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Leader: Bending the arc of history towards justice and freedom

The leader from the centenary issue of the magazine.

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

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

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.