Tuesday 19 October 2010

Keynes and Politics in 1926

As the Liberal Democrats continue to prop up the Conservative budget approach of slashing spending without balance for growth, here is an account by Roy Jenkins of what John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1926. The picture is of Vince Cable, one time Labour and now Liberal Democrat and who mused about a graduate tax and then rowed sharply backwards. Gone are the days, it seems, when education was a public good for critical thinking and creativity at whatever level.

He was a cool Liberal. His first burst of fame came from the denunciation of Lloyd George's policy at the Paris Peace Conference, which was particularly remarkable for the fact that it was a famous polemic with its most polemical passage cut out and only published 14 years later. However, he was a friend of the Asquiths (more of Margot than of Henry) and infuriated Blooms bury by saying that he thought that the former Prime Minister was more intelligent than Lytton Strachey. His feeling for Asquith was considerable but was expressed in typical terms which might have commended themselves more to Asquith himself than to some of his more enthusiastic followers. He referred to his quality 'of a certain coolness of temper' which 'seems to me at the same time peculiarly Liberal in flavour, and also a much bolder and more desirable and valuable political possession and endowment than sentimental ardours'. Asquith's ardour for Keynes was certainly under control. 'Not much juice to him', he was reported to have said on one occasion. But this may have been after an incident several years earlier when the Prime Minister and Keynes arrived together at Garsington (the scene of the famous Keynes, Strachey, Bertrand Russell photograph) and were announced by the butler as 'Mr Keynes and another gentleman.'

What is more certain is that Keynes, while firmly Asquithian in the days of the Coalition and always more akin to Asquith than to Lloyd George both temperamentally and on grounds of international policy, nonetheless moved back into full communion with Lloyd George (on domestic policy at least) under the stimulus of the writing of the Yellow Book and the run-up to the 1929 election. In 1926, just before this period, he came nearest to a precise definition of his political bearings in the Britain of the Twenties. He did so with a deadliness of criticism rather than a gush of enthusiasm:

'How could I bring myself to be a Conservative?' he began. 'They offer me neither food nor drink - neither intellectual nor spiritual consolation. I should not be amused or excited or edified. That which is common to the atmosphere, the mentality, the view of life, of - well, I will not mention names - promotes neither my self-interest nor the public good. It leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard; it is not even safe, or calculated to preserve from spoilers that degree of civilization which we have already attained.'

He looked at the Labour Party a shade more charitably but then stated his objections with his habitual eschewal of euphemism:

'Ought I, then, to join the Labour Party? Superficially that is more attractive. But looked at closer, there are great difficulties. To begin with it is a class party and the class is not my class. If I am going to pursue sectional interests at all, I shall pursue my own . . I can be influenced by what seems to me Justice and good sense, but the Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie'.

He decided that he was therefore a Liberal, even if by elimination, his main doubt stemming from a lack of confidence in the ability of the Liberal Party, on its own, to regain its pre-war power He did not want to fight the class war from the other side either. Those who believed 'that the coming struggle was Capitalism versus Socialism and that their duty was to fight for Capitalism, ought to get out of the Liberal Party'. He moved on to a still more heartfelt cry: 'I do not wish to live under a Conservative Government for the next 20 years'. The only recipe that he could see as he surveyed the leak landscape, but one which he propounded without his usual degree of certainty, was Lib-Lab cooperation, with a rejuvenated liberalism providing most of the ideas.

I think it can be claimed on this evidence, without too much affront to the rule that views on unforeseen events should be fly cautiously attributed to the dead, that Keynes would have welcomed the Alliance. Over 50 years ago he wanted to defeat Conservatism, without the Labour Party winning. He saw that the Liberal Party could not do this on its own. It needed a partner. But the only avoidable choice brought one back to the Labour Party, the second of the (for him) unloved ugly sisters. Cinderella hadn't been created. He would surely have rejoiced in her birth. The Alliance was made for him. I wish he were here to help make it.

The only qualification which must be considered in the interests of the astringent fairness and accuracy which is a characteristic of all (or at least most) Alliance pronouncements is that, like some but not all others, Keynes took a slight lurch to the right in the last years of his life...

Jenkins, Roy (1988), Gallery of 20th Century Portraits, Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 116-117.

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