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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump