Editor’s Note: A long and not always smooth history

Jason Cowley recalls his first lunch with Peter Wilby, a warning from Tony Howard and champagne with Norman Mackenzie . . . who describes how dreadful Dick Crossman was, and how great Kingsley Martin.

Melvyn Bragg has described how he discovered the New Statesman in the library of his grammar school in Wigton, Cumbria, and how it opened for him a window on the “Great World”. My father, the son of a bus driver from east London, must have felt something similar when he first began buying the NS in the 1950s, more for the poetry and the book and music reviews than for the politics. He was still buying it but not as regularly in the mid-1970s, which was when, as a child, I first became aware of its presence in the house. By the early 1980s, however, he had given up on the NS, as many others had, and it would be many years before I was reacquainted with it.

Stranger in paradise

The first piece I published in the NS was in the summer of 1997 when I was working as a staff feature writer on the Times while moonlighting as a Booker Prize judge. Peter Wilby, who was then the NS literary editor, having recently been sacked as editor of the Independent on Sunday, had read and liked a couple of articles I’d written – probably cocky denunciations of the contemporary English novel – and he invited me for lunch. He took me to his “local”, Gran Paradiso in Victoria, an eccentric and rather run-down Italian restaurant, popular with Conservative MPs of a certain vintage. During that first visit we saw Norman Lamont huddled at a corner table – or was it Michael Mates? The details were in the eyebrows.

Peter enthusiastically drank the house white throughout the lunch. He spoke in a low, deep mumble and I wasn’t sure if he could hear what I was saying. At one point he took from his well-worn wallet a letter he’d received from the proprietor of the Indepe­dent on Sunday after his sacking and asked me to read it. It was a letter of praise and of regret, something private, and I was surprised he was sharing it with me. At the end of the lunch, he stood up abruptly, barked-shouted the words, “Very good,” opened his arms like an umpire signalling a wide and prompt­ly knocked over an artificial tree.

A week or so later, I filed the piece he had commissioned at the required length and on time. A few days after this, I received a faxed proof (the Times did not have email until 1998). Peter’s judicious editing had immeasurably improved what I’d too hastily written. I was impressed. It was the beginning of a long association.

Adventure’s end

The first issue of the NS was published on 12 April 1913. It was founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb with £5,000-worth of donations from friends, including £1,000 from George Bernard Shaw. Beatrice was pessi­mistic about the prospects of her weekly review of politics and the arts. “If I were forced to wager, I should not back our success,” she wrote in a diary entry.

The Webbs felt the need for their own magazine to promote their top-down, “scientific” Fabian transformation of society for which they campaigned so ardently. But very quickly the NS slipped free of its moorings. In 1922, Sidney Webb resigned as NS chairman, unhappy that the paper he had helped to create had become too liberal in its disparagement of the Labour Party. “A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure,” Beatrice wrote in her diary.

An absent friend

When I became NS editor in the autumn of 2008, I received a handwritten note from Tony Howard, who had edited “the paper”, as he always called it, from 1972-78. I’d got to know him when we were colleagues on the Times (he was obituaries editor, his last job before retirement). “I am glad it is you,” he wrote with his usual kindness. “It will be very hard. But you must hang on until the centenary.”

I was mildly alarmed by his choice of the phrasal verb “hang on”, with its implied subtext of struggle and difficulty – I knew how many previous NS editors had resigned in despair or been sacked – and I had no idea that the paper was approaching its centenary. It seemed a long way off to me then and not something I should be concerned with. And now here I am writing these notes. I’m only sorry that Tony, who died suddenly in 2010, is not here to celebrate with us.

Homeward bound

One person who is still with us is Norman Mackenzie, who joined the NS as assistant editor in 1943 after being recommended to the editor Kingsley Martin by Harold Laski of the LSE. Norman, who is 91, had been forced to leave the RAF because of ill health and, as he writes on page 104, his interview took place at Martin’s cottage in the north Essex village of Little Easton, near Dunmow. It went well. Norman remained on the paper until 1962, when the then editor, John Freeman, called him the “rock on which the best of the NS has been founded”. He went on to have a distinguished career as an academic at Sussex University, where he founded, with others, the Open University and wrote many books. His political journey took him from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party.

Last year, Norman was given only two months to live and yet, although in poor health, he remains resilient and lucid. I met him for the first time last autumn when the historian Hugh Purcell and I visited him at the home he shares with his wife, Gillian, in Lewes, Sussex. I returned to see him again in February, only to find that he’d broken his hip in a fall and was confined to bed.

Although it was late morning we opened a bottle of champagne and sat beside Norman as he talked without sentimentality and with great wit and epigrammatic flair about his days on the NS – about Martin (“He was the epitome of his readers, instinctively understood them and was never a bore”), George Orwell (“He was a difficult man; no one was close to George”), J B Priestley, the cartoonist Vicky, C H Rolph, Asa Briggs (“The only man I know who was ever a snob about himself”), Richard Crossman (“He was an awful New Statesman editor, the sort of man who would review his own books”), Arthur Koestler (“a clever shit”) and others.

“Here’s to the next 50 years,” he said, raising his glass and looking at me. “You might even make it.”

Asked by Hugh if he knew the spy George Blake, Norman said: “One does have standards, my dear.” Of Dorothy Woodman, Martin’s partner, he said: “There was some­thing not quite right with her. I got on with her badly very well, if you see what I mean.”

