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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.