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12 April 2023

A decade on from the New Statesman’s 100th anniversary, I’m flushed with reminiscence

During the austerity decade, life at the magazine was coloured by gifted colleagues and celebrity guest edits.

By Helen Lewis

Can it really be a full decade since the 100th anniversary of the New Statesman? Apparently so. Flushed with reminiscence, I dug out the special edition we published back then, to find Tony Blair arguing that we should build more houses – oh, how things have changed – and Laurie Penny worrying about maturing into a pearl-clutching reactionary (no sign of that so far).

The issue reminded me of the incredible eclecticism of the New Statesman, which was always my second-favourite thing about it. The main features run took in Ed Miliband, Julian Barnes and badgers, none of which ended up becoming prime minister.

[See also: Good Friday Agreement: Still on the edge of terror]

My absolute favourite thing about the New Statesman, of course, has always been the people. Back in 2013, we were a much smaller team, but one stuffed with talent. Before sitting down to write this, I was watching my old colleague Mehdi Hasan, now a full-blown American TV star, dismantle his latest interviewee in record time.

A decade ago, Mehdi was already an accomplished debater – “Don’t be afraid to play the man, not the ball,” was his advice – but my main office memory is him ribbing the culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, over his more highbrow tastes. (“Korean films with subtitles” was the accepted shorthand.) JD himself went on to glory at the Financial Times, while the creator of the modern NS website, Caroline Crampton, has published a book on the Thames and is working on another on hypochondria. The features editor Sophie Elmhirst – who worried about going into early labour at the 100th anniversary party – now writes beautiful long reads on everything from sperm donation to competitive ploughing.

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The only sadness from my time at the New Statesman is that Mehdi never accepted my offer of a puff quote for his book: “If you only read one Ed Miliband biography this year, make it this one.”

[See also: Steve Platt’s Notebook: Memories of class war, the broken housing system, and struggles with mental health]

By 2013, after a difficult period, you could sense that the New Statesman’s fortunes were rising. In the two years each side of the anniversary, we had a series of guest edits ranging from the inspirational to the mildly traumatic. I still have a poster of Grayson Perry’s fake men’s magazine cover at home (“Cars and Watches: Not messy like feelings”) and I still love the headline on Hugh Grant’s undercover reporting on phone-hacking: “The bugger, bugged.”

I have even recovered from the Russell Brand guest edit, although I’m not sure Jason can say the same. We held an editorial meeting to which Brand was invited, and he sauntered in looking like a Hollywood Jesus and sounding like Mary Poppins-era Dick Van Dyke. When he saw Jason, he threw open his arms, and shouted: “Jeremy!” It was like watching a charisma cannon misfire.

My time at the New Statesman began in 2010 and ended in 2019, and so coincided with what you might call the Austerity Decade. This was the subject of a guest edit – in 2011, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, hurt David Cameron’s exquisite feelings by calling the Big Society a “stale” slogan which was viewed with “widespread suspicion”. He also accused the coalition of enacting “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.

Well, he wasn’t wrong, was he? That decade of Conservative rule left Britain more unequal and more divided, with sluggish growth and queues at Dover.

Still, blue passports.

[See also: Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye]

Since joining the Atlantic, I have been struck by the much greater earnestness of US politics – which teeters on the edge of pure camp. I’ve spent the last six months reporting a profile of Florida’s governor and keen culture warrior Ron DeSantis, who is preparing to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. DeSantis is notably uncharismatic – he makes Keir Starmer look like Harry Styles – but that hasn’t stopped him releasing adverts of himself dressed as a fighter pilot, posing with pythons, and holding a rally flanked by muscle cars.

Every time I’m at an American political event – DeSantis’s second inauguration featured both howitzer fire and a fly-past – I remember that the highlight of a Lib Dem party conference is… Glee Club. DeSantis spent $100m on re-election in Florida, and ended the race with another $90m in the bank. To put that in perspective, British parliamentary candidates are limited to spending £8,700 plus up to 9p per registered voter in their constituency. 

One final memory from 2013. In February, we published a column by Anthony Seldon criticising Labour’s economic policies, which was quoted by David Cameron at PMQs. Quick as you like, Ed Miliband shot back: “I think he’s scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman.” Ouch.

That jab was typical of the way that the NS was once underestimated – yet the magazine has not just survived the past decade, but emerged stronger than before. A bit like the Labour Party after it ditched Ed Miliband, when you think about it. What? Too mean? Sorry, I’ve been nursing that grudge for ten whole years.

Helen Lewis is a staff writer at the Atlantic and a former deputy editor of the New Statesman

[See also: Joan Bakewell: “I can live with death – how odd”]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue