Twenty years in the making, Robert Skidelsky's brilliant biography of Keynes has run out of steam in the final volumeby David Marquand / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Like a gothic cathedral completed over long generations, Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes is a mighty edifice, dominating the surrounding landscape. But times have changed since the plans were drawn up, and the architect has changed as well. When he started 20 years ago, Skidelsky was a mischievous young radical, whose greatest delight was to twist the establishment’s tail. Now he is a middle-aged Tory peer hurrumphing at the follies of the centre-left. Inevitably, the hardening of his political arteries has affected his approach to his subject. The trajectory followed by his Keynes-from daring intellectual saboteur to sedate and moderate conservative-is too reminiscent of his own to be altogether convincing. Thankfully, however, his literary powers are undimmed. No recent British biographer can boast a feat to equal his. Martin Gilbert’s life of Churchill is longer and presumably needed even more stamina to write, but it is little more than a chronicle of events. Skidelsky’s three volumes are all beautifully written, full of human sympathy and marvellously alert to the subtleties of the intellectual and cultural context. The second-dealing with Keynes’s career from 1920 to 1937-was a tour de force, at one and the same time a captivating portrait and a masterpiece of cultural and intellectual history.
Yet after reading the third volume I could not help wondering if the scale of the edifice might be out of proportion to the importance of the subject. Keynes was indisputably a great man, with a touch of magic about him. He had an original and fertile mind, immense self-confidence and a beautiful prose style. Unlike many daring intellectual saboteurs, he was also a deft operator in the courts of the powerful. His young academic followers loved him, and by the end of his life he had bewitched the dry-as-dust Treasury mandarinate as well. But was he great enough to justify the heroic perseverance displayed by his biographer, and the mammoth final product? Does he really deserve 20 years of Robert Skidelsky’s life?
The whole architecture of the biography-the scrupulous, loving attention paid to the details of Keynes’s homoerotic life in volume one, for example, or the similar attention devoted to his financial affairs in volume two-implies that he was a figure of such importance that anything that might throw light on his personal development or character deserves to be explored. When Skidelsky started work that must have seemed almost self-evident. Though it is clear in retrospect that the high noon of the Keynesian era had passed some time before, the encircling dusk was not yet apparent to the custodians of the Keynesian social-democratic settlement. For the British centre-left and centre-right, Keynes was still the Sir Galahad who had found the Holy Grail: the Darwin or Copernicus of an intellectual revolution which had brought sweetness and light to the dismal science, and laid the foundations of a middle way which would continue into the indefinite future. If the Keynesian system was under attack from neo-liberals on the right and neo-socialists on the left, that only proved that folly and malice had not yet been eradicated.