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The secret life of Clifford Sharp

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

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

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.