Why the Spectator tolerates the intolerable

The collapse of the intellectual right. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As this magazine has found in its series on “The Closing of the Conservative Mind”, a defining feature of British politics over the last few years has been the intellectual collapse of the right. With no legislative achievement to speak of in the last half decade, and without any thinker of note in its ranks, nor a vision for the country beyond leaving the European Union, British conservatism endures in a state of intellectual un-death; an ideological zombie that tends towards nothing at all.

Few institutions of the right exemplify this tendency more than the Spectator, a weekly publication that has become indicative of the historic sumps into which conservatism has fallen. First published in 1828, it today boasts a circulation of 85,000 and launched a US edition in October. It has an illustrious history as a smart and respectable journal and its pages still retain enclaves of moderation and thoughtfulness. But its tone and ideological positioning have become increasingly strident, defined by its star pundits, such as Douglas Murray, Toby Young, James Delingpole, “Taki” Theodoracopulos and Rod Liddle, a former BBC editor.

In 2017, the author and essayist Pankaj Mishra wrote that the Spectator, “once suavely edited, now serves as a fraternity house… pummelling Muslims and high-fiving on Brexit, these right-wing bros are to the posh periodicals what Jeremy Clarkson was to the BBC”. On 31 October, that description was proved at least half right when Liddle wrote a column in which he ridiculed the Labour MP Rosie Duffield for speaking out about her experience of domestic abuse, while also appearing to suggest that the general election be held on a day when Muslims would be forbidden to vote for religious reasons.

Liddle has a long record of insulting women, disabled people, Muslims, and black people. The Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson has defended him as either a misread joker or caustic provocateur exercising his freedom of expression. But the condemnation against Liddle and Nelson was more serious this time, as prominent figures from both left and right, including the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, the Spectator’s former foreign editor Timothy Garton Ash and the former Conservative deputy prime minister David Lidington, fiercely criticised Nelson and the magazine for publishing the column. The Spectator’s assistant editor, Isabel Hardman, publicly distanced herself from what had been published, saying  that she was “profoundly upset” by it and “hugely disagreed with Liddle’s piece”.

A combination of outrage and calculated unseriousness has always been a part of Liddle & Co’s demotic appeal. As the anthropologist Kate Fox writes in Watching the English (2004), “an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness’”.

This group of columnists plays on this to perfection (as does Boris Johnson, who edited the Spectator between 1999 and 2008). Excluding Murray – a true ideologue – it is never clear if Liddle, Young and Delingpole and the rest really believe what they say or are simply engaged in lucrative posturing to “own the libs” and get clicks.

It could be both. As Richard Seymour writes in The Twittering Machine (2019), the “hedging of a serious political agenda with statements ostensibly made just for the lulz,” is a good way of making “unappetising ideologies digestible”. With their hi-decibel conniptions against “cultural Marxism”, the left, universities, climate activism and political correctness, Liddle and the right-wing bros have little to say about the common good and specialise in mockery and outrage. Their writings exemplify Lord Byron’s line that “hatred is by far the longest pleasure;/men love in haste, but they detest at leisure”.

One way to understand what has happened in recent years to the Spectator – and Britain’s right-wing press more generally – is to observe the realignment of America’s media landscape. This is what the Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler and others have called “asymmetric polarisation”, where right-wing outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Washington Times have split from the middle ground and drifted out towards the fringes. Their business strategies have become less about creating audiences than about reinforcing partisan grievances among specific “segments” – the religious right or old angry white men, for example.

A similar shift has occurred in some of the UK’s most established and respected newspapers and magazines on the right, including the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph (Steve Bannon has expressed an interest in buying it), which have become akin to what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk called “rage banks” – storehouses of grievances that can be leveraged into political capital. Ian Buruma, a former Spectator writer, has said of his old magazine: “It used to be libertarian, cheeky. Now it’s like the Daily Mail. The difference is, I suppose, that its old spirit came from superiority. Now it comes from resentment and disappointment.”

Buruma is correct. The Spectator has become a sounding board for resentment, amplifying the catastrophist mentality that has gripped the right in Britain and the US.

George Orwell thought that “almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘fascist’”. Liddle & Co may be bullies but they aren’t fascists, nor have they incited political violence against those they taunt and demean in their writings. From their berths at the Spectator, and other titles in the British mainstream media, they have instead provided a slow transfusion of bigotry into a historically repressed and underdeveloped English nationalism, which has now assumed a more strident position in the national consciousness.

In the literary and intellectual history of the right the current Spectator commentariat will be judged as lightweights. But that does not lessen the deleterious impact their septic vapourings have had on the political and cultural life of the nation.

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong