The secret life of Clifford Sharp

Meet the first editor of the <em>New Statesman</em>.

Clifford Sharp was the long-serving but now mostly forgotten first editor of the New Statesman. Operating across the Baltic in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he was for a time a spy, an unlikely recruit to one of the Foreign Office’s shadowy anti-Bolshevik operations.

The quintessential Fabian technocrat, Sharp had journalistic skills that secured the fledgling NS’s survival in the face of modest sales and the upheaval of the First World War. He had been charged by Beatrice and Sidney Webb with challenging the left’s most fashionable pre-war weekly, the guild socialist New Age. He established his “paper” as a flagship of progressive opinion and an influential literary review.

After the war, the Liberals’ moribund mouthpiece, the Nation, was similarly seen off, merging with the New Statesman in 1931. If the NS can boast a golden era, then this marks its beginning. Ironically, Bloomsbury’s adoption of the Nation had ensured a much livelier magazine than Sharp’s worthy but extraordinarily dull enterprise.

The NS for most of the 1920s was edited by a drunk: invariably absent and always dependent on distinguished but distracted colleagues moonlighting from Oxford or the London School of Economics. Sharp’s politics were ever more at odds with an editorial policy of endorsing Labour, at the expense of a divided and declining Liberal Party. Reborn as an admirer of Asquith – another fading force whose political judgement was too often clouded by alcohol – Sharp antagonised his directors by exposing them to costly libel suits and refusing to resign when faced with dismissal. The board was charmingly naive in thinking that he would go quietly. Here, after all, was someone who within three years of the paper’s launch had dispensed with the services of George Bernard Shaw, the principal shareholder and best-known contributor.

Under Sharp, the NS had a small circulation but success for the Webbs was measured by who read it; and its largely metropolitan audience included the most powerful man in Whitehall. David Lloyd George ousted Asquith from Downing Street in December 1916, and soon subverted the rules regarding editors’ exemption from conscription. An infuriated Sharp found himself serving in the Royal Artillery.

However, life as a lieutenant proved surprisingly congenial, hence his initial irritation when he was moved to a civilian post in the newly formed Political Intelligence Department. The PID was ostensibly a planning body but its more elevated undertakings hid a range of less gentlemanly activities, ranging from espionage to black propaganda – and, despite a Foreign Office claim to have closed down this “fundamentally un-British” establishment with the return of peace, a similar body surfaced speedily in September 1939.

The NS’s literary editor, J C “Jack” Squire, had stepped into the breach as acting editor when Sharp was called up. He accepted Sidney Webb’s advice to align the paper more closely with the Labour movement. Webb therefore was in no rush to see a less acquiescent Sharp return. Appointed head of the information service of the British embassy in Stockholm, Sharp continued to gather intelligence.

From mid-1918, the Allies intensified their anti-Soviet propaganda effort. The Foreign Office instructed Sharp to send the NS a series of anti-Bolshevik articles, explicitly supportive of the “White” counter-revolutionary forces. In March 1919 the Foreign Office decided his services were no longer required. He returned to editing the NS and when his articles were serialised they condemned counter-revolutionary excesses in Finland and northern Russia.

Readers of William Boyd’s novel Waiting for Sunrise will recognise this chap who is one day in uniform and the next engaging in subterfuge about which, for all its Buchanesque glamour, he feels increasingly uneasy. Sharp lost little sleep over his role in the Baltic – there was a war to be won and even in peacetime he scarcely identified with the pacifist socialists he was spying on. Nevertheless, he retained a basic sense of right and wrong, and he could not accept the argument advanced by Churchill and Lloyd George for maintaining a military presence in Russia once fighting ceased in the west: to do so was to support White forces as brutal and undemocratic as their Red adversaries.

In this respect, the returning editor found himself at one with his colleagues, who consistently argued the case for withdrawal and an acceptance of the new status quo in post-tsarist Russia. Yes, the first editor of the New Statesman too easily adjusted to operating in the shadows, with the explicit approval of the paper’s founding father, but it’s to his credit that conscience belatedly triumphed over accommodation.

 

"Spy for a Day" 1940. Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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13 political statements from the Oscars 2017

In the age of Trump, Hollywood got satirical.

Yes, it’s that time of year again: when Hollywood’s best and brightest come together to celebrate themselves, and maybe throw in an oh-so-vaguely left-wing comment about how “we need the arts right now more than ever.” But in the era of Donald Trump, did things get more caustic at the 89th Academy Awards? 

Here’s a round-up of the big political shout-outs of the night.

1. “This is being watched live by millions of people in 225 countries that now hate us.” - host Jimmy Kimmel, above, in his opening monologue.

2. “I want to say thank you to President Trump. I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? That's gone, thanks to him.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

3. “In Hollywood, we don't discriminate against people based on what countries they come from. We discriminate against them based on their age and weight.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

4. “Some of you get to come on this stage and make a speech that the president of the United States will tweet about in all-caps during his 5am bowel movement.”- Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

5. “Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lacklustre career. She wasn’t even in a movie this year – we just wrote her name in out of habit. Please join me in giving Meryl Streep a totally undeserved round of applause. The highly overrated Meryl Streep, everyone.” Jimmy Kimmel, referencing Trump’s comment that Streep (below) is “overrated”.

6. “Nice dress by the way – is that an Ivanka?” - Jimmy Kimmel to Meryl Streep

7. “Now it’s time for something that is very rare today: a president that believes in both arts and sciences.” - Jimmy Kimmel, while introducing Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs

8. “Inclusion makes us all stronger.” - Cheryl Boone Isaacs

9. “This is for all the immigrants” - Alessandro Bertolazzi, above right, accepting the award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Suicide Squad.

10. “Flesh-and-blood actors are migrant workers. We travel all over the world. We construct families, we build life, but we cannot be divided. As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I'm against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” - Gael Garcia Bernal, while presenting the award for Best Animated Feature

11. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and from the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law which bans immigrants' entry into the U.S. Dividing the world into the 'us and our enemies' categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” - The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi, who boycotted the ceremony over Trump's Muslim travel ban. His award was accepted on his behalf by former Nasa scientist Firouz Naderi and engineer/astronaut Anousheh Ansari, above.

12. “We are so grateful to audiences all over the world who embraced this film with this story of tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.” - Zootopia director Rich Moore, while accepting the award for best animated feature

13. “All you people out there who feel like your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back. For the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.” - Barry Jenkins (above) while accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.