A dissenting tradition: The New Statesman and the left

From its earliest years under Sidney and Beatrice Webb, through the landmark editorship of Kingsley Martin and on to Thatcher’s and Blair’s long years in power, the <em>New Statesman</em> has fought to keep a tricky balance: it is of the left, but neither

Illustration by Martin Rowson

The declaration sounded warm and unequivocal. “Congratulations – you have my full support!” said Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, clasping my arm. It was the spring of 1998, a year after New Labour’s landslide general election victory, and I had just been appointed editor of the New Statesman, the realisation of an ambition that went back more than 20 years. But I was uneasy and found Whelan’s declaration distinctly unassuring.

At the time, the NS was owned by Geoffrey Robinson, a millionaire Labour MP and minister and a close ally of Brown, who was then the chancellor. It was at Brown’s prompting that Robinson rescued the NS from the brink of extinction in 1996, intending it to become a vehicle for the de­velopment of New Labour ideas, running alongside a think tank. For the editorship, Ed Balls, Brown’s closest aide, proposed his former Financial Times colleague Ian Hargreaves, who had gone on to become editor of the Independent.

Hargreaves turned the NS into what was widely described as the bible of New Labour, getting a string of scoops on its policies, securing long exclusive interviews with its leading figures and running extended essays from its gurus, such as the sociologist Anthony Giddens. “The New Statesman’s relationship with New Labour,” recalls Steve Richards, then the NS political editor, “was deeper at that time than the Spectator’s now is with the Cameron Tories, though it caused far more trouble for Tony Blair than the mythology suggests.”

Circulation rose, supported by a large marketing budget of a kind the NS has seldom had. For a brief, heady period, New Labour revived interest in mainstream politics and, as it came closer to taking power, the business and professional classes grew hungry for information about what its leaders believed and how they would govern. Hargreaves was a passionate Blair supporter. “I wanted a Labour-led centrist politics,” he later told me, “and felt frustration all my adult life that it seemed unattainable.”

With Labour duly elected and settled in office, Hargreaves stepped down from the editorship after two years as, he said, he had always intended. By then, the tension between Brown and Blair and between their respective camps – later to deteriorate into open warfare – was already rising. “If you wrote an article praising Blair,” Hargreaves told me, “the Brown people wouldn’t speak to you for a fortnight.” And as far as the Brown camp was concerned, Hargreaves had run rather too many pro-Blair articles. There was particular Brownite fury over an issue of the NS largely devoted to how an announcement that New Labour would keep Britain out of the euro, against Blair’s wishes, had resulted from a stitch-up orchestrated by Whelan.

The NS, Balls advised, should distance itself. It was usually to the left of any Labour government – a challenging, even destabilising voice, rather than a supportive one – and it should return to that position. As I well knew, I was chosen because my track record on the Blair project, particularly as editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995-96, was that of a left-wing sceptic. Richards says: “Blair was upset; he felt almost personally put out by the loss of control over the NS.”

As it turned out, Robinson – though he took up near-permanent residence in the NS offices after he left the government in 1999 – was scrupulous in observing my independence as editor, despite repeated calls from political colleagues that he should restrain or sack me, particularly over my opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there were tensions, all the same, and I knew that, on critical appointments such as political editor, Robinson would want to establish “what Gordon thinks” (fortunately, Gordon was usually too indecisive to settle on any particular name).

Except for short intervals, and then not formally, the NS has never been a party journal, as its weekly rival Tribune was for most of its life. Its mission has been to create a leftish climate of opinion, not to get voters to the polls. The NS and the Labour Party were never married. Rather, they have conducted a long love affair, in which the partners often quarrel, sometimes accuse each other of infidelity, and always live apart.

***

When Sidney and Beatrice Webb set up the New Statesman in 1913, they did not do so to support the Labour Party, which was then in its infancy. Its purpose, like that of the Fabian Society, which they also helped found, was to convert “thinking persons”, as Beatrice called them, to socialism and to persuade influential members of any political party of its merits. “The Webbs”, wrote the historian Adrian Smith in New Statesman: Portrait of a Political Weekly, his 1996 study of the magazine between 1913 and 1931, “were not interested in a campaigning magazine that challenged the establishment of the day head-on; this was simply not their style.”

The Webbs’ passion was for state planning on scientific lines. “We shall strive,” wrote the editor at the launch of the magazine, Clifford Sharp, “to face and examine social and political issues in the same spirit in which the chemist or biologist faces and examines his test tubes or his specimens.” The Webbs’ wish to eradicate poverty and ignorance derived as much from their concern for national efficiency, to see off growing competition from Germany and America, as from compassion for the destitute or commitment to social justice.

They saw little merit in colonial liberation, which would later become one of the New Statesman’s great causes. Given that Britain was the home of the most progressive scientific thinking, the best hope for improved conditions in African and Asian colonies was to keep the empire intact. Whatever humanitarian and charitable impulses Beatrice possessed, they didn’t extend much beyond Dover. “One would not,” she wrote in her diary in 1922, “spend one’s available income” on “a Central African negro”.

The main ideological division on the English left before the First World War was between bureaucratic state centralism, advocated by the Webbs, and guild socialism (sometimes described as a British version of Continental syndicalism), inspired by the ideas of William Morris. Through a revival and expansion of the medieval guilds, the latter hoped to put the means of production, distribution and exchange into the hands of workers, not the state. It was to counter the influence of the guild socialists that the Webbs launched their magazine.

Sharp was chosen for his journalistic skills, not for his political enthusiasm and idealism. He was in no sense a Labour man or even, in the broader sense, a left-winger; for much of his editorship he was closest to the Asquithian Liberals. Beatrice saw him as “a hard-minded conservative collectivist”, while George Bernard Shaw, a shareholder and regular contributor in the magazine’s early days, called him a “suburban Tory”. Sharp did not support what most socialists regarded as “advanced” causes: House of Lords reform, the abolition of capital punishment and birth control, for example. He particularly detested Marie Stopes.

The Webbs allowed Sharp to get on with the job of interpreting, as he put it, “the views of an indefinable Fabian entity” and rarely interfered. In its first year, the NS argued for the abolition of the Poor Law (still the basis of social welfare, despite Lloyd George’s pension reforms and introduction of National Insurance), stricter factory acts, shorter working hours and public ownership of rail and coal. It warned Labour that, if it failed to assert its independence of the Liberals, it risked losing the working classes to extra-parliamentary forces that favoured direct action. It was often scathing of Lab­our MPs, then mostly from working-class backgrounds, accusing them of being little more than spokesmen for the unions and of lacking intellectual ballast.

In the First World War, Labour was still a marginal party with fewer than 50 MPs. The issue for the NS was which of two alternative Liberal leaders it should back: Lloyd George, who became prime minister in 1916 in coalition with the Tories, or the ousted Asquith. It preferred the latter, as did the Webbs, largely because, before the war, Lloyd George had ignored Beatrice’s proposals for a comprehensive welfare state. With the Webbs’ encouragement, Sharp at one stage met Asquith’s supporters to discuss whether the NS should become their semi-official organ, but he insisted that it must remain independent and agreed only to “consultations”.

By the end of the war, it was evident that Labour, not any faction of the Liberal Party, must be the vehicle for British socialism. But Sharp became besotted with Asquith, though he was by then clearly a fading star. Liberalism, he argued, was “the distinctive political heritage of our race”. Rather than unequivocally supporting Labour in the 1922 and 1923 general elections, he called for co-operation between Labour and the Liberals, envisaging a coalition government with Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister and Asquith as foreign secretary. After the 1923 election, which resulted in a hung parliament, Sharp argued in the Daily News, in articles signed as the NS editor, that a minority Liberal government would be preferable to a minority Labour one.

Yet Sidney Webb, by then a Labour MP as well as NS chairman, was at the same time contributing articles that applauded Labour’s success in marginalising the Liberals. The magazine was, as Adrian Smith put it, “a mass of contradictions”. Even more confusingly, the NS’s Liberal rival in the weekly magazine market, the Nation, then had an editor who had joined Labour.

In 1922, Webb resigned as chairman because, as his wife confided to her diary, it contained “too frequent depreciations of the Labour Party and all its works”. Given that Sidney was now “organically attached to the Labour Party”, wrote Beatrice, they had no further use for an independently minded NS. “A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure,” she lamented. They had lost control because they couldn’t contribute all the money for its upkeep and needed to bring in other shareholders, such as the novelist Arnold Bennett, who were mostly Liberals. Webb left the NS board altogether when Sharp, during the 1924 election campaign, described MacDonald as “an utter failure”.

***

Kingsley Martin, who took up his appointment as editor in 1931, came from the English dissenting tradition. His father was a Nonconformist minister, a pacifist and an anti-imperialist who deserted the Liberals when Lloyd George put himself at the head of a Tory coalition. Martin described himself as “a political hybrid, a product of pacifist Nonconformity, Cambridge scepticism [he went to Magdalene College, Cambridge], Manchester Guardian Liberalism [he worked as a Guardian leader writer before joining the NS] and London School of Economics socialism [he was a lecturer at the LSE in the 1920s]”. He had, he wrote, “no firm faith in any form of government”.

Martin turned the NS into more than Britain’s leading forum for left-wing ideas: it became the conscience of the left. If Martin’s NS often seemed inconsistent and vacillating, if it could never quite decide what it thought of, say, the Soviet Union or the prospect of war against Hitler, it reflected the intellectual and emotional uncertainties of the “progressive” middle classes – “teachers and preachers of all types”, Martin called them – from whom it drew most of its readership. The historian A J P Taylor wrote of Martin that “no one expressed better the confused emotions of the 1930s”: he was “a compendium of the time, or at any rate of the left”.

As Martin took over, the NS (which then had a circulation of 12,000) merged with the Nation (circulation: 8,000). The latter’s chairman, the economist John Maynard Keynes, reluctantly accepted that, although the New Statesman and Nation, as it was now called, would not be a Labour paper (still less, as he had hoped, a Liberal one), it would not be neutral between the parties. Arnold Bennett and Keynes, both Liberals, asked Martin before his appointment whether the NS should be socialist and, to both, he replied “yes” without qualification. In fact, in the second issue of the relaunched magazine, Keynes prompted a fierce debate by abandoning free trade, the Holy Grail of English Liberalism. He proposed a 10 per cent tariff on imports of food and manufactured goods so as to allow a programme of public works and economic expansion without worsening the balance of payments and provoking a run on the pound. The magazine immediately lost subscribers among Nation readers, but gained many from the left, most of them young.

When a minority Labour government fell in 1931 and several Labour leaders joined Tories and some Liberals in a “National” government, Martin supported the majority of Labour MPs who went into oppo­sition. To some degree, the NS welcomed the defection of right-wing leaders, creating a party that could be more “pure” in its socialism. The divisions over the National Government’s spending cuts, it argued, came “more closely than ever before in this country to an undisguised class struggle”.

Though the NS surprisingly backed the right-wing Herbert Morrison in the 1935 Labour leadership election (which was won by Clement Attlee), it broadly supported the Labour left for the rest of Martin’s editorship. Morrison and other right-wingers in the party were often wary of the magazine. “I give you about three weeks before you stab us all in the back,” Ernest Bevin, who was to become Labour’s foreign secretary, said to Martin at the party’s victory rally in 1945. Yet Martin had enemies on the Labour parliamentary left, too, notably Aneurin Bevan, the health minister, who preferred the more reliably propagandist Tribune.

Martin was a very different kind of socialist from the Webbs. Like them, he supported economic planning, but he had a greater suspicion of the state and a greater love of liberty. The Webbs, as he saw it, “did not recognise the intractable com­plexity of individuals”. He was never, therefore, as enamoured as they were of the Soviet Union. However, like many of his contemporaries on the left, he refused to write it off. “With an army of permanent unemployed at home and no prospect of a government with a constructive policy,” he recalled, “we could not ignore the claims of the Soviet Union to have cured unemployment and to have a national plan of development.”

In his memoirs published in 1968, Martin accepted that “the net effect” of what he wrote on the Soviet Union “was certainly too favourable”. What he and other NS writers didn’t know in the 1930s was the enormity of Stalin’s atrocities. Or, more precisely, they didn’t want to know. As they saw it, democratic socialism had all but collapsed in the west, ousted by fascist movements in continental Europe and a “bankers’ ramp” in Britain. It was far from obvious that capitalism could be steered in a more humane and socially just direction.

The NS was inclined to discount many of the stories about Soviet savagery and economic failure as right-wing propaganda. As Edward Hyams disingenuously observed in his history of the magazine’s first 50 years, published by Longman in 1963, any resemblance between the stories put out by supporters of capitalism in the 1930s “and the facts as subsequently revealed” was “purely coincidental”.

As fascism spread during the 1930s, many NS writers and readers needed to believe in the Soviet Union if they were not to succumb to complete despair. This sentiment helps to explain why, in 1937, Martin refused to print two reports and a book review by George Orwell on the atrocities committed against Trotskyists and anarchists by Communist supporters of the Republican government in Spain (see pages 54 and 104).

To the end of his life, Martin could never quite bring himself to deliver unequivocal denunciations of those who called themselves socialists. He was accused in the 1950s of taking too benign a view of the Chinese Communists just as he had of the Bol­sheviks in the 1930s. He was similarly indulgent to leaders of colonial liberation movements who became presidents and prime ministers. The cause of colonial freedom was one from which he never wavered.

He took pride in how the NS helped create “a non-violent socialist mind in Asia and Africa”. Most leaders of the newly independent nations, he wrote in the 1960s, were enthusiastic readers of the NS who “regard us as inspirers of the national and socialist revolution”. And it was true that the NS’s influence across the British empire was enormous. Martin was frequently an honoured guest at independence ceremonies.

After the war, the NS naturally backed the domestic programme of the 1945-51 Labour government, but opposed it loudly over foreign and defence policy. It supported the Keep Left group of MPs – which included Richard Crossman, by then the magazine’s chief leader writer on foreign affairs – and published its launch pamphlet in 1947. Like the NS, Keep Left, which regarded Aneurin Bevan as its unofficial leader, wanted a democratic socialist Britain to lead a “third force” Europe, independent of both the US and the Soviet Union. When Bevan resigned from the cabinet in 1951 over the health ser­vice cuts imposed to finance rearmament for the Korean war, the NS took on to its staff John Freeman who, along with Harold Wilson, had also resigned from Attlee’s government. For much of the 1950s, despite Bevan’s hostility to Martin and despite disagreements over nuclear weapons, the NS was closely associated with the Bevanites in the Labour Party.

In 1957 the NS seemed the natural home for J B Priestley’s article “Britain and the nuclear bombs”, which led to the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Martin chaired the campaign’s first meeting. But it wasn’t his style to commit himself and his paper to long-running campaigns, particularly if they aspired to become mass movements. It was Tribune that the peace movement later described as CND’s “official weekly”. In Priestley’s view, Martin “was not quite with us and not quite against us”.

That ambivalence was characteristic of Martin and, as some saw it, his biggest strength as editor. As Crossman wrote in his diary in 1952, Martin “refused to have a politician’s idea of a policy and cares more about the colour of the paper than its conceptual form”. His “great quality”, Crossman continued, “is that he will instinctively support any left-wing view which isn’t getting a fair hearing or which is unpopular”.

It was largely because Martin didn’t have an easily definable formula for editing – colleagues could never predict from week to week, or even day to day, what he would wish to publish, or at what length and with what prominence – that his successors found it so hard to sustain his success. All magazines and newspapers reflect, to some degree, the personality of their editors. But the NS was to a peculiar extent the embodiment (at least in its front half) of its editor’s quirks, prejudices, enthusiasms, hesitations, soul-searchings, likes and dislikes.

***

A further problem confronted Martin’s successors. For the first half of the 20th century, the social-democratic left developed and advanced a political and social philo­sophy which, it believed, could transform the world. It could, it thought, deliver both economic efficiency and social justice without, once fascism was defeated, pain or violence. Whatever desperate short-term compromises socialists sometimes needed to make, the left never lost its ideological confidence. As John Freeman put it, “the prophets of that generation were confident that they knew the answers”. All that remained to be done was to enlighten and educate the population, to “knock the truth into thick or inattentive heads”.

