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7 May 2007

Tony, the NS and me

The New Statesman has always had a close, if fraught, relationship with Labour. Here, three

By Staff Blogger

John Lloyd 1986-87

The New Statesman helped make me a Blairite before the word was invented – even though, in a brief editorship from 1986-87, I had a row with Tony Blair. Headhunted for the job by the late Philip Whitehead, chairman of the NS board, and encouraged by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, I turned down the job of US editor of the Financial Times, where I was working, and went to the Clerkenwell offices of the magazine.

I was to the right of everyone there. I had had a brief membership of the Communist Party and a longer affair with a tiny group called the British and Irish Communist Organisation in my twenties: but by my late thirties I was a social democrat – in these febrile times for Labour, a member on the party’s right wing. I had come to that through a renunciation of communism, and a sense of shame that I had attempted to embrace it: I had broken with the BICO with a speech to its annual meeting in Dublin, in which I argued that its attachment to communism was a dead end, and that its rich swath of publications and positions (one of which argued, most famously, that Ireland was two nations) were unremittingly hostile to much of the far left of the time, and were best understood as a democratic trend within the left. Losing the argument, I gave my allegiance and time to the Labour Party.

I was wholly unprepared for the culture I found at the New Statesman. It was dominated by journalists who saw themselves as radical, if not revolutionary, leftists. A number were in the vanguard of the gay and feminist movements – to whose general aims of equality and anti- discrimination I was sympathetic, but whose politics and divisions were not mine. A number of people, including those who worked hardest, were “non-political” leftists, including the talented John Rentoul, now in a senior position at the Independent on Sunday and the investigative reporter Duncan Campbell (not the Guardian‘s distinguished correspondent), whose series on the spy satellite Zircon caused the magazine to be raided by the Special Branch.

Early on, I wrote an editorial arguing that Labour should drop its policy of renouncing the nuclear deterrent: it caused a big fuss, especially coming a little before the 1987 election. The staff went into a long session of censure, which came to the board (dominated by the staff). I survived that, as well as a visit from Mary Kaldor, who asked me in a grand manner if I was aware of what I was doing. Later, I fired two people, both of whom, as it turned out, were gay (I knew it in the case of one, but not the other). My position became untenable and I returned to the FT, and to eastern Europe and then Moscow for the paper.

In Moscow in 1988, with the winds of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika blowing through the vast bulvars, late on successive nights in the FT‘s cockroach-infested office, I wrote a pamphlet, in the Counterblast series, called A Rational Advance for the Labour Party. Its proposals included more market in the public sector, the use of vouchers, an enthusiastic membership of the EU, a weakening of trade-union power and the retention of the nuclear deterrent – policies then regarded as highly revisionist. Some were positions adopted or under consideration by the Kinnock leadership. But they went further, and were heretical in appreciating the “insights and sharp opportunism of a radical (Thatcherite) conservatism” able to offer choice and opportunities to people dependent on bad state services.

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It was a counterblast, to be sure – against the leftism I had encountered at the NS. I had experienced that as composed of attitudes far removed from the aspirations of the majority, relentlessly schismatic, often irrational: at their best, good-hearted but impractical.

My time at the NS was, in part, the lonely stand of a principled pre-Blair Blairite, but it was also the mistake of one who had not done his homework on the nature of the magazine; one who was over-acquiescent at the beginning in the hope of change by gentle persuasion, then over-hasty in an effort to change everything; who, above all, did not make alliances with – did not spot – the rising new pragmatic trend in the Labour Party, whose most able tyros were Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

I knew the Blairs, for we had been on the general management of the same Labour party branch. I admired both, and still do. Soon after the nuclear weapons editorial, I met him with Brown, who was suspicious about my motives for running the editorial, but it may have been about its inquisitorial style. In any case, I didn’t follow it up.

