Anthony Barnett, founding editor of openDemocracy, applied for the editorship of the New Statesman in 1986 after writing its “Islander” diary for two years. His bid was unsuccessful. Then labour correspondent at the Financial Times, John Lloyd, was hired in his place. Here in a piece written later that year for the benefit of those who had backed him for the job – who included John Berger, Angela Carter, James Curran, Tom Nairn, Salman Rushdie, Joan Smith, Marina Warner and Francis Wheen – he explains why the odds were stacked against him from the start. Ten years later, Lloyd wrote that “Barnett should have got it”.
I have just been admitted to a shady hall of fame, to join, among others, the company of Neal Ascherson, Bernard Crick, James Fenton and Gus MacDonald. But far from feeling flattered, it has given me the hump. All were at one time or another leading candidates for that poisoned chalice, the editorship of the New Statesman, but to none was the cup passed. In June this year it was my turn to “come second” in the judgement of the paper’s Board. You might have thought this was cause for celebration and I can’t deny an element of personal relief. Nor a considerable anger; an anger that is not simply personal.
Our culture dislikes the “mixing up” of politics and emotion. English public life, indeed, has an almost pathological fear of the confusion of reason and passion. Happily they continue to go together. Their combination gives me an interest in arguing that the New Statesman should not retain its present monopoly as Britain’s general left-wing weekly. For while it does, a weekly insult goes on being perpetrated with respect to the culture and character of radical and dissident life in Britain.
The new editor could change all that. But the appointment of a labour correspondent from the Financial Times, one who describes himself as “right-wing Labour”, was in effect a decision that the Statesman should stay on course. Indeed, John Lloyd told the Sunday Times that as editor he would ensure that the NS backed the further “realignment” of the Left, while he’d “restore the former glory” of the paper’s back half. This is hardly a radical programme.
Under the banner of change I stormed one of the fortifications of the labour movement and was rebuffed. Naturally, you might think. But I want to tell the story of that experience. True, during the process I kept quiet and “played the game”. Now I am supposed to swallow the outcome as if it were just an individual matter – after all, I probably didn’t have the right smell, or “experience”. Losers should keep a stiff upper lip.
Stiff lips help keep the system in order, so I feel I should let mine relax. I underwent a painful lesson in “how the system works”. At the beginning those involved in the key decision about the future of the said, as no doubt they still say, that they want change. None felt inclined to look again to Fleet Street. All thought that the paper should be to the left rather than the right of the Labour Party, as befits a small radical weekly, and so on. But when it came to it, these individual expressions of a desire for change found little of the necessary boldness or determination. They became a kind of cover, a way of ducking out: “Of course, I want change but…”.
To put it another way, Lloyd fits in with the editorial appointments made by the Statesman‘s board since the early sixties. He was the predictable choice. Yet when the process of selection began, none of those involved would have said that they wanted a safe or predictable candidate. The fatalism of the centre held them in its grip; apparently despite them, the system did its work.
One of the six candidates shortlisted initially was Mary Kaldor. I don’t agree with her about NATO, say, and she, unlike myself, is not only a member of the Labour Party but also a senior advisor on its policy committees. But she has a real interest in new ideas and a commitment to policies. Had she got the job I’d have been annoyed but I’d have worked for her if she’d so wished and I’d not be writing anything like this, because she too was a candidate for change. As it was, she had a better sense of the possible than I and withdrew. Three candidates went through the to the final board meeting after an initial session with the selection committee. John Lloyd, myself and David Leigh – the latter a star Observer journalist but one who’d never written for the Statesman nor experienced the world of editing small publications. There was a choice of two. And that choice was, in the best sense, political.
Having already completed more than half of Paul Johnson’s trajectory, Lloyd has definite qualifications. He has been a hippy editor of Ink and a member of BICO, the British and Irish Communist Organization. The latter was an earnest Stalinist groupuscule that strove both to repopularize the old mass murderer and glorify the British State. Those who reach middle-age without a past do not deserve a future. I am afraid, however, that it was not for his past that John Lloyd was preferred, but for his present role and thanks to the active support of Kinnock’s office.
This is not the first time that the New Statesman has been inflected by the suggestions of the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. According to its official history, it was A J Balfour, a former Conservative Party leader who thought of the paper’s name. From the beginning, then, like so much else in the United Kingdom, it had a semi-official status. But – and this is what made it extraordinary – after Kingsley Martin became editor in 1931, the paper began to make some money. It gained a true radical status and sales of nearly 40,000 before the Second War War. It emerged in 1945 with a circulation of 70,000 and a pre-eminent position as the Left’s cultural weekly, and retained sales of between 70 and 90,000 for the next twenty years. In 1966 sales began to drop and fell every year since then, bar only 1979 and 1980 when Bruce Page checked the decline.
This is a very odd pattern – to be hugely successful for thirty years and then relentlessly unsuccessful for the next twenty. The two phenomena are surely related: the success becoming a jinx from which Martin’s successors could not recover. Perhaps the key moment was the period after John Freeman ousted the faltering Martin in 1961. In his own words, Freeman turned the paper away from “preaching” and temperamental “irresponsibility”, towards a “rethink” of “its attitudes towards the modern world”. Thus the paper became responsible and modernist when Harold Wilson took over as Labour’s leader. It was Wilson, of course, who denounced the “candy floss” inefficiency of capitalism and pledged that Labour would remove “deadwood” in the boardrooms; a phrase to which I will return.
Freeman saw the paper’s sales grow towards a solid 90,000, helped by Labour taking office in October. 1964 and winning a large parliamentary majority in 1966. Then it all fell apart. It can hardly have been an accident that the decline of the New Statesman dates from the very year that Labour had its first large, peace time, working parliamentary majority during a period of world economic growth … only to throw away the opportunity. The Statesman‘s long crisis illuminates the chronically arthritic version of the English disease that afflicts the old Left.
One aspect concerns the instrumental use of papers and journals for non-journalistic ends. In an evocative essay published in Paul Barker’s New Society, R W Johnson described the reaction of his American friend Mike to the New Statesman the week America began to bomb Vietnam in 1965. There was not a word about it. “This mag is not left-wing, it’s not intellectual, but by God it’s British”, Mike stormed. R W Johnson continues: “Then its editor, John Freeman, was made ambassador to India”. That was in 1966. Freeman said he insisted upon the independence of the NS from the Labour Party. But he personally preferred an off ical posting to the editorship of a little magazine, and (Johnson implies) trimmed the paper’s approach accordingly.
The lesson – the need to separate political and journalistic ambitions – was lost on the board which in 1970 was to ask Richard Crossman to replace Freeman’s own successor Paul Johnson. Crossman promptly oversaw a collapse in sales to 50,000. But something more general had ‘gone wrong’ of which he was simply the victim. The entire approach of ‘modernization’ had disintegrated under Wilson, as Labour clung to the ways and illusions of Westminster.
For a paper in the New Statesman‘s position there were two ways to respond to developments after 1966. One would have been to insist upon the validity of the new forces and energies emerging in Britain, that Wilson had initially tapped. This would have meant a break away from officialdom and respectability to a new kind of responsibility; to an anti-institutional radicalism. Oddly enough Paul Johnson was in all ways but one perfectly fitted for such a role when he succeeded Freeman in 1966. He had actually grasped what was needed a decade before. Writing in Convictions in 1958, he urged: “it is about time we destroyed the British class system”. He went on to insist, most persuasively, that this did not mean economic reforms which could always be absorbed. Indeed, he argued, Labour’s welfare programme had intensified social hierarchy, and that the British system could always neutralise the forces ranged against it. What was needed, Paul Johnson claimed, before any further economic measures, was an assault upon the institutions:
I would therefore abolish the monarchy and House of Lords, dispossess … the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge; end the regimental system in the army … disestablish the Church; replace the Inns of Court … abolish the Honours List. What is more, we should take the offensive on all these fronts simultaneously: for if the apostles of social change eschew violence, they must embrace speed. Our society is a many-headed hydra: it is no use chopping off the heads singly, for while you are dealing with the second or third, the first will grow again.
In checking this quotation I notice, ruefully, that Johnson also states: “A new society cannot expect to inherit the institutions of the old … It must create new ones”.
Such an approach would have been a fine way for a radical weekly to have responded to the debacle of Wilsonism, provided that certain economic institutions – the role of sterling, the place of the Treasury – were added to Johnson’s list. For Labour’s failure pointed to one radical response short of the embrace of revolutionary socialism. Either the magazine had to distance itself from Labour and attack it for not being modern enough, for failing to deliver its reforms, or it had to abandon a fundamental commitment to progress altogether. Paul Johnson didn’t fudge matters: he went straight for the latter course.
Another answer, (though itself a half-fudge) to what was “going wrong” was entry into Europe. It held out the hope of institutional change that did not demand an explicit confrontation with constitutional realities – a kind of modernization from without. If the magazine had adopted a continental style and an unequivocal embrace of certain ideas about Europe it might have gained a genuine intellectual and cultural distinction.
Despite the derisory outcome of the Wilson approach that it had initially endorsed, the paper embraced the only other alternative to the crisis of the sixties. It sought to preserve its own ‘traditional’ place. It too had become a “national institution” and regarded itself as such. To follow Paul Johnson’s programme of 1958, in other words, it would now have had to abolish itself – which at the very least meant to change its name. But it was fatally cushioned by past success, when it had built up enormous reserves. Like the UK itself the New Statesman was willing and able to sustain continuous decline rather than change.
Why was this so? How could it be that the organ which had been one of the most socialist elements in the post-war epoch of reform should now become such a conservative outpost both politically and culturally?
To answer this question it is necessary to understand Kingsley Martin’s distinctive, dual legacy. In one sense he ran a genuinely radical paper, with its alliance of Liberal, Socialist, Labour and pro-Communist contributors. There was a touch of an English popular front about this and Martin insisted that the paper be anti-anti-Communist. But at the same time it was an ‘insiders’ magazine, a part of the Fabian-organized and Bloomsbury-cultivated ‘progressive’ consensus which had inspired the welfare state. This was one of the things that joined the front and back halves of the paper. This division – now so anachronistic – was then seen as merely a “pantomime horse”, a familiar, even homely, creature because both parts genuinely shared the same skin.
If back and front had a political attitude in common it was a convinced anti-colonialism. The crucial identifying mark of the post-war New Statesman was its wholehearted support for the independence movements in the colonies. This was not simply a matter of foreign policy, it was an argument about the future of Britain – the nation’s ‘character’ and identity. A future without colonialism meant a very different country. But not a totally different one. The passion to end colonialism drew liberals, socialists and communists together, for it meant a world with less explicit exploitation and inequality. But for the liberals it was also an attempt to reinforce perceived traditions of enlightened patronage that were very Bloomsbury indeed. Britain’s moral distinction would be confirmed and even reinforced by the style with which it bestowed freedom on its hitherto subject peoples. This was the New Statesman to which Earl Mountbatten privately subscribed and to which Eric Hobsbawm contributed an excellent, pseudonymous jazz column.
The approach splashed over into the creation of CND in 1957. Kingsley Martin was a member of its founding committee and the movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament was in part inspired by an article of J B Priestly’s published in the NS. As A J P Taylor, also one of its original proponents, recalls, the argument was “watertight” as the bomb was wicked, idiotic and dangerous. But: “We made one mistake….We thought that Great Britain was still a great power whose example would affect the rest of the world. Ironically we were the last Imperialists”. By giving away the nuclear symbol of power the ideologues of the early CND hoped to ensure Britain’s “moral leadership” in the world. In this sense most remained deeply wedded to the official country and its traditional elitism.
Like the early CND, anti-colonialism could also be conservative, as it sought to protect and preserve the home country during the traumatic conclusion to a century in which Great Britain had been the world’s No. 1. Today there is much talk about the end of “consensus politics”, which is taken to mean the construction of the welfare state and the old commitment to full employment. But these were not the only basis for all-party agreement. Foreign policy (including NATO and the US alliance) and the concession of independence to the colonies were just as important. The latter was not entirely consensual: India went early, but there were crises in ‘Nyasaland’, Kenya, Cyprus, not to speak of Suez. All parties, however, numbered those who were enlightened (and looked at the New Statesman) just as they all included hard liners. More important, because colonial independence was inevitable it had to become all-party policy: it was the “wind of change” to which the system bent, in order to stay rooted at the same spot.
But by the mid-sixties the issue was over. Unlike the welfare state or full-employment, the question could not remain alive as the colonies were no more. There was Vietnam, but that was America’s war. There was Rhodesia, but opposition to white ‘independence’ there meant not withdrawal but a more controversial exercise of power. Thus, at the same time as Wilson’s economic modernization dissolved into tacky humiliation, the key platform of the New Statesman’s radicalism disappeared from the agenda. The paper was left to comment upon the world from a position of superiority, with no new world to fight for: an inherently conservative posture.
Its response was to cling ever closer to both its own past and to the skirts of Westminster. Paul Johnson has recounted how he wanted Richard Crossman to succeed him in 1970, in part because he felt that a talented man had been unjustly treated when – as a senior staffer in the fifties – he had sought to become Kingsley Martin’s deputy and successor. (Martin had refused, telling him: “I would never trust you to put the New Statesman first … you’re a politician”.) Martin’s warnings were borne out, but in any case Crossman was himself played out. When he was secretly offered and had agreed to take the editorial chair after the coming General Election, he noted in his Cabinet Diary for 1969 that, if he wasn’t “bored” with everything he preferred to read The Spectator.
In 1972 Crossman was replaced by his deputy, Anthony Howard, who promptly removed the photographs Crossman had introduced with little sense of craft. Howard took the paper back to its more traditional appearance and oversaw a professional and talented operation, and a much slowed but nonetheless continuous fall in sales through to 1978. His explanation, and it is not completely groundless, was that the Sunday papers had so improved upon their own cultural and features pages that they had undercut demand for the weeklies.
