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How Alexander Chancellor’s magazine became the home of the British alt-right

Alexander was a brilliant and unconventional editor whose methods derived from Chinese Taoism: he achieved miracles while appearing to practise wu wei, or “do nothing”.

Here in the US, the alt right, that loose, amorphous movement characterised by white nationalist revanchism, hatred of political correctness veering into gratuitous insulting of minorities, and rubbishing of climate science, is assumed to be both an American and a primarily online phenomenon. Certainly, with the elevation to a position inside the White House of Steve Bannon, a former chairman of Breitbart News – the opinionated website that is the best-known platform for the alt right – this view seems reasonable enough.

It happens to be wrong. The alt right’s origins lie just as much in Britain, and in the respectable “mainstream media”, as they do in America and the hate-filled underworld of online message boards such as 4chan. In Britain, I trace back the origins of the alt right to one of the favoured organs of the establishment, the Spectator. These origins long pre-date the rise to prominence of the alt right’s most flamboyant personality, the British blogger and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, whose book deal was cancelled in February after he appeared to condone underage sex.

It pains me to write this because I have long-standing ties to the Speccie. That was where I had my first national press piece published; where I served as a free-range Spanish correspondent, wine columnist and occasional arts writer. Much of that I owe to my first editor, Alexander Chancellor, who died too soon in January. As the many tributes made clear, Alexander was a brilliant and unconventional editor whose methods derived from Chinese Taoism: he achieved miracles while appearing to practise wu wei, or “do nothing”. In fact, Alexander operated instinctively, sniffing out writers whose style he liked and encouraging them, regardless of political viewpoint.

The effect was to rescue an ailing publication and set it on a course of unwavering success. Those who credited him with setting the tone of the modern Spectator, of making it readable, irreverent and witty, were partly right.

But the Spectator began to deviate from his liberal, civil open-mindedness only a few years after he stopped editing the magazine in 1984. This deviation took two, perhaps related routes. The first was a hardening of the paper’s political stance, first making it into a Tory organ (Alexander was never in his life a Tory) and then into a right-wing-of-the-Tory-party, brexiting rag. The second consisted of the introduction of a casual, jokey, faux-macho incivility – a malign mutation of Alexander’s irreverence – aimed at shocking the liberal bourgeoisie.

Actually “deviation” is not the right word for the process. What happened was more akin to the gruesome internal undermining undertaken by a class of parasitic wasp. These wasps deposit their eggs inside the body of a caterpillar or a spider; the wasp larvae then gradually consume their host from the inside out.

Alexander, inexplicably, indulged Taki, the Greek socialite and author of the long-running High Life column. Unfortunately, Taki morphed from a harmless snob into a nasty purveyor of alt-right venom. His Taki’s Magazine is regarded as the leading alt-right outlet after Breitbart News. Quite recently he praised the ultra-hard-right party Golden Dawn as mostly “good old-fashioned patriotic Greeks”.

Some time in the 1990s at a Speccie party I bumped into a young journalist named James Delingpole, who had started to write a TV column for the paper. He didn’t strike me as a parasitic wasp, perhaps more of a mustelid: he was amusing and provocative in a public school, scruffy sweater sort of way, but I couldn’t work out where he was coming from.

Writhing about in a smoke of confusion is part of the alt-right rhetorical strategy (though it didn’t quite save Yiannopoulos). In a Spectator blog last summer entitled “Why the alt right isn’t wrong”, Delingpole, who also writes for Breitbart, starts by defending Yiannopoulos for his online bullying of the black actor Leslie Jones, which got him expelled from Twitter. Then he goes on the rampage against “political correctness gone mad”. Then he writhes into the position of feeling uncomfortable “defending the alt right because . . . most” of it consists of “mischievous internet kids experimenting with irony, knowing that if there’s one way . . . guaranteed to rile the grown-ups it’s a hideously tasteless Holocaust joke”. Who even thinks of making Holocaust jokes?

Delingpole’s position on human-induced climate change is much clearer – it’s alarmist bunk made up by a global conspiracy of rent-seeking scientists – though wildly implausible, scientifically illiterate and profoundly nihilistic.

None of this would matter if it were merely the high-pitched squeaking of a sackful of hacks. Unfortunately the poisonous parasite of the alt right, or its accompanying viral material, has destroyed far more than the essential civility of Alexander Chancellor’s Spectator. Its slimy trail leads to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

Consider two characters not usually associated with the alt right, Boris “Alternative Facts” Johnson and Michael “We’ve Had Enough of Experts” Gove. Johnson, who earlier in his career purveyed witty and fictitious stories about the European Union, was the editor of the Spectator from 1999 to 2005 and encouraged Delingpole in his noxious work. Gove, another journalist-turned-politician and also a contributor to the Spectator, became, like Johnson, a leading proponent of Brexit.

We all know what happened next, including the farcical rerun of Julius Caesar performed by Gove and Johnson and Gove’s grovelling Times interview with Trump, apparently conducted in the presence of Rupert Murdoch. It is tempting to treat all of it as farce: the British contribution to the alt right is the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” tone that suggests nothing should be taken too seriously. Americans are less keen on irony, and I do not detect much of that in either Bannon or Trump. But British jokeyness has provided the perfect cover for a far-reaching attempt to spread a chaos and coarseness that would have been anathema to Alexander Chancellor.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.


Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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