this because he thought it would be an absolute sin not to use all your time, always, for the best.

What was Keynes like as a student?

Keynes was a prodigious and witty child from the time that he was a toddler, and at 14 he got into Eton as a scholar and won nearly two dozen prizes because he was so intellectually gifted.

His parents had the idea, which they also imbued him with, that he was physically repulsive. He wasn’t really much of a looker, but his ugliness is overstated. He loathed his own physical appearance and compensated, not only by being super-intelligent, but also by developing a tremendous flirtatious charm. He was a huge flirt in the way that some ugly men are, and impressed his personality on people to get them on his side.

How did he develop this charm?

Part of it is that he was innately very funny. He was one of those children who deliberately said witty things, and he remained like that throughout the rest of his life. But there were other things, too: he looked at people when he talked to them, he listened to them, teased them, and liked being teased.

It was also very important to his character that all of his sex life from school until his late 30s – he married a Russian ballerina at the age of 42 – was with other men and boys, and once he started living in London and picking up men on the streets or in clubs and saunas, he suffered fools gladly. He was really patient with much more slow-witted people, partly because he was such a flirt, and it was a tremendous help for him in dealing with people. Keynes went out and had all kinds of working-class boyfriends, and lived a completely different, much more expansive life that stretched his imagination much further than most people in his generation.

How did Keynes view his sexuality?

A unique thing happened to me when I gave the text of this book to the publisher: they said, ‘there’s an awful lot of sex’. Publishers normally want more! That’s because Keynes quite deliberately preserved incriminating letters from his various boyfriends, because he clearly wanted the sexual underworld of gay young men in Edwardian England to one day be chronicled.

I thought that this was a story worth telling because I’m often disappointed when biographers write about their subjects’ sex lives in a remote way, as if they have never met anyone who’s had sex before. I’ve tried to show the different kinds of partner he had and the significance of those relationships.

How did Keynes become a public official and what tensions did it cause?

Keynes’s family was very keen for him to go to the Whitehall civil service and become one of Britain’s administrative rulers. He came second in the civil service exam of his year and went into the India Office, and stuck it for several years. What he found frustrating was the need for a civil servant to hold the official line on issues and tell half-truths or lazy versions of events. He had tremendous respect for truth and accuracy and was really offended by imprecision.

He was a civil servant for a couple of years and then managed to get back to Cambridge [having studied there], where he taught economics – even though the sum total of his training was a couple of months’ reading a couple of summers earlier. He was working there when the First World War unexpectedly broke out, and the banks went into a tremendous panic and tried to force the government into all sorts of rush measures.

One of the Treasury officials who knew Keynes sent him a letter asking if he’d like to come to London to give them some advice, so he hurtled up to London on a Bank Holiday Sunday in the sidecar of a motorbike and headed for the Treasury.

The outcome was that, as a man not yet 30, he completely took charge and gave the chancellor of the exchequer the courage to withstand the bankers and refuse to suspend the Bank Charter Act that governed the whole banking system – which would have caused the most tremendous crisis of confidence.

As a result, he saved the British empire from terrible financial collapse. He was subsequently brought into the Treasury as an official, and at the end of the war there were only a few more senior people than him.

What was Keynes’s view of the war?

His parents were active members of the Liberal party, anti-militarist and anti-imperialists in a mild sort of way, and he completely took on their political opinions. He regretted the outbreak of the war and, like most liberals of his background, was very opposed to conscription. The reason for this is often described in an imbalanced way. It wasn’t just pacifism or cowardice: the Keynes family had a horror of militarised states. There had never been conscription before in English history, and they dreaded a militarised society.

Why was Keynes so influential?

Although a complete political outsider, John Maynard Keynes became influential in the war partly because of his personal charm. He was brought into Whitehall by a Liberal politician and became popular with other Liberals, but got on outstandingly well with the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law.

It’s also down to the fact that he worked terribly hard and had an amazing skill with numeracy: he looked at numbers and got down to the detail of statistics in a way that was without precedent. He was a pioneer in Britain of real statistical analysis in government, and changed the whole way that later chancellors constructed their budgets.

What were his views on capitalism?

Keynes thought that capitalism needed to be saved from itself: that it was stuck in dreary 19th-century notions of how capitalism should work which were no longer operative in the 20th century.  He thought that capitalism, properly managed, was far superior to communism or socialism because it was the only system that respected individuals or allowed much individual liberty. He didn’t believe at all in equality: the idea that people of unequal abilities should have the same level of power and influence seemed to him grotesque, and would result in inefficiency and sentimentality and failure. He thought that equality and liberty were irreconcilable: you can’t have both, because if you make everyone equal then some people are not going to have the liberty to excel.

Is it right to see Keynes as a radical?

I think that he’s in many ways a reactionary figure. Keynes and his closest friends thought that, for all its imperfections, Edwardian England was a high point of European civilisation before 1914. There were no passports – one could move freely around Europe – and there were several currency unions that foreshadowed the Euro, which they thought not only civilised but also wonderful to get rid of national rivalries and warmongering. They thought that, although there was a strong class system that they themselves found restrictive, there was much more social elasticity than people remembered. So Keynes wanted the world to be as stable, comfortable and developing as it had been before 1914, and all of his measures were an attempt to get back to this somewhat romanticised golden age.

What lesson can we take away from Keynes’s life and work?

The great lesson of Keynes is generosity of spirit: that it’s much more intelligent and constructive to take an optimistic course. But it’s also that being angry and feeling dispirited, and therefore being mean-spirited and aggressive, doesn’t work and leads to both economic decline and personal degradation.

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Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 432 pages, £18.99)