Staggers envy, being rejected by Martin Amis, and why the left hated Maggie so much

Boris Johnson explains why the <em>New Statesman </em> used to keep him up at night.

I used to be petrified of the Staggers. I mean it. It was just after I became the editor of the Spectator – and I was under great pressure to make an impact with scoops, big-name pieces, and so on. I used to sit there racking my brains and people would torture me about the latest triumph of our supposed rival on the left. “Did you see that terrific piece in the New Statesman?” someone would say. I pathetically rang Charles Moore in the hope of reassurance. “I say, Charles, have you noticed any good pieces in the Staggers recently? Looks like a load of lefty bilge to me,” I said tentatively. “Oh, yes,” he drawled, “everyone says there are some terrific pieces these days . . .”

Sincerest form of flattery

Trembling, I put down the phone and looked over at our genius deputy editor, Stuart Reid. He was peering at something through his magenta specs. “Terrific piece,” he said, tapping the blasted New Statesman with his earpieces. Then I remembered some advice I was given by Paul Johnson, the great man of letters and Spec columnist who, in his time, had flogged the New Statesman circulation to a record high. “You need to bring in the best writers,” he said. “Flatter them. If I were you, I would lay it on with a trowel.”

Toynbee or not Toynbee

That was it! I was going to poach the cream of Staggers talent – London’s leading literary lefties. I was going to lure them ruthlessly to the Spectator. I began, obviously, with Martin Amis, one of this magazine’s most brilliant hirings from the age of Tony Howard. I wrote obsequious letters. I rang him at home and had long and fruitless conversations with the gorgeous Isabel Fonseca, his wife. I became so persistent that poor Amis could take it no more. He wrote a rather kind letter that began, “You are one of nature’s optimists,” and explained that he was a Staggers man to the core, wouldn’t be seen dead in the Spec. It was a matter of principle, he said. Next, in my delusion and despair, I tried dear Polly Toynbee. She told me to bog off in no uncertain terms. I can’t even pretend that she tried to string me along.

At the end of a harrowing conversation, she said: “You don’t understand. You think this is all some game, some debating forum for civilised adults. But this is serious. You are on one side and I am on the other.” Shortly afterwards, she vented a volcanic piece, accusing everyone at the Spectator of being effete, slimy, bullying creeps. The article was illustrated by a picture of Auberon Waugh as a human turd about to be flushed down the pan – and the poor chap had only just died.

Sinister purge

This makes me think that there is an interesting psychological difference between left-wingers and right-wingers. On the whole, right-wingers are prepared to indulge left-wingers on the grounds that they may be wrong and misguided but are still perfectly nice. Lefties, on the other hand, are much more likely to think right-wingers are genuinely evil.

Look at the hate, hate, hate that is erupting at the sad death of Margaret Thatcher. When the left come to power, they purge the place of Tories. They liquidate them with Stalinist zeal. When the Tory-led coalition got in, however, there was no symmetry – no purge of the New Labour establishment – and that has cheesed off Tories hoping for jobs. They can see the lefties still in place; and the lefty quango­crats beam and nod – and secretly they think it will be just a couple of years before they have a nice, splurging Labour government again.

Needing a creed

As it happens, I think they are wrong. The past few days have been bad for Labour. George Osborne managed to say something that the majority were privately thinking – and all Labour could do was denounce him as evil for even raising a question. That won’t work. You can’t tell a large chunk of the population that they are evil and heartless for asking whether the operation of the benefits system could be improved.

People can see there is a problem: they want to know how Labour would fix it. That is why, in its 100th glorious year, we need the Staggers more than ever. Or rather the Labour Party needs this magazine, because at the moment Ed Miliband is saying nothing of interest about anything and what I think he needs is one of those terrific pieces that will help him to develop his currently non-existent policies. Come on, New Statesman – give that man a creed.

Slippery wicket

My paranoia about the New Statesman and its terrific pieces went on for some months, until we finally met for physical combat, in the form of a cricket match. It was a torrid afternoon and I was full of nerves. Bernard Levin had come to watch, for heaven’s sake, and the New Statesman’s captain, Christian Wolmar, displayed what I am forced to call gamesmanship. At last we prevailed, thanks to a last-wicket stand by Alex van Straubenzee, our circulation manager, and myself.

I cannot resist adding that by the time Alex and I came figuratively to end our innings at the Spec, we had pushed the circulation to an all-time high of 70,000. So perhaps we didn’t need Martin and Polly, after all. Happy birthday, dear Staggers, and vive la différence.

Polly Toynbee (in 1965): Boris's dream woman. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.