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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

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.