The 1945-51 Labour government put into effect much of what the NS had advocated since its foundation. And if the Webbs’ aim was to convert all parties to accept socialism, that ambition was also, to some extent, realised. The welfare state owed almost as much to Liberals such as Sir William Beveridge as to Labour and, when they returned to office in 1951, the Conservatives accepted that it should stay and accepted, too, most of Labour’s nationalisations. The issues that sustained Martin’s editorship for 30 years – and, to some extent, the editorships of his immediate successors, Freeman and Paul Johnson – were no longer sustainable by the beginning of the 1970s. Colonial liberation was largely complete and, with the end of empire, Britain became more insular. Britain’s standing in the world – and the NS’s readership among overseas elites – once gave the paper’s pronouncements on great world issues importance and authority. But nobody could again appeal to “the force of our example”, as Priestley did when he launched CND with what the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer for the NS in the 1970s, called “the last great utterance of the Fabian imperial tradition”.

The great “liberal” domestic issues that had so moved the NS’s left-wing, middle-class constituency – homosexual law reform, divorce, capital punishment, abortion – were largely resolved in the 1960s. Capitalism had given ground but it did not seem likely to give more, and there was little pressure, from an increasingly prosperous, home-owning working class in Britain, for it to do so.

The “progressive” middle classes found the workers demanding a greater share of national resources and willing, through their unions, to use any available means to secure it. If this was socialism, they decided, it wasn’t such a good idea after all, a view expressed most eloquently by Paul Johnson who, in an excoriating series of articles on the Labour Party in the 1970s (after he had left the editorship), began a journey that would take him to the Thatcherite right. The Labour left, Johnson wrote in the NS in 1975, had “delivered itself, body, mind and soul, into the arms of the trade union movement”. Johnson was then still writing from within the Fabian, NS tradition, recalling that the intellectual left “had always . . . feared the arrogant bosses of the TUC, with their faith in the big battalions and the zombie-weight of collective numbers, their contempt for the individual conscience, their invincible materialism, their blind and exclusive class consciousness”. He denounced what he called “the syndicalist left”, thus echoing precisely the reason that had led the Webbs to set up the NS.

State planning – the greatest of all articles of faith to the social-democratic left in the early 20th century and to the Webbs in particular – was by then largely discredited. Across the world, it had palpably failed to deliver the gains in prosperity that accrued from reformed capitalism, and, in July 1966, amidst a sterling crisis, Britain’s Labour government ditched its “National Plan”, launched just a year earlier. After Hungary and Czechoslovakia, it was evident that the Soviet Union, even after Stalin, had not transformed itself into the benign regime for which the pre-war Fabians had hoped. By the 1970s, a third of humanity was living under regimes that claimed some variety of socialist label, yet few of those regimes trusted their citizens with a vote.

The NS needed a new agenda and struggled to find one. Despite Johnson’s enthusiasm for the 1968 student uprising in Paris and the magazine’s consistently vigorous opposition to the Vietnam war, it was never again able to establish itself as the voice of an emerging radical generation as it did in the 1930s. The NS was, after all, an essentially paternalistic enterprise, looking to a more enlightened ruling class to effect change through the conventional vehicles of Westminster and Whitehall.

Looking back from 1988, Christopher Hitchens, a member of the Trotskyist International Socialist group in the late 1960s, argued that the NS had “missed” the 1960s and “wrote about that generation, in tones of civilised curiosity . . . , but not for it”. Nothing better illustrated how it misread the mood of the times than its appointment, as Johnson’s successor in the editorship in 1970, of the former Labour cabinet minister and still-serving MP Richard Crossman. Crossman, wrote Anthony Howard, his biographer (and successor as editor in 1972), saw the NS as “a platform from which he could continue to influence the policy of the Labour Party and . . . even dictate the strategy of the leadership”, particularly on entry to the European Common Market, which he wanted Labour to oppose. Under Crossman the NS had fallen, as it had at times in the past and would again in the future, into the trap of being little more than a Labour Party paper. For a time, Crossman invited three former cabinet colleagues to the Thursday morning conferences to plan the next week’s issue. It paid the price in circulation, which began a long decline through the 1970s and 1980s.