Nonetheless, there is something strange about the decline in the sales of the . It began precisely when the paper’s natural market started to expand, as the first wave of graduates from the huge growth in higher education completed their degrees in the mid-sixties. If the paper had simply retained average sales of between 70 and 50,000 it would still have given a lot of ground in terms of its old predominance when “everybody” read it. As things are its sales have now sunk to 27,000 with trade sales of only 18,000 a week. They are a third of what they were. But if one takes the growing circulation of the Guardian as one definition of the outer limits of the Statesman‘s potential, its sales have really sunk to a ninth of their earlier size.
To put it another way, a considerable expansion of the left and radical intelligentsia has taken place since the sixties, thanks especially to the women’s movement, and the alternative politics of CND and ecology. In movies and television and in numerous specialist journals an unprecedented variety of voices and talent, far more extensive than in the sixties, has come of age. The success of Marxism Today and New Socialist, despite being tied party magazines, is evidence of both the journalist energy and the demand on the Left in the eighties. To have contracted steadily throughout such a period is a sign a major failure of political intelligence – one so great that it cannot be held against any individual: rather, the New Statesman had turned into its own gravedigger.
There was one bold attempt to break the stranglehold of the past. After Anthony Howard moved on in 1978, the Board faced a choice of Neal Ascherson, who called for the necessary break from Westminster; James Fenton, who argued that the paper’s decline was irreversible but that it should at least go down decently; and Bruce Page. The intellectuals were lucid but unpalatable, so Page was chosen to spend the paper’s way out if its crisis. One of the country’s most innovative journalists, he had been ousted from the Sunday Times where he had created the ‘Insight column.
Australian-formed, instinctively republican, Page was a radical choice, even if he was a ‘big name’.
Bruce Page commands respect for his editorial courage. And he was right to think that a radical readership in Britain does not want armchair ‘good writing’ in the old fashioned style (they want a different kind of good writing, but that’s another matter). Page’s real ambition was to turn the tables on the Sundays and beat them at their own game – not culturally but in terms of news. And through his support for Duncan Campbell’s exposés, which certainly no other editor would have backed at the time, he did indeed succeed in returning the New Statesman to the centre of national debate. But it simply could not provide the resources he needed for such a strategy. He once told me that the New Statesman was “more difficult to edit than the Observer“, and I thought, “For you, Bruce, for you”.
The lesson, I argued in my application to the Board this year, was that further illusions of grandeur could prove fatal and that to be realistic the had to “think small”. In the meantime, for the four years after Page resigned in 1982, Hugh Stephenson never gained his bearings at all. At our first meeting, when I asked him about his plans, he told me that the one rule newspaper history had established was that “readers do not like change”. I was quite silenced by the quiet yet utterly emphatic style of this assertion, and presumed (wrongly I now believe) that this must indeed apply to Fleet Street. But even then, it did occur to me, if the readers and potential readers of the New Statesman could not abide change, what hope could there possibly be for socialism in Britain?
In 1982, Stephenson inherited sales figures so low as to threaten the paper’s viability. In such situations a philosophy of “no change” is of little help. Journalistically, one golden opportunity after another was allowed to pass: the 1983 general election and its aftermath; the whole campaign over the abolition of the GLC and the other socialist municipalities; and the year long miners’ strike. All these were disasters for the Left; but disasters can sell newspapers. Writing as “Islander”, I began a fortnightly diary for the Statesman – itself a rather odd notion in a weekly – just after the miners’ strike began. With people arguing, and shifting their views, and supporting the miners, and loathing Scargill, all at the same time, up and down the country, the drama was palpable on the Left. But in the Statesman a kind of uncomfortable embarrassment reigned – as in Kinnock’s office; it just wanted the issue to GO AWAY. This was an eminently understandable point of view in electoral terms for the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. But for a paper whose immediate concern was some thousands of radicals on the left and not the millions in the middle of the road, such a response involved an abandonment of its actual responsibility. As if in compensation (and certainly in flight from reality) in the middle of the miners’ strike the shrinking New Statesman tried to expand by buying the ailing New Society from IPC. I was told on the phone they were celebrating their coup, and determined to write a polite item in ‘Islander’ expressing my doubts. It was the only mention the readers were given of a step bound to change the role of their paper, perhaps fatally; the totality of its reserves of around £200,000, were to be lost in the exercise.
There is no need to describe the way Hugh Stephenson’s New Statesman withdrew like a shrivelled snail into its shell. One example is sufficient to illustrate its lack of elementary editorial imagination. When Rees Mogg’s Arts Council published The Glory of the Garden, a Thatcherite statement of political policy towards the arts, exactly the kind of issue the New Statesman readership is concerned about, the paper made no mention of it whatever.
Yet these things are never just individual matters. At one point Stephenson tried to be bolder. In 1983, he supported the ‘dream ticket’ of Kinnock as Labour leader and Hattersley as deputy. The latter, holding the brief of Shadow Chancellor, then made six policy speeches, the final one of which launched the idea of a National Investment Bank. Hattersley proposed fiscal measures designed to claw back British funds from overseas and the NIB would invest them in the United Kingdom. Stephenson, who had been business editor of The Times, argued that the problem was not one of raising money, for the City does not pose an impediment to raising even billions for investment. The real problem is what to invest in, and how, and who will carry it through. This was a sharp criticism but also a serious and constructively posed one. Hattersley was cajoled into replying and showed himself pathetically displeased, as he evaded the argument with a tone of injured affront. It was quite clear from his reply that, even four years away from an election, Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer was emphatically not interested in serious public discussion of his plans.
I hit the same problem in a more trivial way in the diary. ‘Islander’ noted a remark of Peter Kellner’s that while Kinnock had made a grand success of his public relations, not least by appearing on a Tracy Ullman video, he still lacked “a vision” for the future. “What is Kinnock’s vision?”, I asked, and I asked him for a brief friendly interview and a prepared answer. Let’s say that I was stonewalled for months. One thing leads to another. I wrote a critical assessment of his approach which the Statesman published in a low key way before the 1985 Party Conference. Later, I was commissioned by the Labour Party’s own monthly, New Socialist, to develop the argument in an essay which was excerpted in the Guardian and led Kinnock himself to describe me in that paper’s letters’ page as “bilious”. For some reason (I think in part because I can’t be dismissed as a Trotskyist or “ex-Trotskyist”, and because I was not a supporter of Scargill) I really got under Kinnock’s skin.
This seems to have ensured his active support for an alternative candidate to myself after Stephenson resigned. Yet in editorial terms, so far as the is concerned, Kinnock’s approach had already done considerable damage, whether or not he should now be thanked for saving the paper from my influence. In effect Stephenson offered the paper to the “dream ticket” as a vehicle for their thinking. Had it become essential reading for those who wished to follow the development of Labour’s plans as the party readies itself for power, some political importance and even excitement might still have returned to the magazine. Stephenson was too passive an editor and too responsible a supporter of Kinnock to make the paper a centre for such debate, which must necessarily include disagreement to be readable. For his part, Kinnock was too concerned with moderation and compromise to generate the intellectual commitment to policies and ideas that demand and sustain debate. The contrast with the development of Thatcherism is painfully evident.
