John Maynard Keynes

56

John Maynard Keynes : biography

5 June 1883 – 21 April 1946

Asquith, but was impressed with Lloyd George at Versailles; this did not prevent Keynes from painting a scathing picture of the then-Prime Minister in his Economic Consequences of the Peace.]]

Keynes’s experience at Versailles was influential in shaping his future outlook, yet it was not a successful one for him. Keynes’s main interest had been in trying to prevent Germany’s compensation payments being set so high it would traumatise innocent German people, damage the nation’s ability to pay and sharply limit her ability to buy exports from other countries – thus hurting not just Germany’s own economy but that of the wider world. Unfortunately for Keynes, conservative powers in the coalition that emerged from the 1918 coupon election were able to ensure that both Keynes himself and the Treasury were largely excluded from formal high-level talks concerning reparations. Their place was taken by the Heavenly Twins – the judge Lord Sumner and the banker Lord Cunliffe whose nickname derived from the "astronomically" high war compensation they wanted to demand from Germany. Keynes was forced to try to exert influence mostly from behind the scenes.

The three principal players at Versailles were Britain’s Lloyd George, France’s Clemenceau and America’s President Wilson.

It was only Lloyd George to whom Keynes had much direct access; until the 1918 election he had some sympathy with Keynes’s view but while campaigning had found his speeches were only well received by the public if he promised to harshly punish Germany, and had therefore committed to extracting high payments. Lloyd George did however win some loyalty from Keynes with his actions at the Paris conference by intervening against the French to ensure the dispatch of much-needed food supplies to German civilians. Clemenceau also pushed for high reparations; generally France argued for an even more severe settlement than Britain. Wilson initially favoured relatively lenient treatment of Germany – he feared too harsh conditions could foment the rise of extremism, and wanted Germany to be left sufficient capital to pay for imports. To Keynes’s dismay, Lloyd George and Clemenceau were able to pressure Wilson to agree to very high repayments being imposed. Towards the end of the conference, Keynes came up with a plan that he argued would not only help Germany and other impoverished central European powers but also be good for the world economy as a whole. It involved the writing down of war debts which would have the effect of increasing international trade all round. Lloyd George agreed it might be acceptable to the British electorate. However, America was against it; the US was then the largest creditor and by this time Wilson had started to believe in the merits of a harsh peace as a warning to future aggressors. Hence despite his best efforts, the end result of the conference was a treaty which disgusted Keynes both on moral and economic grounds, and led to his resignation from the Treasury.

In June 1919 he turned down an offer to become chairman of the British Bank of Northern Commerce, a job that promised a salary of £2000 in return for a morning per week of work.

Keynes’s analysis on the predicted damaging effects of the treaty appeared in the highly influential book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919. This work has been described as Keynes’s best book, where he was able to bring all his gifts to bear – his passion as well as his skill as an economist. In addition to economic analysis, the book contained pleas to the reader’s sense of compassion:

Also present was striking imagery such as "…that year by year Germany must be kept impoverished and her children starved and crippled…" along with bold predictions which were later justified by events:

Keynes’s predictions of disaster were borne out when the German economy suffered the hyperinflation of 1923, and again by the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the outbreak of World War II. Only a fraction of reparations were ever paid. The Economic Consequences of the Peace gained Keynes international fame, but also caused him to be regarded as anti-establishment – it was not until after the outbreak of World War II that Keynes was offered a directorship of a major British Bank, or an acceptable offer to return to government with a formal job. However, Keynes was still able to influence government policy making through his network of contacts, his published works and by serving on government committees; this included attending high-level policy meetings as a consultant.