Leader: Bending the arc of history towards justice and freedom

The leader from the centenary issue of the magazine.

Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the founders of the New Statesman. Photograph: Getty Images

12 April 1913

Beatrice and Sidney Webb founded the New Statesman in a spirit of optimism. They were outraged by the plight of the poor and the way the unfettered market had created monstrous inequality at a time of great technological advance. (Does this sound familiar?) They wanted their new weekly review of politics and the arts to be a reforming journal as well as a vehicle for their ideas. They believed in the rational, scientific method and in the “world movement towards collectivism”.

Theirs was a socialism of experts: technocratic, centralising, bureaucratic. Through their research – they co-founded the London School of Economics and William Beveridge worked for them as a young researcher – they helped to lay the foundations of the welfare state.

Yet their socialism of experts was flawed and often wrongheaded and its worst excesses have been deeply sedimented in the Labour tradition of “the man in Whitehall knows best”: command and control, tax and transfer. The Webbs were fellow-travellers of the Soviet Union and they were imperialists. Statists rather than liberals, they were insufficiently interested in personal freedom. Very quickly, the journal they created broke free of their influence. In 1922, Sidney Webb resigned as NS chairman, unhappy that the “paper” was too free in its criticisms of the Labour Party. “A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure,” Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary.

Fifteen months after the first issue of the NS appeared, Europe was plunged into the imperial slaughter of the First World War. The twin evils of Stalinism and fascism and then the long cold war would follow. However, for the British, at least, the 20th century was broadly one of progress. In common with many countries, Britain incrementally became both a more liberal and a more equal society. Universal suffrage was introduced. The National Health Service was created and a universal welfare state was established. The UK surrendered its colonial possessions and Europe was transformed from a continent of war into one of peace. Capital punishment was abolished and homosexuality was decriminalised. Laws were passed against discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability. Through decades of struggle, the left bent the arc of history towards justice.

But today, in the aftermath of the worst financial crash the world has known, the abiding mood is one of anxiety as the gains of previous decades appear increasingly fragile. The forces of free-market globalisation have brought chaos and destruction. Recession and mass unemployment have returned to Europe as the continent has embraced collective austerity. The income gap that began to widen in the 1980s has become a chasm as a new global elite, impervious to state boundaries and reluctant to pay tax, concentrates wealth and resources in its hands. And a succession of institutions – parliament, the banks, the press, the police – have lost the trust placed in them by the public through scandal and misdeed. Social divisions long thought buried are re-emerging.

What should the response of the left be? The socialist belief in state ownership of the means of production, tested to destruction in the 20th century, has rightly been abandoned by all but the most doctrinaire.

Yet the society we wish to see remains one in which, as our first editorial put it, “health, comfort, culture, and personal freedom are the rules instead of the exceptions”. We retain our faith in the role of governments to secure these ends, while recognising that the way in which the state delivers public goods must be rethought. Only the state can redistribute wealth and power, challenge cartels, regulate financial services and create the economic conditions to stimulate growth and invest in huge infrastructure projects. Only a competent state can protect the poor and the most vulnerable.

Beholden to no party and excited by and interested in ideas, the New Statesman will remain a politically committed magazine and now also a website. The project of the left has been transformed over the past 100 years: the forward march towards worldwide collectivism was halted long ago. Its successor, the doctrinaire faith in the moral as well as economic superiority of market forces, has proved equally misguided. The challenge today is to restore social solidarity and justice as aims of democratic government no less urgent than the achievement of individual prosperity.

You can read the first New Statesman leader from 12 April 1913 here