John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain, 1937-1946 by Robert Skidelsky

JULY 8, 2008

7/10. Having now finished the final volume of Skidelsky’s trilogy it is clear that the first volume was the best. This is not necessarily a reflection on Skidelsky’s efforts but on the nature of the subject matter – the first section of Keynes’ life, with its natural intertwining of life, friends and work, is the most suited to the biographical form. Here instead, by the nature of Keynes own activities he is forced to confine attention almost entirely to the work, and to work that was almost entirely of a bureaucratic or diplomatic nature.

It can be difficult in such to circumstances to sustain interest over long narrations of a particular policy debate within the British Government or the progress of a particular negotiation with the United States (which formed the main part of Keynes activities). The form of the book (a biography) in these circumstances exacerbates the problem. As biography one needs to keep things ‘personal’ focusing on Keynes’ personal experience together with the sketches of the personalities he encountered. This often may result in the underlying issues getting lost. If on the other hand one takes a more analytical, historical, approach in which the issues under discussion are made central with appropriate background supplied and analysis provided then one is rapidly leaving the realm of biography for that of (economic) history. Not only is this departing from the book’s ‘core mission’ but also may make things rather dry for the non-specialist. To my mind this tension is not adequately resolved, and, just as with Vol. 2, in my view, a more detailed historical/analytical treatment would have been better – along the lines of the masterly section in the book’s concluding chapter where Skidelsky summarizes Keynes (Economic) legacy and its impact on post-war posterity (conclusion: ‘Keynesianism’ was of little importance).

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