When I heard that Niall Ferguson had said that JM Keynes advocated reckless economic policies because he was gay and childless, and hence had no concern for the future, I wrote: 'If true, this represents Ferguson's degeneration from historian to shock jock'.
The reports were true, but I was wrong. There has been no degeneration. Ferguson has always been this crass and crassly inaccurate.
Donald Markwell, Warden of Rhodes House until last year, pointed me to his John Maynard Keynes and International Relations for the gruesome details. Markwell had to devote time and space to the ugly task of dissecting an attack on Keynes by Ferguson in a 1995 edition of the Spectator. He damned Keynes for saying in his Economic Consequences of the Peace that the Carthaginian terms imposed by the allies on Germany at Versailles would wreck the economy and could push Germans over the edge again. ('Who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?')
That Keynes was right and reparations led to Germany's great post-war inflation was not a point Ferguson could concede. Do not forget that for the Thatcherites of the 1970s' generation, Keynes was a hate figure. Keynes thought that he had devised ways to save capitalism from communism (and from itself). But no good deed goes unpunished, and the Right of Ferguson's day loathed him for his dislike of mass unemployment and support for deficit financing. No ground should be given to him or courtesy shown him, and Ferguson offered neither. He wrote of Keynes at Versailles.
'There is, however, no question that a series of meetings with Carl Melchior, one of the German representatives at the armistice and peace negotiations, added a vital emotional dimension. Melchior was a partner in the Hamburg bank MM Warburg – 'a very small man,' as Keynes described him, 'exquisitely clean, very well and neatly dressed with a high stiff collar...The line where his hair ended bound his face and forehead in a very sharply defined and rather noble curve. His eyes gleam..with extraordinary sorrow.'
'It is not too much to infer from these emotive phrases some kind of sexual attraction...Those familiar with Bloomsbury will appreciate why Keynes fell so hard for the representative of an enemy power.'
So not just a puff but a treacherous puff too. Keynes argued against being beastly to the Germans because he wanted to get beastly with Carl Melchior.
Even at the time Ferguson could not carry off the 'queers can't be trusted' line successfully. The casual reader of the Spectator in 1995 may have thought that it was 'too much to infer from these emotive phrases' that Keynes advocated a generous policy towards a defeated Germany because he was enchanted by a German diplomat. Ferguson had to admit that 'before he arrived as a Treasury representative at Versailles, Keynes believed that any reparations imposed on Germany should be on the low side'. After discussing Keynes's sexual encounters with men, he has to add 'granted there is no evidence that his love [for Melchior] was in any physical sense consummated.' Although he informs us that, ominously, Melchior was 'unmarried'.
Then there is the question of whether Keynes was right to wonder whether Germany could cope. Ferguson brushes over the awkward facts that in 1919 Germany was close to starvation, communist revolutionaries were trying to seize power, and right-wing militias (the ancestors of the Nazis) were trying to put them down. As Markwell says, Keynes thought that 'if starvation were to be staved off, Germany's need for food supplies was urgent,' and France's revanchist willingness to let the country suffer had to be fought. (Markwell adds but Ferguson forgets to mention that many in the British and American delegations agreed with Keynes, and admired Melchior as well. Perhaps they were gay too) Then there is the question of Keynes's patriotism. You can say that the Economic Consequences of the Peace helped prepare the ground for appeasement if you want to stretch a point.
Unlike Virginia Woolf and many others in Bloomsbury, however, Keynes was not a pacifist. He saw through Hitler the moment he came to power, and found ways to finance World War II.
I may be being a hopeless optimist but the argument about Ferguson may illustrate wider shifts in opinion. Hearteningly, the homophobia of Ferguson's (and my) youth is over. Once a bullish and butch right-wing intellectual could raise a dirty laugh by sneering at the queers. No longer – as Ferguson has found to his cost.
I also hope that the taste for intellectuals who will say and do anything to get attention is declining. The claim that you are being po-faced and PC if you insist on upholding basic standards in debate no longer works the way it once did. After the initial fuss, Tom Chivers of the Telegraph, a distant relative of Keynes, wrote that everything about Ferguson's attack on his great-great uncle was wrong.
Of course Keynes cared about about future generations. His remark 'in the long run we are all dead'
was not a sweeping dismissal of the far future, but a very specific rebuke to economists who thought that, because “in the long run” the price of goods varied with the amount of money in the economy, they didn’t have to worry about price fluctuations now. In fact, Keynes said, there could be large price variations caused by how quickly people spent their money, and that could lead to the devastating problems of inflation and deflation that he spent his life battling: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
But whatever he wrote, the idea that because he had no children of his own he didn’t worry about what happened to other people’s is ridiculous – not only because he did marry, to the surprise of his friends; his wife, the ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, miscarried their child.
What are readers meant to say when presented with an intellectual who shouts ill-educated abuse to make himself heard? 'It's all a game, it's a bit of a laugh, Ferguson's a card, don't take him too seriously?' Many have had their fill of all of that and are shrugging their shoulders and walking away.
If I were a conservative, I would worry. We've had rampant Niallism these past few years. Britain and the Eurozone's austerity policies sound good in a pub argument, but have not worked so well – or indeed at all – in the world beyond the saloon bar. In America, the Republicans went off with the Fergusonesque Tea Party and lost. Now British Conservatives are appeasing Ukip.
They should be careful. Many people who might have given them a hearing will walk away if they carry on like this. They will say of them, as Keynes said of the Conservatives of his day, 'They offer me neither food nor drink — intellectual nor spiritual consolation... [Conservatism] leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard, it is not safe, or calculated to preserve from the spoilers that degree of civilisation which we have already attained.'