***

Kingsley Martin’s editorship lasted for 30 years. In the first 35 years after his retirement, the average tenure of editors was under four years, some lasting less than two years. Often, a change of editor was accompanied by a sharp change of direction, as when Anthony Howard, a traditionalist editor whose magazine echoed the Martin formula of left-wing comment and analysis, gave way in 1978 to Bruce Page, a former head of the Sunday Times’s Insight investigative team, who believed that disclosure would undermine the established order more effectively than elegant prose.

By then, the divisions that had always lain beneath the surface of Labour politics were becoming wider, more open and more bitter. A breakaway group of former Labour cabinet ministers, including Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams, abandoned the party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Labour’s future as a significant force in British politics seemed in doubt, and so did the NS’s. Labour, even after the SDP defections, was divided and so was the NS. The editorship fell vacant three times in the 1980s and, each time, a hard-fought battle between left and right followed.

One of the victors (as the right-wing candidate) was John Lloyd, a former Financial Times journalist, who became editor in 1986. One evening recently in a Westminster bar, Lloyd, a serious and rather daunting figure who often sounds like a Scottish Calvinist preacher warning of eternal hellfire, told me: “The left was balkanised. The ardent spirits were anti-racists, feminists, greens, campaigners for constitutional change who thought the British state was rotten and we needed to abolish the Lords and the monarchy. People went into left-wing politics because they were single-issue people. They were warring tribes, all with their own journals.” The unifying socialist vision that had been central to the NS and its journalism in Martin’s era was dead.

Throughout the 1980s, the NS was wooed by the SDP. It did not seem impossible that it could be seduced into a position similar to the one adopted under Clifford Sharp: of sympathy for both Labour and the SDP without explicit commitment to either. Hugh Stephenson, a former Times business editor who preceded Lloyd, was suspected in some quarters of being a SDP stalking horse, though he was, in fact, a former south London Labour councillor who had no intention of abandoning his party. But Stephenson, like Lloyd and the SDP, was strongly “pro-European”; and as Peter Kellner, the NS political editor at the time, told me, “on many other issues, we were closer to the SDP than Labour”. Lloyd went further, writing, to the fury of the staff, a powerful editorial that called on Labour and its then leader, Neil Kinnock, to abandon their opposition to nuclear weapons. This, coming at a time when even Blair, first elected as an MP in 1983, subscribed in public to the unilateralist cause, created a sensation.

Lloyd resigned in 1987 after little more than a year as editor. “There was nowhere to go but out,” he told me. He would reappear as an über-Blairite senior staff member under Hargreaves’s editorship and, for some years afterwards, during mine.

In retrospect, the late 1970s and 1980s were perhaps a missed opportunity for the NS. The rise of Thatcherism presented an intellectual challenge to the left but the most important response came not from the NS, but from, of all places, Marxism Today, the theoretical monthly journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Under the editorship of the Eurocommunist Martin Jacques, it tried, as Jacques put it, to combine “the best aspects of academic and journalistic writing – weighty, analytical and accessible”. Rather than merely denouncing Thatcherism, it attempted to analyse the wider social, economic and cultural forces that had given rise to it, the reasons for the decline across the world of labour movements, and what the future held for the left. It drew in prominent writers not only from the left but also from the right. It welcomed political heresy, most memorably from Eric Hobsbawm in his 1978 essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”. It understood, as no other British left publication did, the need to reverse Kingsley Martin’s achievement: instead of mapping out a socialist future, the left now had to give itself a map of neoliberalism, so that it would be better equipped both to resist it and to adapt to the forces that had created it.

Marxism Today was a magazine of its time which stopped publication in 1991, and was not in itself a model for the NS. But it had a profound influence on New Labour and it showed that, if it wanted them (and worked hard enough to get the right kind of copy from them), a left-wing magazine could still get the best thinkers into its columns.

***

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NS was detaching itself not only from the Labour Party but also, to some extent, from parliamentary politics. It continued to run political columns and pieces by prominent Labour figures, including Blair, but that was not where its heart lay. That was partly because, in 1988, the NS merged with New Society (becoming New Statesman and Society) and, for a time, adopted part of its new partner’s remit, reporting and commenting on social developments in general without necessarily relating them to a political agenda. The location of the NS offices in the early 1990s – in Shoreditch, then a run-down part of east London, remote from Westminster – though dictated largely by its increasingly strained finances, seemed to symbolise its new position: “contentedly on the margins, in the belief that it would find more truth there than in the middle of the highway”, as Hargreaves put it.

I met Lloyd’s immediate successor, Stuart Weir, a quietly spoken, thoughtful man, at a restaurant in Cambridge, where he now lives. Weir was a former editor of New Socialist, a monthly Labour journal, and a deputy editor of New Society, and his appointment was regarded as a victory for the left. The anointed successor, favoured by the party leadership, had been David Lipsey, a Downing Street aide in James Callaghan’s 1976-79 government.

“[Neil] Kinnock was very hostile to me,” Weir told me. “The Murdoch press was on to me, portraying me as hard left. But basically I am a liberal-minded socialist and, though New Socialist was Bennite when I took over, I wrote an article saying Bennism was over. I thought under Lloyd the NS had become very narrow, a cheerleader for Lab­our. The magazine, I thought, should speak from the left as broadly as possible. “I didn’t want to get bogged down in the boring politics of the Labour Party. I was concerned with the quality of civil society. I wanted to put democracy at the heart of our project.”

Weir conceived Charter 88, echoing both Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 and England’s Glorious Revolution 300 years earlier. Arguing that Britain was ruled by an over-powerful executive which left no room for the voices of ordinary people, it demanded electoral reform, freedom of information, a human rights act and an elected second chamber. Weir saw it as a project that could engage not only Labour Party members but also the wider liberal intelligentsia – lawyers, academics, writers, actors, musicians, and so on – and thus reconstruct the alliance that had energised the NS in the 1930s. The charter’s signatories included Ian McEwan, Billy Bragg, Harold Pinter, Simon Rattle, Ralph Miliband and Emma Thompson.

Labour never entered government with a programme for unilateral disarmament, but it did take power in 1997 with a Charter 88 agenda, some of which was implemented. Unlike CND, however, Charter 88 never became a mass movement; it was Labour never entered government with a programme for unilateral disarmament, but it did take power in 1997 with a Charter 88 agenda, some of which was implemented. Unlike CND, however, Charter 88 never became a mass movement; it was an elite project, dealing with what seemed to many to be arcane, remote issues, which did not touch the lives or engage the emotions of large numbers. As Weir concedes, it did little for the magazine, because it took on, as CND did, a life of its own and soon required an independent organising structure.

Weir’s successor, the last editor before the Robinson era, was Steve Platt. He is a diffident, slightly dishevelled figure who was carrying a shoulder bag when we met in the self-service cafeteria of the Southbank arts complex in London. A former editor of Shelter’s housing magazine Roof, Platt was once an activist in the squatting movement and his background was quite different from that of any of his predecessors.

“I was an outsider,” he told me, “and I had a very strong sense of it. To my mind, there was a closed metropolitan circle of liberal opinion. I grew up in Stoke and I was coming into a milieu that was foreign to me and treated me like a foreigner. There was intellectual snobbery. I had been to the LSE, but as a mature student, and my subject was geography.”

Like Weir, Platt, a lapsed Labour member, wanted to forge “an independent left” path, refusing to align the NS with either Bennism or Blairism. “I was appealing over the heads of traditional NS readers to a wider audience, which included but was not limited to the extra-parliamentary left,” he said. Platt was looking away from Labour politics and socialist philosophising to the grittier world of left activism. His target audience had, he agreed, some things in common with the “rainbow alliance” of feminist, gay rights, green, squatting, ethnic- minority and other groups that Ken Livingstone wooed when he led the Greater London Council. But none was necessarily interested in the other’s passions any more than they were interested in the struggles between factions of the Labour Party.

“Platt wanted Swampy to read the NS,” said one critic, rather unkindly. “Unfortunately, Swampy didn’t read magazines.” In fact, Platt stemmed the circulation fall, he gave John Pilger a column and, for a time, he even made a small profit. But when he published allegations about an affair between John Major and a Downing Street caterer, the NS was brought close to extinction by libel costs. By the time Geoffrey Robinson took over (he eventually sold the magazine to Mike Danson, its present owner, in 2009), an exhausted Platt had already left. The New Statesman was ready for another change of direction.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005