Staggering on

Stephen Howe

  • The ‘New Statesman’: Portrait of a Political Weekly, 1913-31 by Adrian Smith
    Cass, 340 pp, £30.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 7146 4645 8

In 1950 a venerable, once highly successful, long-ailing magazine quietly expired. Richard Usborne, the assistant editor in its dying days, later recalled an aficionado’s touching reaction. ‘When the Strand finally folded in 1950, my old sixth-form master wrote to me regretfully: “I loved the dear old Strand. To tell you the truth, I have not opened a copy of it in this century.” Perhaps he was the typical reader we were up against.’

The New Statesman has long been haunted by typical readers like that, a remarkable proportion of whom seem to be columnists for other journals. With every fresh crisis, controversy or change of editorship over the past two decades, including its current relaunch, they tell us how they loved the dear old Staggers. That they usually show no sign of having opened a copy in years does not affect the confidence with which they proclaim what must be done to revive it; and the recipe always begins: ‘Go back!’ Back, that is, to a golden age when the paper reflected the solid sense of centre-left, progressive opinion, and had every quality a magazine might aspire to.

The precise dating of that golden age varies with the speaker, but it usually appears to have coincided with his (the nostalgists seem to be exclusively male) twenties or thirties. The identity of the villain who thrust the New Statesman out of Eden is correspondingly various, with Bruce Page remaining by far the most popular whipping-boy, but with minority lobbies also fingering Richard Crossman, Anthony Howard and all the other post-Sixties editors. There is little disagreement, however, about when the glory days began. The New Statesman whose past is so ubiquitously pressed into service for rival versions of its future is the magazine whose identity was moulded during the Thirties, under the editorship of Kingsley Martin and after the merger with the Nation.

Yet the New Statesman had almost two decades of existence before that, under an editor whose length of tenure has been exceeded only by Martin’s. A handful of disconnected facts about the paper in its first incarnation have entered the Left’s historical consciousness: that it was a Fabian journal, founded by the Webbs as a kind of younger sibling to the LSE, that it survived its infancy largely thanks to Bernard Shaw’s reputation and money, that Clifford Sharp, the editor, was an alcoholic and possibly a spy, and that the paper itself was deadly dull.

The only previous extended discussion of the Statesman’s first years was Edward Hyams’s ‘house’ history. Adrian Smith makes a fuller attempt to place the early New Statesman in its various political and intellectual contexts and relates the fortunes of the small-circulation political weekly to the seismic political changes of 1916-29 that virtually destroyed British Liberalism and brought Labour precariously to power. At the same time Smith wants to show that the magazine’s early fortunes can have lessons for today, for the New Statesman and for Labour. These are often negative: Smith is a devoted but critical reader of the New Statesman as well as a harsh judge of its first manifestation, and does not seem to be a great admirer of either Ramsay MacDonald or Tony Blair.

Few of the major personalities involved in founding the paper emerge with unmixed credit from Smith’s account, least of all Clifford Sharp. Sharp’s political judgment is subjected to repeated censure, but his personal qualities leave even more to be desired. The image is of a man without human feeling, cold, ambitious, disloyal to friends and ruthless towards former lovers. This cannot be quite right: people as cold and hard as Sharp is held to have been do not destroy themselves in alcoholic depression and self-loathing. That kind of behaviour is surely evidence more of emotional turmoil.

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