Celebrating the New Statesman's biggest-ever issue

A hundred years on, the magazine is the best it's ever been.

The New Statesman was launched 100 years ago today and, as we celebrate with the publication of our centenary issue which is now on sale across the country, I’m naturally delighted that our latest scoop is dominating the political news as well as newspaper front pages.

One of the many pleasures of my job is being able to publish some of my favourite writers, politicians and journalists in the magazine. Very few people say no when the New Statesman asks them to write – and that’s very satisfying for a small magazine and website.

This week’s centenary issue is the BIG ONE in every sense, the single largest we have published in our long history. Among the political highlights are a wonderful, generously spirited column from Boris Johnson; a bold intervention from Tony Blair, which has been making the political weather and unsettling the Labour high command; a good column by Vince Cable discussing his political journey and the tensions that exist on the left between liberals and social democrats; and a fine piece by our political editor, Rafael Behr, who was travelling on a train with Ed Miliband when the Labour leader was told that Margaret Thatcher had died.

The New Statesman has been rethought and reinvigorated over the last few years. We have broadened our range and collaborated with some unexpected and interesting people. We have reintroduced cartoons, poetry and fiction. We have drawn influence from our Fabian tradition but also from J M Keynes, who was our chairman in the 1930s – it is often forgotten that in 1931 the New Statesman merged with the Nation, the old voice of Bloomsbury social liberalism. I am confident – forgive my immodesty! - that the New Statesman is now the best-written and most intellectually stimulating magazine in Britain.

As if to prove my point, we have, in the centenary issue, contributions from Booker Prize-winning novelists (Julian Barnes, A S Byatt) as well as from many other major literary writers, including Craig Raine, Alexander McCall Smith, David Hare, Will Self and Ali Smith. We have tremendously wide-ranging essays on geopolitics, the European ideal and economics from John Gray, Mark Mazower and Robert Skidelsky. We have published some centenary clerihews from the incomparable Craig Brown. There’s a very funny column from the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee and, as usual, outstanding cultural criticism and book reviews by the likes of Will Hutton, Norman Stone, Douglas Hurd, Jon Cruddas and our brilliant young fiction critic, Leo Robson.

We also include articles from the archive by Keynes, T S Eliot, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and Angela Carter. And in the “Orwell Wars”, D J Taylor and Adrian Smith tell the story of how and why the New Statesman refused to publish the great political writer’s reports from the Spanish civil war (not one of our more glorious moments).

Next week we are hosting our latest Centenary Debate. The question is, “Did the left win the 20th century?” Michael Gove, David Miliband, Lisa Nandy, Justin Webb, Matthew Parris, Mathew d’Ancona, Jonathan Freedland, Peter Oborne and Andrew Rawnsley are among those who attempt to answer the question in the magazine. (All contributions will go live on our website next week, ahead of the debate. And thanks to everyone for taking part.)

All in all, it’s a collector’s issue. Do buy it.

And here, from the magazine, is my Editor’s Note, which explores something of the history of the New Statesman.


Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.