Robert Skidelsky: Profiled as he leaves academia for big business

Historians in the News

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."

Controversial book

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"....

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