Let us now praise the finger-wagging puritan


On the Sunday before Christmas (and before the Day of the Resignations), Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland, devoted his weekly Sunday Times column to the New Statesman. Harris is a personal friend of Peter Mandelson and he set out what I took to be the former trade secretary's view of how the NS in particular and left-wing journalism in general should proceed. The gist of the argument was that the NS is insufficiently fun-loving, that its writers and readers are unfriendly to conspicuous wealth and consumption and that we are, in Harris's words, "cluck-clucking, tut-tutting, finger-wagging" puritans. Subsequent events allow me to indulge in schadenfreude. This may be unwise of me; events may one day allow Harris and Mandelson a similar indulgence. But I cannot resist.

First, the context. Harris - with Nick Butler, an adviser to BP - wants to buy the NS. The paper is presently owned by Geoffrey Robinson, the former paymaster-general, and he has never said that he wants to sell. Even so, Harris and Butler have been trying to raise the money for a bid and it is an open secret that they were being cheered on by Mandelson and No 10, who would like the NS to adopt a more "modernised", new Labour mindset. As Harris put it, "Labour politicians have adjusted to the reality of the modern world much more readily than Labour's journalists and intellectuals".

Yet the present NS is by no means unfriendly to new Labour. When Robinson bought the paper three years ago and installed Ian Hargreaves as editor, the editorial line moved smartly to the centre-left, and there it remains. The paper's financial losses have been heavily reduced and its advertising revenue greatly increased. None of this was mentioned in Harris's column. Nor did he mention the recent expansion in our coverage of the arts, books, media, science, food, wine, etc.

Instead, he focused on a piece in our Christmas issue by Ziauddin Sardar, headlined "Unite Against the Tyranny of Toys!" This gave reasons why parents should resist demands for the latest over-priced toy craze: modern toys stunt children's imagination, they help turn them into insatiable consumers, and they involve third-world exploitation.

I imagine it struck a chord with many parents who are not as well-off as Harris. But he (like Alexander Chancellor in the Daily Telegraph) saw it as an example of our joyless puritanism. And he raised wider issues. Is left-wing journalism inevitably less upbeat than right-wing journalism? And does this explain why left-wing papers, over the past 20 years, have been less successful than right-wing papers?

The answer to the first question is surely "yes". The right, by and large, is satisfied with the world as it is. It may grumble about welfare scroungers and Brussels meddlers but it can celebrate monarchy, aristocracy, wealth, consumption, motoring, etc. It doesn't believe that poverty and inequality are worth highlighting because it thinks they are not remediable through political intervention. It thinks global warming and lung cancer are essentially baseless scares got up by power-crazed, regulation-hungry bureaucrats.

The left, by contrast, thinks that a steep decline in overseas aid, a hurricane in Honduras, the hopelessness of the inner cities, the conditions of Asian cotton workers - to mention a few issues that the NS has highlighted recently - are worthy of attention, not because we want to wallow in guilt but because we think that, given the political will, these problems can be tackled. We can (and I think do) write about these matters with style and wit but it is hard to imagine, if I may borrow Harris's approving word for Another Magazine, a "rambunctious" piece about third-world poverty.

Now the second question: why won't more people read left-wing papers? The reason, I suspect, is that middle-class readers (the only ones advertisers are interested in) will tolerate a left-wing agenda only as long as it does not directly damage their own interests. Until the mid-1970s, the left agenda mostly concerned subjects such as colonial freedom and fascist regimes and, at home, penal reform, abortion, divorce law, censorship, sexual and racial discrimination. This is the classic ground of Hampstead lefties, involving a better world but no economic sacrifices for them. It explains why the Labour Party is more united and more at ease with itself over the Pinochet extradition than over any other recent issue. But Pinochet is an exception: most of the rest of the old liberal-left agenda is no longer in serious contention. The unresolved left issues concern poverty, inequality (including health and education) and, in the broadest sense, environmental pollution.

These are uncomfortable issues for the mainstream left-wing press because they imply some sacrifices from their readers: higher taxation, more restrictions on motoring, more restrained consumption generally.

It is exactly the same dilemma that the Labour Party faced after four general election defeats. New Labour's solution was to promise a better deal for the worst-off without significant sacrifice from the better-off and without upsetting the City and big business. It was also consciously to bury its puritan image and to make itself seem comfortable with wealth, success, glitter and aspiration. New Labour was as much about a change in lifestyle as about a change in policy. And Mandelson, with his urgent need for a large house in Notting Hill, complete with minimalist interior design by a fashionable architect, epitomised that change.

The implication of Harris's column is that the NS particularly, and the left press generally, should follow suit: that we, too, should embrace a Notting Hill lifestyle, celebrate wealth and consumption and applaud big business, while continuing, from time to time, to put in a word for the poor. This week, however, the glitter option looks distinctly tarnished: new Labour would not be in the mess it is if some puritan had been around a few years back to tut-tut and wag a finger at Mandelson when he was trying to buy a house he couldn't afford. No doubt Ziauddin Sardar, who lives modestly in Colindale, would happily have performed that role.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour