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.

The world of Edwardian leftish journalism inhabited by Sharp was dominated by two opposed currents. A clutch of Liberal papers, headed by the Nation and the Westminster Gazette, backed and powerfully influenced Asquith’s government, while the Independent Labour Party nurtured a remarkably vigorous print culture with more than two hundred Party-linked or sympathetic periodicals. By far the most successful of these were Robert Blatchford’s Clarion and A.R. Orage’s New Age. The Clarion’s pitch was working-class and almost aggressively non-intellectual – entirely unlike anything Shaw or the Webbs might wish to emulate. If the early Statesman had a model, it was the Nation, but it was the vexing celebrity of the New Age that convinced the Webbs that they could produce a paper too. Orage had made his name at the Leeds Arts Club and the New Age’s ethos was ‘provincial’ – that is, it was (English) national rather than merely metropolitan – imbued with the spirit of William Morris, enthusiastic for the new idea of a decentralising, anti-statist, bottom-up Guild Socialism. Ironically, various New Age luminaries, notably G.D.H. Cole, became some of the Statesman’s most prolific and influential contributors. Indeed the New Age, with its irreverent libertarianism, its enthusiasm for artistic experiment, its overtly ethical and anti-statist bent, was closer in spirit to the modern New Statesman than Sharp’s ultra-collectivist, rather desiccated paper.

The new paper’s name was originally suggested, strangely enough, by the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour. He proposed the Statesman, and the New was added because a Statesman already existed in India. (It still does, and those who have been inclined to bemoan the London magazine’s fate might reflect that there are worse ones. In recent years its Indian namesake, under the editorship of an Oxford-educated former Trotskyist, has become a cheerleader for the Hindu supremacist, ultra-right BJP.)

The New Statesman’s initial statement of editorial policy proclaimed the inevitability of a ‘world movement towards collectivism’; it insisted that the paper would have no party ties and expressed a devotion, more wholehearted than that shown in almost any other major statement of British radical thought, to the ideology of public planning. Belief in the sovereign good of planning, perhaps more than any other aspect of the pre-Thirties New Statesman (more even than the back half’s literary Georgianism), pushes it firmly into the past. On this level, Clifford Sharp’s New Statesman has little apparent relevance for the present magazine, or for the contemporary Left. On the other hand, it’s worth saying that Sharp, even in the years of his decline, had a much freer hand than recent editors. This was still more true of Kingsley Martin, despite the vigorous clashes he had with Keynes over economic policy, Appeasement and attitudes to the USSR. Shareholders and board members – even the Webbs themselves, after the first few years – interfered remarkably little by later standards. And on the whole that abstention justified itself. The Twenties Statesman was often dull, as Smith concedes, but its circulation and its influence maintained a fairly steady upward track. Sharp was known peremptorily to reject articles by proprietors, even by Shaw himself – a freedom, one hopes, that future editors will be able to exercise.

Sharp and his sponsors recognised that the New Statesman’s chances of survival and growth depended on the quality of its commentary. There was no pretence that the magazine would gather news stories not covered by the dailies, or that it could succeed by echoing the conventional wisdom of a party hierarchy. As Smith says, the contributors ‘had to proffer a view of the world which educated left-leaning members of the Edwardian middle class could not easily acquire elsewhere’. Crucial to this, and to the influence the paper steadily accumulated, was its mirroring and in some part shaping of its readers’ transition from Radical-Liberal to Labour sympathies. It was, Smith shows, a rocky and zigzagging route for the magazine. With the end of the war and through the early Twenties, it aligned itself more firmly with the Labour interest – though it was never the ‘safe’ purveyor of a party line that it became under Richard Crossman.

Returning to the editor’s desk in 1919 after a rather unlikely stint as a spymaster in Scandinavia, Sharp began a peculiar and damaging love affair with the Asquithian Liberal rump. He became an intimate adviser to Asquith himself, their relationship perhaps eased by the fact that the old statesman was now almost as permanently sozzled as the editor. The result, for a time, was a politically schizophrenic paper, with the editor urging a renewed Lib-Lab pact, while other crucial policymaking contributors, such as Sidney Webb and Cole, pressed Labour’s case for governing alone and argued that liberalism in general was defunct and irrelevant. The variety of views, though it must have been confusing to some readers, was not a bad thing. After Labour’s first, feeble stint in office, and still more after the Nation merger which brought Keynes on board, the New Statesman became a central forum for arguing through Labour’s economic policy options. The debate was vastly enriched by the presence of Liberals such as Keynes and semi-Marxists such as Cole: if all the contributors had been Labour loyalists, there wouldn’t have been much of a discussion. The process was also given an important stimulus by the urgings of Keynes’s iconoclastic friend, the economist Graham Hutton.

The fact that the early Statesman had no fixed party abode may have helped its fortunes at least as much as it harmed them. At the start, the Webbs, Shaw, Sharp and most contributors held firmly to the view that the Parliamentary Labour Party had little to offer their kind of political rationalism, being composed largely of stolidly unintellectual, brown-booted trade-union hacks. As the PLP itself became more varied after 1918, the paper’s attitude grew more nuanced, though it continued to lambast the emblematic representative of early labourism at its most mediocre and conservative, the former railwaymen’s leader Jimmy Thomas (dubbed the Rt Hon. Dress Suit by the cartoonist Low). Smith is surely right to suggest that, at least until the second half of the Twenties, almost no Labour MPs actually read the magazine. When large numbers did start to do so, its influence does not appear to have been harmed by the vigour with which it attacked their leaders.