Instead, I wrote another editorial, criticising the front-bench opposition Treasury team – under the indolent leadership of Roy Hattersley, then laying the basis of a successful career as an author. The most junior member of the team was Tony Blair – who rang me in a fury, seeing it as a personal betrayal. He was mostly wrong: journalism can’t be hostage to personal ties. But in one sense he was right: he and Brown were straining away from the Labour line, seeking another position which would, ultimately, wholly change the Labour Party and act as a model for modern social democracy elsewhere. I was close enough to have seen it, had I taken some care: but I missed it. I had lost reportorial sharpness in my dulling editorial battles: but at least I retained the sense to try to construct new Labourism for myself – and in a small way, anticipate Blair.

Ian Hargreaves 1996-98

I have two strong memories of the May 1997 general election. One is well preserved between the covers of the New Statesman‘s “historic landslide: collector’s edition”, in which I wrote an editorial which began: “Tony Blair can be our best prime minister since Churchill.”

The other is a photograph taken by Peter Marlow of Magnum showing the crowd outside the Royal Festival Hall during Blair’s victory speech. Everywhere, the camera detects joy. Except on my face. I am looking away from the platform: the only man in the crowd to have noticed that the jib of a giant crane is about to fall across the revellers.

In hindsight, these competing emotions feel justified. The scale of the 1997 victory simultaneously raised expectations and ensured that the most vivid tensions of the coming decade would sit within new Labour not outside it. The stage was set for an epic, but the theme music warned you to expect soap opera.

What specifically did the NS expect of the new government? Our editorial looked for “a long term of office in which we can transform education, reorder the welfare state, restore Britain’s voice and energy in global affairs and unbundle the terrible, tight knot of our over-centralised, secretive, culturally constipated state”.

A vivid assortment of writers made other points. Gavyn Davies plotted a subtle route to the euro; Adair Turner rejoiced in new Labour’s pro-market intentions; Geoff Mulgan and Julian Le Grand brooded on social exclusion and welfare; Tony Giddens wrapped it into a theory of everything. First prize for prescience goes to Jacques Attali who, in a feature on books for the new era, noted Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations as “an outstanding presentation of what is going to be the next conventional wisdom”. Gordon Brown gave an interview in which his key point seemed to be to take credit for despatching Martin Bell to Cheshire to splatter his white suit with Tory sleaze.

Editing the New Statesman in the year after the election confirmed the pathology of these tensions. Spin-doctors roared from both sides. Steve Richards, our political editor, and I would go to see the Prime Minister from time to time. My strongest recollection of these briefings is walking away, especially when the subject matter included Europe, convinced that the PM had said one thing, only to discover that Steve had apparently heard him say the opposite.

Meanwhile, foundations were laid for three great achievements. The first, the unprecedented and sustained growth in the British economy, arose not just from a brilliantly judged manoeuvre on interest rates, but from a category shift in Labour’s thinking about markets and globalisation. Our country has never been more prosperous.

The second (as Matthew Parris has argued) is that the government has quietly encouraged the country to set aside its moral prejudices against gay people, single parents and even to some extent against minority ethnic groups. None of these issues can be assumed dead in any country’s politics, but the fact that David Cameron has made his leadership of the opposition conditional upon forswearing them is a huge moral achievement.

Blair’s third triumph relates to the second: David Cameron. The Prime Minister has shifted the scope for Conservative thinking as surely as Margaret Thatcher shifted Labour’s.

There have, of course, been disappointments enough to justify some foreboding on election night. The decentralisation of the state remains untouched in its fundamentals, though the government’s accomplishments in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and through the Freedom of Information Act are important and irreversible countervailing facts.

The welfare state and the NHS are better funded than they were and the rising tide of economic success has raised almost all boats, especially those of older people. Quality of execution in the NHS, alas, remains at square one if not square minus one, and the tax and benefit system has been made more, not less complex. In education, there have been improvements, especially at the primary level, but the slope ahead still looks daunting.

Then there is the fault-line that connects new Labour’s well-meaning aspiration for a more “ethical” foreign policy, first articulated by Robin Cook, with the bottomless pit of Iraq. The connecting factors here are a poor capacity for strategic action across the government as a whole and a weakness of engagement with Europe. Both of these have been either aggravated or directly caused by the tensions between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

But without Iraq, I don’t think it’s difficult to conclude that from a progressive centre-left viewpoint, Blair’s achievements outstrip those of Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major.

Peter Wilby 1998-2005

Winston Churchill once observed that, as the deluge subsided after the First World War, during which the whole map of Europe had been redrawn, “we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”. The integrity of the Irish quarrel, he said, was “one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world”.

I feel rather the same way about the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown quarrel. As I roll back the Blair years – past 7/7 and 9/11, the Iraq and Kosovo wars, the rise of neoconservatism – and go back to May 1998, when I became New Statesman editor, I find that now familiar feud staring me in the face. As often happens, the news that I had got the job was conveyed to me before I was officially told. The source was a Blairite, who looked thoroughly upset.

Later, Charlie Whelan, Brown’s spin-doctor, told me Alastair Campbell, his counterpart at No 10, had expressed horror at the appointment of “that old Labour dinosaur” (actually, “dinosaur” wasn’t the word he used). Whether or not that was true, Whelan’s unconcealed glee – and his assurance, which I found distinctly unreassuring, that I had his full backing – told me everything that I needed to know.

I had been a Labour member for 35 years, had voted for Blair as leader, and had applauded the end of Clause Four. But it was assumed on all sides that I would be Brownite, a political label then emerging into common usage. My earlier editorship of the Independent on Sunday suggested I was unimpressed by Blair’s vacuous Third Way. Moreover, Geoffrey Robinson, the NS owner, was a Brown confidant and a Treasury minister, though he would cease to be the latter within months of my accession. In fact, Robinson, as ministerial rules required, took no official part in my appointment (which was the responsibility of a small holding trust) and, even after he left office, stayed aloof from editorial policy. But nobody cared about that.

The Brownites, I was told, hoped I would “destabilise Blair from the left”, though they kept their distance from me personally, presumably so as to avoid being associated with my dangerous project. The Blairites tried hard to undermine me, briefing journalists, including senior NS staff, about the disastrous direction of my editorship, and later supporting an attempt to buy the magazine off Robinson.

We did indeed publish much criticism of Blair, and frequently highlighted it on the cover, if only because at the time he seemed to get a remarkably easy ride from almost the entire national press. Yet the NS leaders, which I usually wrote, were, to a now surprising degree, supportive of Blair. For example, on a highly controversial welfare bill in 1999, we said that “the policy, if not the presentation, happens to be right” and added that, in social and economic policy, “almost everything this government has done has been in the right direction”. We supported student fees, specialist schools, identity cards and even, when he was Labour’s official rival to Ken Livingstone, Frank Dobson for mayor of London.

What drove me into more or less irreconcilable opposition were Blair’s wars. To my mind, a humanitarian war is a contradiction in terms and, if we want a better world, we should stop arms sales. The NS opposed the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq. On 9/11, I echoed Mark Twain on the terror in revolutionary France: in pondering “the horror of swift death”, we should not forget “lifelong death from hun ger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”, afflicting a hundred million rather than a few thousand. We were taught “diligently to shiver at and mourn over” the one, but had never learned to see the other “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

These views put the NS beyond the Blairite – and, for that matter, Brownite – pale. We retained writers who supported the wars, notably Nick Cohen, a constant Blair critic on domestic issues. The Blairites, however, wanted from the NS the same on-message demeanour as it demanded from Labour backbenchers.

People frequently asked if I was disillusioned with Blair. I replied that I had never been illusioned. He had been clear he would not govern on traditional Labour principles, and capital has a long record of seducing, and ultimately corrupting, centre-left leaders. But I could never have predicted the extent to which Blair would ally himself with an extreme right-wing US president, nor how far he would end up politically from most of his party’s supporters.

By the end of my editorship in 2005, a poll suggested the Liberal Democrats were getting more NS readers’ votes than Labour. Though editorials still advocated a Labour vote, we published a tactical voting guide headlined “How to give Blair a bloody nose”. All this would have been inconceivable seven years earlier. Blair sent the NS into bitter opposition to a Labour government. Some achievement.

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