There are many books about Keynes, and I’ve read quite a few of them. The first was Roy Harrod’s authorised biography, The Life of John Maynard Keynes, set for me to read the summer before going to university. It was coy about his personal life but a good introduction to the economics. Later I read the superb three volume biography by Robert Skidelsky, since shortened into a one volume version, and followed up with Keynes: Return of the Master. More recently there was the excellent Capitalist Revolutionary by Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman, and Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy by Temin and Vines. And on Keynes’s role in the post-war international monetary order another two terrific books, Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods and Ed Conway’s The Summit.
The latest to join the list is Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. And although it’s familiar territory, I did enjoy reading it and found some new insights. This is not just because there is a whole chapter on Keynes’s sex life, not the focus of previous books. The section about the Versailles Treaty prompted reflection, in the current European context – and I hadn’t before known that The Economic Consequences of the Peace had influenced T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land. The section on the Macmillan Report sent me to the trade statistics, claiming the UK hadn’t had a trade in goods surplus between 1822 and 1934 – a glance at the Bank of England’s Three Centuries of Data resource suggests this is largely true, bar odd years. There is a great vignette of Stone and Meade working on the first national income accounts in a Treasury cubby hole during the war with, literally, a quill pen and a hand calculator.
I also liked the chapter on Keynes’s role in the arts. There’s much about him that is unappealing to me – the Eton and Bloomsbury poshness and superiority. But his success in bringing the highest quality, most ambitious arts to the people redeems that, through the establishment of the Arts Council and other interventions. It’s amusing to read that Customs & Excise taxed entertainment but not art (cinema and popular plays but not opera) and had a tussle with Keynes over whether Euripides and Ibsen should be considered ‘entertainments’ and so liable to tax. Keynes was also keen for the BBC to ensure its arts broadcasts covered the whole of the country, not just metropolitan works, when its regional broadcasts resumed after the war. “Nothing can be more damaging than the excessive prestige of metropolitan standards and fashions.” Indeed.
And I hadn’t known Keynes helped the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, write the marvellously radical economic parts of his 1942 bestseller Christianity and the Social Order: minimum housing, education and employment standards, regional devolution, worker representatives on company boards, nationalisation of the banks, public ownership of land for development for housing, and restrictions on mortgage borrowing. The book sold 139,000 copies and Davenmport-Hines calls it, “Perhaps the most read Keynesian tract of all.” It sounds a radical programme now, as it evidently was in 1945 as well.