To write a book about the leading economist of the twentieth century and largely ignore the economics is either brave, or almost as bad an error as Ed Miliband omitting the deficit from his conference speech. In Richard Davenport Hines case it is a brilliant departure from the traditional tedium of biographies. How refreshing to read the first chapter without having to wade through the usual stuff on ancestors and relatives. Boris Johnson did something similar with his biography of Churchill and twenty years ago Connor Cruise O’Brien wrote a highly acclaimed thematic biography of Burke.
His talk at the Buxton Literary Festival to a packed Pavilion Arts Centre was at times difficult to follow. I suspect that he prefers writing and talking about his subjects in more intimate surroundings. But once you had got used to the pace of his delivery the subject matter dominated and his evident enthusiasm for his subject was clear.
During the question and answer session, a lady challenged Davenport Hines about ‘the what if’ scenario regarding how Keynes would have viewed the treatment of Greece. Hines had argued in his talk that Keynes would have despaired of the profligacy and economic naivete of Greece and backed the European Union stance.
Our plucky questioner felt that this analysis was wrong. Keynes she went on would have likened the treatment of Greece to that of Germany at the Versailles negotiations.
A slightly testy Hines retorted that this was quite wrong. Keynes would not make the same comparison, the two circumstances were quite different. Of course we shall never know for sure, but the structure and depth of ‘The Universal Man’ the public and private portrait that it paints and the many faces of Keynes gives us a much greater insight into the man and how he thought.
Had Keynes lived speculated Davenport Hines the world and certainly the European Union would be different places. I think he almost certainly meant better places. I think he is right.