After the Statesman published my initial piece on Kinnock, Stephenson suggested that ‘Islander’ should come to an end but that I might contribute a Diary once every four or five weeks under my own name. He wanted younger people to do the diary and thought the paper should become more “punk”, he explained. It was still losing circulation, older readers were dying off, and the under 25s did not find it attractive. He had to turn it in their direction, he argued. I said I’d consider the matter, and we met a couple of weeks later. It was difficult enough to write a fortnightly diary in a weekly (I said). I would rather sign out ‘Islander’ with a Christmas farewell. I then drew my breath and very gently and as constructively as possible asked if I could suggest my own response to his plan to turn around the fall in sales. The paper had not “saturated” the political market as he had suggested and should not seek the youth sector. Rather it should try to return to being “necessary reading”. Far too many of those who ought to read it had stopped and the critical thing was to win them back first. Only then would young people look to the NS. I’d known Stephenson and written for him for two years. We had got on OK, it seemed, and I enjoyed talking with him about the Government and about Fleet Street, when he could become quite animated. But I was baffled by his response to my brief argument for an alternative approach to the one he was taking with respect to the Statesman‘s problems. He said quite simply, “I agree”. Then, he sighed, “one tries hard and the circulation still falls by another thousand”. There was nothing more to say; all I could do was nod.
When I described the encounter to an old friend of Stephenson’s he commented: “very Winchester”. But that school has a tradition of rhetoric – its old boys may mean what they say, not but usually they are only too keen to say it. It took me some weeks to realize that I had been the victim of a Foreign Office training. Maybe the procedure is written down in an old handbook for Governor Generals. If the natives get difficult and come and complain, especially if they dream up any plans that smell of self-government, never disagree. That can only lead to an unseemly argument. It worked completely on me – I was quite confabulated. Later, I learnt that Stephenson had hired Neville Brody, who designed The Face to do a job to the Statesman. Only then did I realize that “I agree” meant “I see no reason to discuss my plans with the likes of you!” Stephenson had decided that the readership had failed him and was determined to elect another.
He was saved from this preposterous course by a muffled revolt from the staff which was capped by Francis Wheen, whose turn it was to write the ‘Media Column’. Wheen took the NS itself as his subject for the week. He suggested that the notion of a New Faceman was foolish; that the staff had declared no confidence in the editor (an exaggeration); and that the readers had done likewise by leaving the paper in their thousands. Stephenson could only have carried Wheen’s piece had he been able to write alongside it a defence of his own record and of his new plans. The Foreign Office has no protocol for such situations. None, that is except a face-saving retreat: haul down the flag in good order and give oneself a medal.
Wheen was seen by Phillip Whitehead, the Chairman of the Board, who persuaded him to withdraw his threat to publish his column elsewhere now that the Statesman had censored it. Whitehead assured Wheen that he understood the situation. But Stephenson should not be hurt unnecessarily. And a few days later he did indeed announce his resignation as a personal decision.
I was delighted. It seemed to me that the paper could not survive an embarrassing ‘relaunch’ of the kind Stephenson had conceived. I was still keen to edit it myself. This is difficult to write about. It would be absurd to deny that editing involves an enjoyment of power over text and pictures, as well as their presentation into a coherent, marketable object whose value is in turn confirmed by the struggle for sales. But text and pictures are other people’s work, and editorial power means something for those whose subscriptions are involved. Prestige and influence accompany the inevitable hatreds and jealousies that focus on editors. To want such a job is to admit to ambition and the desire for office.
However, British ruling class culture sees all this as rather distasteful and unpleasant – really wanting something is held against people. This is one of the smaller reef-knots by which the old hegemony stays tied in place. Connections are always to be preferred. Within the ‘old boy,’ network (or even the ‘new boy’ one, as the style reproduces itself) terrific ambitions are at work, of course, but these are not allowed to became too obvious to those outside the clubs concerned. In democracies people “run” for office, in Britain you are supposed to “stand” for positions, which are then bestowed upon you. By temperament I run. Far from being ashamed of this, it seems to me that the hypocrisy of those who wait upon their connections can be a lot more revolting.
And so I started to run. I was not altogether without “connections”. And some things had to be established. First, that the Board realized that the paper was on the verge of bankruptcy – that it had run out of resources to fund a long-haul “improvement” that relied upon traditional formulae. Radical measures had been needed for a long time, politically they could only stem from one decision: to break away from being “responsible” – from trying to be the BBC of the Left. Half a million pounds in the reserves, however, turn socialist trustees gray. Now, in 1986, the material precondition for the necessary decision existed: there was no money in the bank.
The staff, underpaid and fearful for their jobs, could be nothing but conservative, if despite themselves. Many are very hard-working and have given their best to a paper that has been poorly led and managed. I had some support among them, but those against me were much more strategically placed. Although there were four staff with voting rights on the board, and another two allowed to be present, as a group they looked to the independent trustees for leadership.
There are four independent trustees, or directors, on the Board of the New Statesman: Phillip Whitehead, the Chairman; Ursula Owen, the Managing Director of Virago; Christopher Hird, who was once the paper ‘s deputy editor and was on as a SOGAT nomination; and John Garrett, a tough ex-Labour MP (he lost in seat in 1983), once shadow spokesman for Industry and currently a leading management consultant. Both directly and indirectly I learnt that they were attracted to the idea of taking a risk to get the out of its hole. Whether that would mean me or not, time would tell, but given the inherent conservatism of the staff – of which they were all aware – there would have been no point in proceeding if the independent directors were also looking to play safe.
The key person was necessarily the Chairman. I first saw Phillip Whitehead in action at a New Statesman editorial meeting in early 1979. Then a Labour MP, he’d been invited along as an outsider. I was there (in the background) because I was writing a series of pieces about the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. Asked for his view of the parliamentary scene, Whitehead said that there would be a vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government, that the nationalists would abstain, that Labour would lose the vote, a General Election would follow and Thatcher would win. I was surprised, as much by a man whose judgement could be measured, as by what he predicted. Events bore him out and I was suitably impressed. Later he became an acquaintance with whom I lunched. A “right-winger” out of commitment rather than complacency, whose assessments were always careful and interesting. He sometimes arrested my idealism rather sharply, and that too is refreshing.
Whitehead joins two roles: that of a shrewd television journalist with a strong belief in democracy, and that of a loyal Labour politician who wants to get back to Parliament (and into the Cabinet where, in terms of talent, he has every right to be). The paradox is that the journalist is lucid enough to see through the pretentions of the politician, yet the latter has a prior claim over the former.
Soon after Stephenson resigned there was a public meeting at Goldsmiths College at which Alistair Milne, the Director General of the BBC, gave a subtle account of his perspective on television, arguing that editorial freedom should be exercised not for any particular point of view but “on behalf of the public interest as a whole”. The respondent was Phillip Whitehead. Public service broadcasting had a responsibility to “cover the waterfront”, he argued, especially because of the way the press now failed in this task. Very different viewpoints have to be got across. Then he started to talk about Westminster. It was a mistake to think that this now constituted the range of the waterfront. It no longer stood for the actual people: “Parliament is representative of times past”. When I heard Whitehead say that I thought, “this man might actually let me do the Statesman“. Not least, I suppose, because I heard a clear echo of a familiar argument.
A few days later we bumped into each other at the corner of Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road. He seemed in good spirits. We talked about the . He said Stephenson now hated Wheen. I praised his Goldmiths speech, and reminded him that in my Is Farewell/ in the recent Christmas issue of the Statesman, I’d argued that a key problem for the Left was that the country’s “representative institutions are misrepresentation of what we are” – of course I didn’t quote verbatim, but I did say that the New Statesman itself had ceased to be representative of what the Left was saying and doing, just as he had put it about Parliament and the people. Whitehead concurred. Both then and indirectly he seemed genuinely open to my candidacy.
Looking back, it may also be that the Goldsmiths meeting had already helped to seal my fate. Hugh Stephenson was there, it was the first time I’d met him since he’d resigned and he looked pale. After the lectures had started Joan Smith and Francis Wheen arrived, and at a break in the proceedings sat down next to me. Suddenly from across the ampitheatre of the large packed lecture-hall, I felt the blazing look of Stephenson, glaring in our direction. Normally his eyes are noticeable for their opacity. I understood that he regarded me with contempt after the encounter when he “agreed” with my questioning the wisdom of his chosen course. Now it seemed like hatred, for I was a companion of the vile Wheen. Indeed, much later, I learnt that he had gone into the office and, after some poisonous gossip, declared that he was willing to stay on as editor if this would save the paper from Barnett! In a long selection process it is very dangerous to be so marked down by the departing office-holder.
I wasn’t worried at the time. If the first thing had been to learn whether the independent directors were open to a radical change of direction, the second, and more important, was to establish whether such a change was possible at all.
Certainly the social, political and cultural forces exist that could give a radical weekly sales of eight to ten per cent of the Guardian: that is, average sales of 40,000 to 50,000. There are a number of different ways of looking at this, not least because any such readership will come from a range of constituencies. The example of the GLC, and some of the other abolished municipal councils, showed that an enabling socialism, that was feminist and also genuinely tried to support minorities, could be popular in a new fashion for the Left. I have published some sharp criticism of the oppressive pretentiousness and opportunism that flourished on GLC cash. So I am not starry eyed about it. The point is, however, that what happened in London showed that a city socialism which was not bureaucratic could be both creative and successful, for all its faults. Its decisive novelty was precisely its break from Labourism – from the heavy loyalty that places party and union card before talent and ideas, and even needs. At its best the new municipal socialism put together a political and cultural alliance that alone is a model for a weekly.
At the same time, nationally, CND has logged up to 90,000 members and locally some hundreds of thousands more are affiliated to it, and they are only part of the green movement. Channel 4, though itself far from left-wing, has demonstrated the energy and diversity of radical arguments. Higher education is mainly liberal-conservative, but it has seen a considerable maturing of socialist and left-wing thought and research. The schoolteachers – who are crucial for the New Statesman‘s sales – have been locked in a fantastically difficult and interesting dispute with the State. Only eighteen months ago the miners strike demonstrated a strength of support for a militant stand against the government, a strength whose temper is nowhere reflected in the national media.
Another way of outlining the readership of a general left-wing weekly is in terms of issues. Such a paper must address itself to “the nation” rather than any party; it has to be “from but not for the Left”, I argued in my application. For the NS to thus gain a sense of editorial direction I stressed that it should place a primary emphasis on the “struggle for a democratic constitution”. This is the theme that should succeed the paper’s anti-colonialism. It means a radicalism which, by running through from support for the European Court of Human Rights, via equality for women and freedom of information, to regional devolution, and democratic second chamber, has an unavoidable wiff of interest in proportional representation, and therefore a cross-party appeal to all those who desire political change.
Its national politics may define but will be quite insufficient to sustain a general weekly. Its international politics are just as important in winning and retaining what is a relatively small readership. Nuclear disarmament, I suppose, sums up what such an approach should be in two words – symbolic as well as practical. In addition to meaning what they say, they stand for a European approach in the END sense; for opposition to the grotesque inequality that sends us Star Wars alongside famine; and a democratic end of the dominance of the West.
I could go on, not least about the critical matter of any such paper’s culture. This is also a practical, editorial question, one which only starts to be answered by writers. This was where I turned first, to see if some of my friends and acquaintances with a track record would want to write for a new style weekly, that aimed to have the kind of appeal I’ve just outlined. For if they didn’t feel such a need there would be no point in proceeding.
So right after Stephenson resigned there was a discreet gathering at Salman Rushdie’s. It included James Curran, who had created New Socialist from scratch; Angela Carter; Marina Warner; and Mike Rustin. Neal Ascherson, Hugh Brady, Mary Kaldor and others were unable to come at such short notice, but were helpful on the phone. Though I was tense, the evening was really enjoyable and full of ideas. Now, it can be hard to transform ideas into practice: while it may be easy to get writers to say “sure, I’d like to write for that”, delivery of good copy is altogether different. Nonetheless, with degrees of scepticism and enthusiasm, getting the paper back to a circulation of 40,000 seemed worth a try.
But how to win control of the paper? One idea was that I should indeed run openly as if the editorship was a public office, with a manifesto around which we could “mobilize writers”. This would be less a document endorsing me personally, more a demand for a different kind of New Statesman. James Curran was particularly enthusiastic about this proposal, which struck him as completely original. At the same time he was also the most realistic about the obstacle that would have to be overcome. “Kinnock’s office will do everything possible to stop Barnett”, he warned. I was uncertain about the idea of a manifesto, and anyway it looked as if it would be at least two months before a decision was taken (actually it was longer). Mobilization might just backfire. “Don’t peak too early” warned Rushdie.
So Curran had a talk with Whitehead and told him that some writers were behind Barnett and were thinking of going public. Under no conditions should anything so perilous be risked, Whitehead pleaded. He “really understood” the situation, but such publicity could only be damaging, not least to Barnett’s own very real chances of getting the post. Curran accepted this and congratulated me on my caution. Afterwards he deeply regretted – indeed he was choked by – our failure to act on iconoclastic lines, and to involve those on the Left, from theatre and television to academia and ecology, in a real campaign to change the paper’s character and role.
All one could do (therefore) was to wait while the established process unfolded, prepare as strong an application as possible, and lobby discreetly. The ‘s procedure for appointing an editor starts by advertising the post. A selection committee that includes staff representatives then vets the applicants and makes a short list of those to be interviewed. After that the committee sends a final short list to the full board – in the past with a recommendation. The advertisement asked simply for letters of application. An outline of the paper’s finances and sales would then be sent to those asked for an interview, so that their editorial and business plans could also be considered.
