The historian reviews his career as he slips from academia into big business. Chris Arnot meets him
The coffee table in Lord Skidelsky’s office, near the House of Lords, is strewn with weighty publications. Among them are the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and a fat slab of hardback: Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred. His lordship is a reviewer for the New Statesman, Prospect and the New York Review of Books. He places another tome on his desk with a thud, briefly removes his jacket to reveal a natty pair of gold-embossed red braces, and complains: “Why are these books all so big?” To which his fellow historians might be entitled to respond: “You’re one to talk”, or words to that effect.
After all, it was Skidelsky who produced not one but three highly acclaimed volumes on the life of John Maynard Keynes and followed them up with a single, abridged version in 2004. Was the pruning a painful process? “No,” he says. “It made me realise how wordy the originals were.” For a while it must have seemed that Keynes was taking over his life. In 1986, some time between volumes one and two, he and his wife, Augusta, moved into the celebrated economist’s former farmhouse in Sussex. “We would not have bought it had it not been a particularly nice place to live,” he says. “And I keep a flat in London.”
At least he has no further need of his residence on Warwick University’s campus in Coventry. He has just retired after 28 years at Warwick, first as professor of international studies and then as professor of political economy. But there’s plenty to keep him busy. More books and book reviews. More trips to the US, where he is on the board of two companies, and to Russia, where he is a director of the Moscow School of Political Studies. Not to mention chairing governors’ meetings at his old school, Brighton college, and attending debates in the Lords. He sits as a crossbencher, having been in the Labour and Conservative parties as well as helping to found the SDP with his friend David, now Lord, Owen. “Fellow peers used to stop me in the corridor and ask: ‘Which party are you in today, Robert?'”
One exception has been the former Tory education secretary John Patten. “He hasn’t spoken to me at all since I resigned from the history panel of the National Curriculum Council,” says Skidelsky, a critic of Patten’s confrontational style and a staunch believer that the teaching of history in schools has become too fragmented, lacking any narrative thread. “I’m an ideas historian,” he says. “But those ideas have to be based on facts. You need some structure.”
One of his current projects is A Short History of Britain in the 20th Century, to be published in September. He’s also writing a book on globalisation and international relations with VR [Vijay] Joshi, a fellow of Merton College. With so many commitments, the wonder is that Skidelsky ever found time to go to Coventry to teach and administer a department.
Warwick’s founding vice-chancellor, the late Lord Butterworth, characteristically took a gamble when he appointed him back in 1978. The fallout from his controversial book on Oswald Mosley was still reverberating through academia, three years after its publication. Crucially, he had written that the time had come “for one to be able to view his [Mosley’s] life and the causes he espoused with both detachment and sympathy”.
When I ask him if he now regrets those words, he pauses for a moment before replying: “You can regret things that were morally wrong, but you can’t regret writing a book as you saw things at the time. AJP Taylor said that I had not wavered from my stance as objective historian.” Yes, but surely it was the word “sympathy” that had caused so much offence? “I suppose that came about as a result of one of my earlier books on the first Labour government and the Great Depression [Politicians and the Slump, 1967],” he says. “It wasn’t that I approved of Mosley’s fascism, but I could see that here was a politician who went mad through sheer frustration.”
Skidelsky suffered his own share of frustration as a result of the reaction to the Mosley biography. The first consequence was that Johns Hopkins University denied him tenure at its School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. There was worse to follow. Back on this side of the Atlantic, he discovered that he had been in effect “blackballed” by Oxford, where he had been a student and a Nuffield research fellow. “I very much wanted to be back at Oxford,” he complains. “I felt that – and I suppose this sounds vainglorious – they were doing their students down by not having me around. I have a lively mind and a lot of intellectual curiosity.” Plenty of energy, too. He was raring to channel it into renewed creativity. Much of his prodigious workload and output have been driven, he now admits, by a desire to show his old university what it had missed.
In the short term, however, he had a pressing need to find a job. Becoming head of the department of history, philosophy and international studies at the Polytechnic of North London was not quite what he had in mind, but it would do for the time being. The atmosphere bristled with political activity. “There were a few professional revolutionaries among the staff and some of those perpetual students who looked about 50,” he recalls. Surprisingly, their fervour was rarely aimed at him. Either the students were unaware of his book on Mosley or they were more concerned with attacking the principal, Terence Miller, a white Rhodesian in London at a time when the armed struggle was under way in what would become Zimbabwe.
“I managed to make three or four good appointments,” Skidelsky recalls, “but I still felt like a fish out of water. I remember a very good but rather gloomy historian called David Carlton telling me: ‘You’ll never get out, you know. This is a life sentence.'”
Warwick proved to be an escape route, Jack Butterworth his liberator. The current vice-chancellor, Professor David VandeLinde, introduced Skidelsky’s recent retirement lecture by pointing out that he was born at a time when Italy was invading the Balkans and the Chamberlain government had just given the guarantees to Poland that would lead Britain into war a few months later. “Baby Robert was far away at this time,” he went on. “His family, exiled from Russia after the revolution, had settled in Harbin in north China. When his parents brought him to Britain, the world war was in full swing.”
Back in his Westminster office, Skidelsky takes up the story: “We moved into an artist’s mews in Kensington, and my earliest memories are of being under the table during bombing raids and sitting on my father’s shoulders on VE night. He had British citizenship, having been sent to school in England after fleeing to Paris with his mother in 1917. Before I was born, he had gone back to Manchuria to work in the family business. By that time it was coal mining and timber concessions. But my great grandfather had established the family fortune when he acquired the contract to build the final bit of the Trans-Siberian railway.”
Late in life, the historian and peer of the realm has re-connected with his Russian roots. He has learned the language (he took his A-level at the age of 64) and keeps a flat in Moscow. “I went there first in the early 90s to research a book called The World After Communism,” he says. “Now I’ve started to feel more Russian, I go at least half a dozen times a year.” He also travels regularly in the other direction. He is on the board of one of the most successful mutual funds in America and is about to become a director of a large employment agency in Florida. “I’m just modestly restoring the Skidelsky family fortune after all those years in academia,” he says.
But how did he gravitate towards big business?
“The chairman and chief executive officer of the mutual fund read my piece on Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx in the New York Review of Books,” he says. “He must have been impressed, because he rang me up and asked if I’d like to join his company. It couldn’t happen in England.”
Maybe not. But at least it proves that those weighty tomes have their uses.
Job: Just retiring as professor of political economy at Warwick University
Before that: professor of history, philosophy and European studies at the Polytechnic of North London
Likes: opera, bridge, playing tennis and squash
Dislikes: routine work and bureaucracy, English weather and food (“although the food’s getting better”)
Married: with two sons and one daughter