For the last item of my Editor’s Note in our centenary edition, I returned to something Kingsley Martin, the New Statesman editor from 1930 to 1960, wrote in the “paper”, as he always called it, following the declaration of war in September 1939: “We have watched the degradation of standards in Europe, the growth of barbarism and the systematic use of cruelty as a political weapon.”
Much worse was to follow during the years of the Second World War. Reflecting in 2013 on what Martin had written in 1939, I wrote that, even as austerity hardened in the long aftermath of the financial crisis, we “sometimes too easily forget how fortunate we are in western Europe to live in peace and relative prosperity”.
Do these still feel like fortunate times? Was I too complacent? The truth is the world has darkened considerably in the intervening years. War has returned to the continent of Europe and the so-called rules-based liberal order, so celebrated by the Economist and Financial Times, has been revealed to be a chimera. What prevails today is the hard, brutal realities of geopolitics. If the essence of politics, as Machiavelli cynically wrote, is not to be dominated, the war in Ukraine has revealed the world as it is, not as liberals would wish it to be. Once again, we have watched the degradation of standards in Europe, the growth of barbarism and the systematic use of cruelty as a political weapon.
In April 2013 few could have predicted the decade of convulsions to come in Britain. We were entering a period of extraordinary politics from which the Westminster class is still reeling: the Scottish independence referendum and its multiple consequences; the vote for Brexit and the intense polarisation that came after it; the rise and fall of Corbynism; the Covid pandemic with its lockdowns and school closures as well as its expressions of social solidarity and the mission-led project to create a vaccine; the election triumph of Boris Johnson and the chaotic unravelling of his premiership; the bizarre Truss interregnum; and now stasis and the gravest cost-of-living crisis since the 1970s.
Through all this turmoil in Britain and far beyond it – in Trump’s America, or Putin’s Russia, or Assad’s Syria, or Xi’s China – the New Statesman has attempted to analyse, understand, and explain the forces driving change in the world. If we have a unifying editorial mission today it is to respond to the character of the age with critical intelligence, an open mind and scepticism.
What is the spirit of the age? It’s not a new question. In a series of essays published in the Examiner in 1831 – a year before the Great Reform Act – John Stuart Mill set out to define “what the spirit of the age really is”. The “times are pregnant with change; and that the 19th century will be known to posterity as the era of one of the greatest revolutions of which history has preserved the remembrance, in the human mind, and in the whole constitution of human society.”
For Mill, it was an age of transition, as ours is. “Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones,” he wrote. He wanted to understand the state Britain was in so that he might better understand what was coming next.
Today we have similar instincts, but we sense too that time is out of joint; technological change has outpaced our capacity to understand and regulate it. The ubiquity of smartphones, the unparalleled power of the tech giants, the unregulated spaces of social media platforms operating as de facto publishers but without legal responsibility or obligation for what is “published”, AI and machine learning – what does it all mean for how we live, communicate and work today, and how we will do so tomorrow?
More than this, the climate emergency, rapid population growth, the interconnectedness of global events and the finite size of the Earth itself have made us all acutely aware of limits – or should have done. If order and security are the dominant themes of this age of transition, what is required at home, surely, is a new politics of limits, of moderation and humility, as well as a cold-eyed realism in foreign affairs.
What is the role of the state? What are the limits of the market? What would be a new political economy appropriate for an era of scarcity? How do we reduce economic inequality in a globalised world? What makes diverse secular liberal democracies cohere? Is hyper-individualism inexorable? What comes after liberalism? What is a nation and what is its purpose? Putin and Xi believe they know what a nation is. And they know what they want. What do liberal democracies want when they can’t have what they thought they wanted and believed was inevitable: universal values and a world created in their own image? How should we – or can we even – contain the coming anarchy?
These are just some of the questions with which the New Statesman will be grappling in the years to come. In the meantime, in this special anniversary magazine, we welcome back some of our former colleagues – I’m especially pleased to see Mehdi Hasan and the wonderful Helen Lewis in the pages again – to talk about their experiences of covering the Westminster jamboree. And we’ve also invited some of our former critics – Ali Smith, Jonathan Coe, Suzanne Moore, Deborah Levy, Mary Harron, Antonia Quirke and Russell Davies – to return to their old beats. Finally, I’d like to thank all our readers, in print and online, for your enduring support.
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[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]
This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue