Media Spotlight: Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, by Richard Davenport-Hines


As the most tightly fought general election in decades looms ever larger, voters will need to decide between the economics of the left and the right. Does the nation want austerity pared back under an Ed Miliband-led Labour government? Or should David Cameron and George Osborne crack on with tackling the nation’s debts through swingeing welfare and public sector cuts?

Given this backdrop, now is as good a time as any to familiarise yourself with John Maynard Keynes – arguably the most influential economist of all time and a man whose thinking still permeates Treasury policymaking. But if you are keen to delve into the minutiae of Keynes’ theories on employment and interest rates, or the great ‘Keynesian versus Classical’ economic debate, you should read a textbook. Richard Davenport-Hines’ biography instead takes a huge risk by barely discussing economics and focusing on fleshing out the man himself.

Luckily, Keynes was a fascinating individual and, by dividing him into seven chapters, this sharp and sprightly book does him justice.

Chapter two, ‘Boy Prodigy’, offers insight into Keynes’ upbringing and the influence of his mother, Florence. Having been unable to formally take a degree – women were not allowed to in the 1800s – she eventually became Cambridge’s first female mayor and her pioneering guidance marked Keynes indelibly.

The next instalment, ‘Official’, charts the brilliant Keynes’ career in the India Office and the UK Treasury. Ever the Liberal reformer, he is described as conflicted in his feelings towards his Treasury colleagues. On the one hand, he clearly admired their intellect and scholarly approach to policy, but on the other he dismissed their constrained, conventional view of the world.

This pattern continues into ‘Public Man’, where we are led through Keynes’ obvious frustrations at the Treasury’s refusal to stimulate the UK’s depression-hit economy by investing in construction projects. In an era when austerity appears to have become a goal in itself, this is a timely reminder that a different way was stridently pressed by one of the greatest thinkers in history. 

His experiences during this period spurred Keynes to pen his seminal work, ‘General Theory’, which Davenport-Hines claims was “as important as Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ in inaugurating an economic era”.

Chapter five, ‘Lover’, provides a welcome change of pace as the author explores Keynes’ complex sexual development from innocent schoolboy crushes to downright sodomy while at Cambridge. Davenport-Hines tackles this area with sensitivity, with the aim of demonstrating Keynes’ penchant for the unconventional rather than titillating.

Keynes eventually married Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova in his forties and her role in nursing him through a heart condition during 1937 freed the economist to continue to influence intra-war domestic policy and subsequently play a central role in negotiations on post-war settlements.

The word ‘Keynesian’ has, to an extent, been hijacked by modern politicians and economists as a pejorative term for left-wing policies that rack up budget deficits and create debts for the next generation. Universal Man provides a different vision, painting a picture of a brilliant non-conformist who challenged conventional wisdom in all areas of his life.