I wrote a careful initial application which began by pointing out that there was no longer a unified ‘Left’ in Britain but rather strands of different sorts of radicalism that a weekly needed to unite. The Statesman was worth saving if it could do this. Its “host awful liability” – that it was a “national institution” – was also its main asset: to transform it back into a radical independent voice would be better than starting something new.
Can we (I asked) turn round a national institution so that it represents the future rather than the past? Can we do to the New Statesman what the Labour councillors and their recruits did to the GLC, and transform what is perceived as in the main dull and irrelevant into something that is enjoyable and surprising, hence important?
My answer was that it should be tried.
Six of us were shortlisted for interviews on Monday 23 June. We were sent a hopelessly inadequate account of the paper’s finances, which failed to include a figure for its overheads and therefore gave no figure for its losses. When I complained, Whitehead encouraged me to find out more about the real state of affairs. I then drew up a ten page document on the priorities that would face a new editor of a paper “confronted by a crisis of survival”. Much of it was about marketing and promotion. I also argued for the “sense of direction” discussed above.
The first interview went very well. But I was not recommended by the committee, which simply sent on myself and the two Fleet Steet journalists to the Board meeting on Thursday June 26th. At the same time the staff had also met on Monday. Among them a campaign was led against me by Sarah Benton, the paper’s deputy-editor. She had already resigned as deputy editor in despair, after Stephenson had refused to allow her to take the paper over. Now he had resigned, she wanted to return to being deputy-editor. But (it seems) she had no intention of working with me, even as a staff writer.
There was a more important centre of resistance to my appointment which also sought John Lloyd’s endorsement: Kinnock’s office. I had tried to mollify his hostility. At the CND ‘coming out’ party I had even asked Bruce Kent to “make peace” between us, and he arranged for Kinnock to shake me by the hand whereupon I told him that I looked forward to meeting him in Downing Street. He gave me one of his famous winks. The Observer reported that Kinnock was personally involved in lobbying for Lloyd, and Lloyd himself told Newsnight on the evening of his appointment that the Labour Party had helped him after he had applied. Some say that Roy Hattersley was also on the blower. Certainly he used his column in Punch to announce that “Mt Lloyd deserves all the help he can get”. Perhaps its readers thought he was trying to be funny, but it’s hard to tell with Punch.
At the same staff meeting the Statesman‘s political editor Peter Kellner announced that he would resign if I got the job. He implied, it seems, that I would not want him anyway – though this was not the case – and he also felt that our political differences would be too great for him to continue. When Stephenson first resigned, I understood that Kellner felt that I would be an interesting appointment. I never expected him to support me, but I was not then persona non grata in his eyes; and of course anyone could see that my appointment would make Kellner’s role more not less important to the balance of the paper.
I was unaware of the strength of the opposition. Perhaps because it seemed so obvious to me that appointing an editor indebted to the Leader’s office would hardly be applying the kiss of independence to a dying paper. Anyway, the New Statesman had tried appointing from Fleet Street twice running, one highly original and one carefully professional journalist. Both found themselves quite unable to adapt to the realities of a small magazine. What it needed was a political entrepreneur, or so I argued in my interview.
Furthermore, since being shortlisted I’d been working on what really mattered. I suppose it was naive of me to think that inexperienced directors and incapable senior staff would respond to an actual demonstration of a new kind of paper. However, I wanted to work out my ideas in more detail, especially the key editorial problem of overcoming the crippling division between the back and front halves – between ‘politics’ and ‘culture’ – inherited by the New Statesman from its Fabian and Bloomsbury days.
This is one of the most interesting and fascinating tasks for any weekly whose role is to take a certain distance from society, to probe, analyse, comment upon, and laugh at its larger (or smaller) meanings. The way a magazine takes this distance, its style of so doing, is akin to its body language. Editorially, it involves questions of form, and the energy of the layout, as much as any particular content.
The New Statesman has a division between front and back halves rooted in the traditions when print was the dominant medium in society. We live in a different age: the nature of the Reagan presidency is as much a subject for a “television critic” as a “political correspondent”. Is Star Wars a military threat, or a movie? Is it ‘back-half’ or ‘front-half’ material? The fact that one could say “both” or “either” shows the redundancy of the division itself. At the same time there is clearly a difference in levels of reality between an assassination and a book. Yet both can be media events as much as real ones.
We are far from comprehending the nature of human life in an epoch of electronic reproduction; in a society where each day more person-hours are spent watching television than making things. One of the instruments for the development of any such understanding is the weekly magazine. It is not an accident, to use an old phrase, that the New Musical Express, Time Out, City Limits, The London Review of Books (none divided between front and back) fill part of the role that the New Statesman once played until the mid-sixties.
Attempts to adapt to this shift by inserting new sorts of material into the old framework of a separated politics/culture seem at one and the same time to confirm both its inadequacy and its uncomfortable, continuing dominance; just as having a “Northern Correspondent” tends to emphasise not diminish a paper’s metropolitan centralism.
I determined to begin to work through these problems physically. I was fortunate to have the help of Alan Hughes. He responded with terrific verve to my demands. At great speed he produced a new style New Statesman. On the day before the final interview he completed the art work for a forty page paper produced exactly within the specifications given by the business plan. [You can see the mock-up dummy here]
I felt confident. My reasoning was as follows: the New Statesman was in terminal decline. The trustees knew this and were in the mood to risk change. I was the candidate of change even if this presented them with an uncomfortable polarization. For they had to take a gamble either way and to go for Lloyd represented the bigger risk of playing safe. Since at least 1966 or (if you think that Freeman opened the road to decline) since 1961, the Board had exercised its one real power – the appointment of the editor – with unfailing misjudgement: It had always gone for the Right and tradition, or chosen someone who was ‘big’ and ‘important’ for the wrong reasons, usually doing both at the same time. The decline had been inexorable. In these circumstances, to vote for Lloyd meant to hope that one more safe bet would bring in the jackpot. His appointment would mean keeping fingures crossed and hoping for the best while shutting one’s eyes to two decades of evidence. It seemed to me that the Board had to be made of better stuff than this.
But because I represented change I also involved a risk that the Board would have to take responsibility for disaster if the whole enterprise went bankrupt. Maybe they anyway felt it was doomed. Why add to the foolishness of their being on the Board in the first place, the prospect of their making real idiots of themselves by appointing a rank radical who then failed? This is why I put such emphasis on showing them what success could be like. I had a proven capacity to transform a small business on the Left (New Left Books) and my political perspective appealed to a wider alliance of radical views than the Labour centre. The question that remained was: could I translate all these words and perspectives into weekly journalism, into that single product on which the health and viability of the entire enterprise depended? Hence the mock-up.
I rehearsed going through it at Rushdie’s on the Wednesday evening. Joan Smith and Francis Wheen were there (I had not presumed they were my supporters before as Smith had considered applying for the editorship herself.) It was a practical session: I had to speed up the time of the presentation, make the thing less male dominated, sharpen the jokes, encourage the participation of the Board in the enterprise. The creative energy and ideas that were stimulated were greater than my own, there was a sense of tangible momentum – the new paper was a long way from being finalized but already it seemed alive, and ready to go.