Norman stopped reading the NS when it became preoccupied with what he called the “silly left”. He started reading it again last year. “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.” It’s wonderful to have the chance to publish him in this issue.

Fond farewell

As I left Norman’s house at the end of that first visit, he accompanied me to the door. “It’s terrible being 90,” he said. I knew that his wife was religious and I asked if he, too, was a believer. “No, it’s a load of nonsense,” he said. “But I’m not afraid. I just hope there isn’t too much pain at the end.” We shook hands and I left him there, a tall, slightly stooped figure, standing in the doorway as he peered out at the rain, his arm raised in a formal gesture of farewell.

In sickness and in health

Norman is approaching the end of his life and is a last, cherished link to the old world of Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman and Orwell’s London. When he’s gone, there will be no one left to recall what it was like to work at the Great Turnstile offices during the Second World War, when the NS became a dominant publication in the culture, capturing the mood and articulating the hopes and aspirations of a generation.

During the 30 years of Martin’s editorship, the circulation, helped by mergers with the Nation (in 1931) and the Week-end Review (in 1933), rose from 12,000 to more than 80,000 (it rose from 24,000 to 70,000 during the war years alone). Between 1970, when Richard Crossman became editor, and 1986 the circulation fell by as much as 55,000, and this at a time when Chris­topher Hitchens and Martin Amis were on the staff.

Many blame Crossman – who once disgracefully and successfully sued the Spec­tator for reporting what in fact was the truth about him, as he revealed in his post­humously published diaries – for turning the paper into the house journal of the Labour Party. Others blame him as well as those who followed for not modernising the design and content and for failing to channel the radicalism and upheavals of the late 1960s.

There are others who blame Bruce Page, editor from 1978-82, for making the NS too grimly “Spartist”, for destroying its sense of humour and literary heritage and for trying to turn it into a paper of investigative journalism but without the appropriate resources and staff. Paul Johnson, who edited the NS from 1965-70, certainly blames Page for “squandering the reserves”, as he put it to me when I had tea with him and his charming wife, Marigold, at their house in west London. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that no one is to blame, though Crossman does seem to have been an appalling editor (Anthony Thwaite calls him “an opinionated bully”). Each editor no doubt did what he thought was right in the circumstances and at a time of increasing competition – from expanding, multi-section newspapers, from new magazines – and increasingly widespread disenchantment with the left.

The political culture had changed, too. Johnson’s abrupt right turn is a parable of a generation for whom the god of socialism failed. By the time Anthony Barnett, who would later set up openDemocracy, applied for the editorship in 1986, the NS was in a critical condition. “The New Statesman is confronted by a crisis of survival,” he began his appli­cation, a copy of which he recently sent me. “In almost all respects the paper is close to bankruptcy.”

It was an enterprising application and one wonders what might have happened if he’d won the editorship and torn the NS away from Labour interests, as was his intention. Yet as I read his application, with its favourable references to Marxism Today, New Socialist and City Limits (all held up as examples of vibrant publications from which the NS should learn) as well as Punch, one thing struck me: none of these titles exists today and the NS does.

And now, more than 25 years later, the “magazine”, as we now call it, is off life support and returning to robust health, bolstered by an ever-growing website and a new generation of digital and Kindle subscribers who are helping to nudge the cir­culation towards 30,000. In March, newstatesman.com had another record month of web traffic: 1.4 million unique visitors to the site. Could it be that, even as many newspapers grapple with ruinous losses and falling circulation, a small, politically engaged magazine and website such as the NS, which controls its costs and is com­mitted to publishing the best long-form journalism and cultural criticism as well as spiky blogs, can not only survive in the new digital era but actually thrive?

Journey through the past

One recent afternoon, I drove out to Little Easton, the village where Martin used to live and where I’ve played cricket matches over the years. In his memoir Editor, he writes fondly of his cottage and garden: he only reluctantly sold up and left ten years after the end of the war when the “village became lethal to cats” because of increased traffic. New houses were being built and the character of the surrounding countryside was being changed by the coming of the new town of Harlow, where I grew up and which, for Martin, “had the effect of crowding the roads and all approaches to it”.

I wasn’t sure why I’d driven out to Little Easton or what, if anything, I hoped to find there – some ghost traces of long ago, perhaps, when Martin, that passionately committed nonconformist son of a Unitarian minister, used to live there and his friends from London would come to stay. I began thinking again about the war years, when he, the literary editor Raymond Mortimer and Norman Mackenzie were working together at Great Turnstile to get the Statesman out in spite of a shortage of paper and with London being plunged nightly into blackouts.

As Edgar says at the end of Lear, “The oldest hath borne most.” Those of us who came after them, the generation of the welfare state and full employment, will surely never see so much nor feel as Kingsley Martin did when, in the first issue of the NS after war had been declared, he wrote: “We have watched the degradation of standards in Europe, the growth of barbarism and the systematic use of cruelty as a political weapon.” In the depths of our own Great Recession, we sometimes too easily forget how fortunate we are in western Europe to live in peace and relative prosperity. I hope you enjoy the issue and continue to read the New Statesman in the years ahead, whether online or on paper.

The New Statesman centenary issue. Photo: New Statesman.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.