“The failures of the old parties,” John Gray wrote in the New Statesman in 1999, “create an opportunity for a new breed of populist.” A mix of scepticism, uncanny foresight and embattled political engagement, his essay on post-politics bore all the hallmarks of what would become a singular prospectus of writings on the history of the present.
Gray’s first encounter with the magazine was as an undergraduate at Oxford University in the late 1960s. “It was just one of those titles that everybody who was interested in politics read,” the philosopher says.
His writing since then is not only distinguished by the novelty and prescience of insight, or the lucidity with which it explains the principal traditions of Western political thought; it is also marked by its boundary-shattering range. “I’m an anti-genre man in a sense because I think it’s constricting to say that certain forms of writing – sci-fi, thrillers, detective and espionage fiction and so on – can’t be enriching or illuminating.”
Alongside time-proof essays on the crisis of liberalism and the delusions of its boosters, the decline of the West, and the perils of the radical imagination, his cultural criticism – on the novels of Len Deighton, the TV programme Better Call Saul, or the literary sagas of Lawrence Osborne – have marked Gray’s perpetual grappling with the human condition in these pages.
He admits that, over the years, he hasn’t always got it right. “I’ve always regretted that I didn’t criticise Tony Blair’s thoughtless constitutional reforms, and regret not seeing how damaging his attempts to Americanise domestic politics would be. I didn’t grasp the deep incoherence of his project. All of it has caught up with us now.”
Untethered from any fixed political coordinates, Gray has come to embody the ethos of the magazine as it has evolved in the past two decades, a title committed to the most salutary fruits of the European intellectual tradition: the ferment of doubt, a willingness to debate ideas, and a desire to critique both old orthodoxies and new dogmas.
“For me,” Gray says, “the New Statesman is an enclave in which the ruling presuppositions of progressive thought are questioned, often by the very people who themselves believe in them. Its pluralism and scepticism are exactly what we need right now.”
[See also: Mehdi Hasan on 110 years of the New Statesman]
Become a subscriber and support our truth-telling journalism from as little as £49 a year! Or get a free tote bag if you subscribe to our bundle plan. Visit newstatesman.com/110subscribe to explore our anniversary offers
This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue