‘To cut spending in a slump is just wrong’: Lord Skidelsky on austerity and why Keynes matters

Interview in House Magazine
By Geoffrey Lyons

In a 2015 article for Project Syndicate, historian Niall Ferguson accused Lord Robert Skidelsky of being “un-Keynesian” for refusing to admit that George Osborne’s austerity policies worked. Skidelsky’s position, Ferguson argued, wasn’t true to the great economist-statesman’s view that one ought to adjust their beliefs in the face of changing facts.

Ferguson must have known this was a critical hit. It’s not that Skidelsky has come to identify his views with those of “the Master” that makes “un-Keynesian” such a biting characterization, but rather that he is arguably the greatest living authority on the twentieth-century economist. Besides being a prolific writer and lecturer on economic issues, Skidelsky is perhaps best known for his acclaimed three-volume biography of Keynes, a project he laboured over for nearly three decades. Still, he didn’t take Ferguson’s remarks personally.

“Niall and I are quite good friends and actually go back a long way,” he says with a smile. “But we’ve sort of diverged on this. He doesn’t actually say in what respect I should have changed my mind, so it’s a nice throwaway line.”

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Witter: Robert Skidelsky

The world’s fastest interview: 140 characters max per answer — the economist, 74, on happiness, taxation and loyalty in politics

Witter: You’ve consumed political parties with abandon. Now you’re a cross-bencher. Are you at all loyal to any of the parties you have belonged to?
RS: I do not accept Disraeli’s dictum: “Damn your principles! Stick to your party.” Political parties deserve no more than conditional loyalty.

Are there any principled politicians left?
There must be some principled ones left, but you don’t hear them because they almost never rise to the top.

Who do you most admire in modern politics and why?
I think the greatest politicians of the last 30 years, by the scale of their achievements, were Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping.

Is there anything you would ban in this country?
Nothing that hasn’t been banned already. Advertising could be restricted by financial measures, for example, by taxing it.

Hasn’t man always wanted more possessions and territory?
Yes, but advertising inflames it. The pioneers of advertising called it “the organised creation of dissatisfaction”.
You have an interesting Russian heritage. Why are so many oligarchs such enthusiastic consumers?
Because they had so many years of having almost nothing to consume. Private consumption was the way out of communism.

Their consumption has become grotesque, has it not — or are we saying that from a smug, self-satisfied standpoint?
It’s not more grotesque than the consumption of any nouveaux riches. They’ve bought into the western delusion that money can buy happiness.

How will our economy grow if we fail to consume more?
Economic growth shouldn’t be the main object. We should consume enough to lead a good life. For some that means more, for others, less.

What could you personally not do without?
My family and friends, my music, my books, good food and wine, high thinking. Now, I fear, my computer and internet, and a few more gadgets.

How Much Is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, is out now (Penguin, £8.99)