The Labour hierarchy, naturally, was not too keen on such assaults. In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald tried to engineer a takeover. He failed. Had he succeeded, the result would have been considerably duller even than the existing Statesman, and probably wouldn’t have survived for long. Labour’s record in running a Party-owned – or directed – press has always been pitiful. In more recent years we have seen the miserable transition from New Socialist, a stimulating intellectual journal which ran at a small loss, to a dull digest of announcements from Walworth Road which runs at a large one. New Socialist was killed because it wasn’t safely controllable: if the Laird of Lossiemouth had succeeded in 1924 his nominees would undoubtedly have taken the life out of the New Statesman.

It might be thought that the impulse to control, and thus stifle, will be less strong in future than in earlier eras: Tony Blair is far more interested in political ideas than has been usual among Labour leaders. Some of his brightest supporters among Labour’s newer MPs – Dennis MacShane and Tony Wright, for example – are regular contributors to the New Statesman. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the magazine made a determined effort to escape the clutches, not so much of the Labour Party, as of party-centred politics. Sponsorship of Charter 88, of electoral reform, of Lib-Lab pacts, pointed in this direction. The magazine was prepared to argue that the Liberal Democrats were now more radical in most respects than Labour, and, on a more theoretical level, to suggest that the monolithic party machine was dying. But the revival of a very old-fashioned model of partinost, or regimented loyalism, seems for the moment to have put paid to that. Labour’s electoral resurgence, together with tighter – in some ways absurdly tight – internal party discipline and news-management, have sharply narrowed the space for experimenting across party lines.

It may be important for the future, too, that the strain within British radicalism which always had least influence on the paper was, ironically, that which has played the most important part in shaping Blair’s thought: the ethical, often specifically Christian, communitarianism of Tawney and his descendants. The notions that made their mark on the magazine were more individualist, radical-liberal ones. Robin Cook’s personal credo is more obviously New Statesmanly than Blair’s: ‘what attracted me to the Labour Party was not the values of collectivism but the values of individualism, of rebellion, of freedom, of liberation from the machinery of state secrecy.’ Some of the most acute criticism of communitarian thought and its new influence on Labour has come from NS writers.

Adrian Smith is much less interested in the Statesman’s literary and cultural back half than in the political front half, though he has perceptive things to say about it. The general tenor of the Sharp-era literary pages was Georgian, gentlemanly, rather dilettantish. Again, a recurrent, if far from unbroken, tradition was being set. Informed enthusiasm for the avant garde, in any of the arts, has been at best episodic in the Statesman. Jack Squire and Desmond MacCarthy, the back half’s guiding spirits in its first two decades (they both appear, thinly disguised, in A.G. MacDonnell’s England, Their England), were disdainful of Lawrence and disliked Eliot and Joyce (although MacCarthy certainly recognised their importance). There were striking exceptions – notably the effervescent presence of Rebecca West as a regular reviewer. But there were also some obvious disasters at the literary end: the all too aptly named Hubert Bland, the incompetent Clennell Wilkinson, the pompous and plagiaristic Ellis Roberts. And there were writers who, like David Garnett, simply couldn’t manage the world of journalistic deadlines.

Today, leftish journals face an ever-widening gulf between the concerns of ‘cultural politics’ and the day-to-day agenda of professional politicians, which remains overwhelmingly economic. Marxism Today and New Socialist tried to bridge that gap, with very mixed success; papers like Tribune, to all appearances, didn’t even try, any more than most of the national broadsheets have done. This suggests a wider problem – and an opportunity. Not only the languages, but the constituencies of British radicalism are today diverse in ways Sidney and Beatrice couldn’t have envisaged. The Nation’s and New Age’s subscribers, Fabian Society members, young students drawn towards socialism, admirers of Shaw or of Arnold Bennett were, if not exactly the same people, at least fluent speakers of the same political and cultural dialects. They formed an essentially cohesive left-wing intellectual class which persisted, indeed massively expanded, through the NS’s ‘golden age’. Kingsley Martin’s postwar New Statesman, with its circulation of up to a hundred thousand, did much to shape that class, to give it its voice: a kind of welfare state intelligentsia was consolidated and catered to by the paper. But in the decade that followed this group was challenged: from one side, by an insurgent counterculture, and from the other, by a resurgent free-market Right. Simultaneously – though for more varied reasons – the circulation dropped to around twenty thousand.

The Statesman’s current readers, a survey conducted last year revealed, are as economically homogeneous as ever: overwhelmingly professional and largely employed in the public sector. They are more geographically concentrated than at any time since Sharp’s day: in North and North-West London, and in English university towns. The once substantial Scottish readership, and that in Britain’s former colonies, have almost vanished. What remains is a shrunken core group, but one which is surprisingly diverse. According to the broad and inevitably subjective categories proposed by the recently deposed deputy editor Paul Anderson, 37 per cent of readers could be described as adhering to Labour’s ‘hard left’, 30 per cent to the ‘soft left’, only 12 per cent were New Labour loyalists and 10 per cent Liberal Democrat supporters. Readers were more likely to admire Tony Benn, Robin Cook and Ken Livingstone – in that order, with Benn getting more than twice as many votes as anyone else – than Tony Blair. If the new editorial team wants the paper to reach a wider audience, it will have to find a new constituency, or rather create one. Cultural diversification makes the task tougher now than it was in 1913 or 1943, but a revived Labour Party means that, for the first time in years, it is possible, as well as necessary.