So when I went into the interview the next afternoon I began by saying that I wanted to show the Board what I thought the paper should be like. It was a bizarre experience: face to face with deadwood in the boardroom! I had got much more charge rehearsing the mock-up than I did on that occasion. I went through speedily, showing my command both of the detail of layout and of the different markets to which the paper was designed to appeal. The interest was minimal, the jokes fell quite flat. I pointed to the headline of an article John Berger had already sent me, to wish me luck. Nothing stirred. There was a piece on Red Wedge, I told them, as I felt the hostility. The designer, who also been a factory worker, had felt the word “red” should appear somewhere. I looked at the faces: not a flicker of amusement at this impertinence.
As I got to one of the mock-up’s commercial flourishes Whitehead interrupted. Doubtless I wished to show them what I’d done. But could I hurry as they all had their “Prepared Questions”. I will find it hard to forgive him for that act of chairmanship, with its clear signal of irritation at being shown what a renewed socialist weekly might be like. Actually, despite the time taken by mock-up they ran out of questions before my fifty minutes were up. They were not interested in what I was going to do because they were not interested in my doing it. (For example, in my application I wrote that I would “tie my editorship” to gaining average sales of 40,000 readers in two full years. This was an obvious point of inquiry if my appointment had been at all probable, but no one inquired.) The attitude was one of injured concern that I hadn’t worked in a newspaper office and couldn’t, therefore, be up to the job.
As if they were up to it! I suppose I should have been more aggressive, but pissing on deadwood doesn’t bring it back to life. It was like being interviewed by some sub-committee of Brezhnev’s Politbureau. When it came to the decision Whitehead let the six staff members present, voting and non-voting alike, speak first (just as they had dominated the interview). With them all clearly against me and all but one for Lloyd, and with the Chairman himself favouring Lloyd’s appointment, the three independent directors were placed in an impossible position. Ursula Owen could insist only that the decision not be announced as unanimous. Instead, it was not put to a vote.
I was quite elated going in, carried I suppose by the interest and excitement of the previous evening. I left the interview subdued and doubtful. The prospect of working with so much lumpen hostility was unpleasant. It now depended, as it always had, on the will of the Chairman and the independent directors to insist that the paper had to change. There had been little sign of such determination. I was already angry when Whitehead came through with his “sorry” phone call. The whole thing felt in retrospect like a charade.
Its dénouement was Lloyd himself. He was made ‘journalist of the year’ for his coverage of the Miners’ Strike in the Financial Times. Summing up the lessons of the strike in his Fabian pamphlet he concludes that there is “no evidence” that Thatcher or MacGregor fixed it for there to be a conflict. Lloyd endorses what he terms “the commonsense view” that neither the Government nor the Coal Board “had any interest in promoting a strike”. Such common sense deserves more than a prize, it is worth if not a knighthood then at least an MBE. We know that Thatcher told Peter Walker when she made him Minister for Energy in 1983: “Peter, we are going to have a miners’ strike”. Ian McGregor has confirmed that the only major policy problem was over its timing. Did all this pass by the Labour Correspondent of the Financial Times?
Or consider Lloyd’s lengthy argument in a recent issue of Marxism Today, where he concluded that the “only” alternative to the Scargill approach is a Hammond style US trade unionism (the sort that keeps Rupert Murdoch in business). From the beginning I opposed Scargill’s rejection of a ballot in ‘Islander’. But it’s intolerable to be told that such realism about Scargill dictates embracing Hammond. For what is the function of arguments such as this and the “common sense” view of the miner’s strike? In effect it is to blame the Left not only for its own failings, but also for the sins of the Right.
I made lots of phone calls to people who’d supported me. Rushdie, Smith and Wheen, who were at a Faber and Faber party, telephoned, protesting at the outcome. It was unacceptable, go ahead and produce a new paper anyway. I seized upon the response, unable to surrender the tangibility of a left-wing weekly that I too would actually like to read.
For the next few days I must have been in a state of shock. One sign of this was my feeling that anything new had to be done very fast, before the end of the summer. Indeed, it did not take long to establish that if a good business plan was drawn up, with prospects of a decent return on capital, and if this was backed by some financial and marketing experience, than the venture capital could be raised. But that in turn meant care and professionalism.
I didn’t slow down for a week, however, until I went to see Peter Preston at the Guardian. Psychologically it was a dramatic turning point for me. He was interested to see the mock-up, and understood immediately what it was attempting to do and the way it had been constructed. I turned down the final sheet saying, “So that’s what they rejected”. He drew his breath, shook slightly, paused and said: “The twots”.
He wouldn’t lend me anyone from the Guardian to advise on marketing, because newspapers and magazines are so different, but he called someone with relevant experience and suggested he gave me some help. I asked him for his own instinctive judgement about the idea of launching something new. Preston is cautious. He looked towards the mock-up and said that he’d have bought that prospectus and he thought it might well have turned the paper round. But he was less sure that something new based upon it could succeed, especially if the New Statesman stole its ideas in response to the competition. Nonetheless, he found the prospect exciting. So I went away very encouraged and confirmed.
Then, on the tube, I suddenly found myself hitting the window in despair. Damn, damn, damn. That friends, and writers, wanted me to transform the Statesman, that those of them who’d seen the mock-up were eager with more ideas or sceptical in a constructive way with this or that device, well, that would be the case, what else did I expect? On the other hand those who’d been doubtful all along that something as conservative as the Statesman could ever accept renewal seemed completely confirmed. When I told Tom Nairn that I’d been rejected he sighed with friendly relief on the phone and said, “I’d have had to revise all my ideas about the old hegemony, if you’d got it”.
Was I wrong to have embarked on such an adventure? Was wrong to have encouraged others to believe that the prize could be won? Against this mixture of contradictory feelings, Preston’s judgement stood out. He is not a socialist, he is not someone I agree with politically, he didn’t feel a personal need for a weekly paper of the sort I’d like to see, after all he edits a very successful daily. At the same time he has a keen journalistic sense of the readership I sought to gain: of the few people who still read the Statesman, 78 per cent read the Guardian. So if he thought it could have worked, then “Damn”. Damn the waste, damn all that effort to make just a little change in the left, to consolidate just 15,000 more readers, to have a weekly we could be proud of – as well as annoyed with, irritated by, etc. By the time I got home I was really, really depressed.
First of all I was fed up with “bloody Britain”, with all the inertia and pretensions of its mediocre institutions, and their sheer, fatal resistance to change. Second, I was fed up with the conservatism of the Left. After all, Margaret Thatcher’s initial success was born from her willingness to take new measures (and from Callaghan’s decision to fight the 1979 General Election as a conservative). The Right is still on the move and is willing to take risks. The dominant institutions of the Left are not. Labour is playing safe, so are its organs (even those that shouldn’t even be its organs). The asphyxiating influence of Labourist and Stalinist culture mingles with the suffocating self-importance of traditional institutions.
In addition I felt I was a fool. A fool to have tried, a fool even to have shown the deadwood my ideas, to have believed that the signs of encouragement could be turned into reality. I’m not saying I was conned or that Whitehead played me along. I deceived myself and I think he genuinely believed that he was a responsible and neutral trustee, like a good referee at a football match. So I make no accusation of ‘treachery’. Not least because the language of betrayal betrays itself, its pseudo-religious connotations and implicit belief in the “true cause” are associated in my mind with self-sacrifice and losing. But I have no desire to fight the good fight for its own sake, nor any desire to be a hero, consumed in the sanctity and lack of compromise that go with the flames of defeat.
My complaint is different. It is that the Board of the New Statesman was simply true to form.
I thought about the fate of Tin Sang. This was an independent daily published in Saigon which the Thieu regime closed down. Its editor, Ngo Con Duc, was not a party member. But he participated with the South Vietnamese delegation at the Paris peace talks and was a keen supporter of the struggle to overthrow Thieu and bring an end to US intervention in his country. After the victory in 1975 Duc flew back to Vietnam and persuaded the Communists in Hanoi to allow him to re-open Tin Sang.
In Paris Duc became a valued contact of Peggy Duff (who’d been the first organizing secretary of CND in Britain, and who then campaigned for Vietnam after the US began its bombing). Duff was a terrific person, stroppy, funny and tremendously independent minded. In 1980, when she was ill with a bad bone disease, I suggested she came to Vietnam while I was there: it would be her last and my first visit to the country. From Hanoi we flew to Saigon and she took me to see Ngo Con Duc in the Tin Sang office. They embraced like old comrades.
There were two newspapers published in what was now Ho Chi Minh City: the official party one, Saigon Gia Phong, and . Because of the acute shortage of paper both had very small print runs. But, Duc told us, Tin Sang then sold on the black-market, and at a much higher rate than its competitor. Duc’s paper was the more lively, more critical of bureaucracy and better run. “We combine the best of both worlds”, he said with a grin, “socialist principles and capitalist enterprise”.
A year later Tin Sang was again shut down. It was not closed because it was hostile to socialism, or because it was unpatriotic, or because it weakened the regime. On the contrary, closing it lost the regime support. It was shut because it was a success – which meant that its independence worked. It could not be completely predicted, and the very fact that it could not be controlled or “relied upon” made its presence uncomfortable. A slothful, bureaucratic sectarianism of the machine silenced Tin Sang.
At least, I thought to myself, Ngo Con Duc had five years of publication. A bad thought, but an indication of how fed up I was – because, of course, the silence and frustration he has to endure is complete and politically far more grave than mine. But there is a parallel – it concerns consequences. The people who enjoyed Tin Sang were powerless, while those whom it annoyed or made uneasy had influence. In a different way this was also the case with the debacle of my attempt to gain control of the New Statesman. So writers want a different sort of radical weekly, so what? If they don ‘t get it they will publish in a right-wing Labour one, and what does their protest matter? To put it another way, my not being made the magazine’s editor represented no kind of threat to the staff or board, whereas my appointment would have had ‘consequences’. Staff might have resigned, trustees might have had to justify their choice in public, the Labour leadership would dislike it, careers might be effected.
Put like that the contrast seems Manichean, between the bad and the good. But as I’ve tried to explain, far from wishing to be pious about the powerlessness of the GLC style left, I object precisely to its feebleness: to the fact that for its part it cannot threaten consequences. Its creativity in terms of ideas is remarkable, yet these have quite inadequate expression in the wider public domain: Bruce Kent’s march goes unreported, the GLC experiment is crushed, constitutional reform is left to the Alliance, feminism is re-marginalized. Entire sections of the waterfront, to borrow a phrase, remain without a voice. Occasionally they are allowed a say, but within a context that is fundamentally ‘responsible’ and receives the approval of Roy Hattersley. Timidity reigns. But it shouldn’t, especially not on the Left, which needs and deserves papers that “combine the best of both worlds”.
The market gap that exists is fundamentally social and political. It is the distance between the pays légal and the pays réel: between the legal nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the actually existing European countries of England, Scotland and Wales and their many communities. It is the gap between the world of the Palaces of Westminster, the Law Courts, the Admiralty, the Arts Council, and their clubs and country houses, and the world of many alternative politics, literatures, minorities, and musics. It is the gap between Ghandi and Macmillan’s War Diaries on the one hand, and My Beautiful Laundrette and the Diaries of Adrian Mole on the other.
In the New Statesman of the 29th August, John Lloyd has a revealing editorial. It stresses the existence of a “long-dominant intellectual right”, to which the Left has still to respond adequately. There is certainly a strategic crisis on the Left, one which has contributed to the political dominance of the Right. But to refer to an unquestioned “intellectual dominance of the right” is to reproduce the view from Westminster, Fleet Street and the . Monetarism, for instance, has been shown to be the farrago the Left always said it was. Feminism has been weakened under the impact of the recession, but intellectually it is far more developed than in the 1970s. On the central issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear power who has won the argument? All they have is the button and the money … More to the point, perhaps, all observers with half a brain in their head know that America is living on borrowed time. As the New Statesman conceded intellectual dominance to the Right Washington announced that its trade deficit was running at $170 billion a year! A key question now is how the US will assume its “real” ie much reduced place, in the world. Will it be a controlled shift, a heavy jolt or something more catastrophic? One does not expect the popular press or the Sunday heavies to be alarmist about the infantile leadership of Reagan and Thatcher. But isn’t it the role of a small left-wing weekly with a reputation, however ghostly, for intellectual foresight, to blow the whistle? Or take the critique of bureaucracy that gave the Right such advantage. On this question who now has both the better analysis and the more popular solution: Margaret Thatcher or Ken Livingstone? I hope I will be amongst the last to be complacent about the Left ‘s intellectual and cultural output. But it should be self-evident to the country’s main socialist paper that while the Right is in power it does not hold the high ground in the argument. If it is not obvious it is because, imaginatively speaking, the magazine inhabits the wrong side of the gap.
Recently Sir John Hoskyns, a former head of Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit, told the Institute of Directors:
The possibility of change lies in the hands of a small club of Britain’s political establishment. I define this as the top 3,000 civil servants and, for the Conservatives, an average of 300 to 400 MPs. The commentators, who try to interpret their thoughts and actions, are guests rather than members.
If it is to come at all, change will come only from outside the “small club”. But notice Hoskyns’ confident description of the role of our leading political journalists: guests rather than members. He might as well have called them “hangers on”.
The New Statesman, at any rate, has decided to cling to the tattered card that gives it guest status, even if one limited to remaining near the hatstand. Perhaps it is time, therefore, to have one socialist weekly, if not more, that looks elsewhere. To be sure, it should have its own idea as to what goes on inside the old club. But in terms of membership, we deserve a paper that belongs to “the natives” rather than the Sahibs of Whitehall.