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

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition