Show Hide image

Ken v Saddam, dinner with David Blunkett, and when Julie was queen of the Groucho

Signs of the times

When the Sunday Times Magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, I felt young and cool because I could revel in its glamorous Swinging Sixties past while being part of its future. Now, as the New Statesman’s centenary fast approaches, it’s lovely to be back in these pages. But a couple of decades have passed since I wrote a politics column here, so I guess I’m just a footnote in some dusty archive. How 20th century it all seems now: a time of political sex scandals and sleaze, an enfeebled Conservative prime minister torn apart over Europe . . . Has anything else happened in between?

A line in the sand

Back then, there was also the first Iraq war. I remember tracking down Ken Livingstone, the then MP for Brent East, who was abroad at the time, and persuading him to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Posing as devil’s advocate for a moment, I asked, “Aren’t the borders just some colonial fiction? Why should Iraq respect them?” I feel sure he replied that so many national boundaries were arbitrary that a line had to be drawn in the sand – and Saddam should be sent packing. His recollection, it is fair to say, differs from mine, so I may have imagined the whole episode. Perhaps he was against Saddam’s use of force but equally against doing anything about it. However, I’ll always believe that his original impulse was right – and that he, like many people on the left, was anti-Saddam, before he was nobbled by the anti-American brigade on his return home.

Feeling dodgy

The Gulf war presented an awkward challenge for the left. Sales at the NS were on the up, driven by John Pilger’s fierce tirades against intervention, while a few people, including me, supported the liberation of Kuwait. I’d been influenced by Republic of Fear, a devastating portrait of Saddam’s tyranny by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi who was writing under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. The splits over this –which seemed fairly insignificant at the time – widened irreparably during the second Iraq war.

A few days ago, I had dinner near Westminster with David Blunkett (and his handsome dog, Cosby) and was impressed to find that, ten years on, he was sticking by Labour’s decision to overthrow Saddam. The “dodgy dossier” on weapons of mass destruction, which has achieved such prominence that the story was recently dramatised by BBC Radio 4, had nothing to do with his decision, he told me.

I wasn’t very surprised that no WMDs were found, as Hans Blix and his UN inspectors had been scouring Iraq for them unsuccessfully for months. As Helmut Kohl reputedly said: “Ninety per cent of intelligence comes from journalists and the other 10 per cent is wrong.” Yet the short-term advantage to be gained from spin enabled the myth of the big lie to flourish and Tony Blair and George W Bush have been hounded by it ever since.

Posse riot

Before joining the NS, I worked for the feminist publisher Virago. My salary was pitiful, so when its chairman, Carmen Callil, got together with other publishers to found the Groucho Club (because most clubs, astoundingly, were men-only in the 1980s), I couldn’t afford the 90 quid membership fee. Nor could most of my publishing colleagues, so it soon became the hang-out of journalists such as Julie Burchill, who styled herself “the queen of the Groucho Club” and blew her considerable earnings on drink and drugs for her posse.

Last Saturday, I returned there for a very respectable affair: the leaving do for Anoushka Healy, the former managing editor of the Times and Sunday Times, and Daisy Dunlop, News International’s former communications head, who are off to New York with grand new titles to devise strategy for the new News Corp. On the night, I searched keenly for evidence of misbehaviour but I’m sorry to report there simply wasn’t any. Good luck in NYC, girls . . .

Indian summer

When it splits from the mothership in July, the new News Corp will be the largest publishing company in the world. But, as we know, it is possible for smaller enterprises such as the NS to punch above their weight in the digital world (while the Guardian, despite its seemingly vast tally of online readers, still gets mistaken for the in-house newspaper of LaGuardia Airport in the US).

The Staggers already has a great global advantage: a readership on the Indian subcontinent, which has long admired the mag for its support for Indian independence under Kingsley Martin’s editorship. I discovered this on a visit to South Africa in the 1990s, where my brother-in-law, who is from the Indian community, introduced me to lots of subscribers. These days, you can also pick up hundreds of followers from Pakistan on Twitter if you are lucky enough to get a single retweet from Jemima Khan.

My humble suggestion is that, if the NS ever gets some money for extra editorial staff (is this too much to hope?), it should recruit a few journalists from the Indian subcontinent and become a huge digital player in the region. There’s a tremendous market to be tapped: the Jaipur Literature Festival, for instance, has taken off, helped in part by Tina Brown, who wrote for the NS as an absurdly talented teenager. So why not?

Sarah Baxter is editor of the Sunday Times Magazine and a former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.