May I recommend a new book for some entertaining Christmas reading? Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman, 1913-2019 has just been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and it is a very handsome artefact. The idea for the book stemmed from a conversation I had with Alan Samson, a publisher at Weidenfeld, many years ago during our centenary celebrations, and he mentioned it again one early summer afternoon after I ran into him in London. We usually speak about what is going on at Arsenal (we are long-standing supporters of that troubled club and I’m delighted he’s publishing a memoir by Arsène Wenger next year), but on this occasion, he reminded me of his desire to publish a book showcasing some of our finest pieces.
And now here it is, and here they all are, between hard covers: HG Wells, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, VS Pritchett, Virginia Woolf, Kingsley Martin, JB Priestley, Christopher Hitchens, Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, Clive James, John Gray, Ali Smith, and so the list goes on.
The New Statesman was founded as a weekly review of politics and literature, and though it was of the left it was not dogmatically on the left: “We shall deal with all current, social, religious and intellectual questions; but in doing so we shall be bound by no ties of party, class, or creed.” This was the declaration in the leader published in the first issue on 12 April 1913 and I was reminded of it as I read on social media some of the replies to our general election leader when it was published online.
You could say that it was not so much published as detonated: “New Statesman” was one of the top trending topics in the UK on Twitter as people piled in to have their say about what we’d said, irrespective of whether they’d read what we’d said or not. Regular readers will know well the journey the magazine has been on since I became editor, but irregular readers will be less familiar with our scepticism and unpredictable positions, hence the tweeted expressions of outrage.
The most idiotic remark I read was by Mark Seddon, a posh fellow who used to edit Tribune and who has been in touch in the past asking to write for the New Statesman. He said on Twitter – and I paraphrase – that he would never buy the magazine again because of our criticism of Jeremy Corbyn. He added that he had not bought it for many years while also simultaneously claiming to know all about the politics of a publication he did not read. Work that one out.
Tribune has relaunched as a glossy magazine in recent times. It is a self-styled proudly socialist, niche Corbynite publication and, as a champion of media pluralism, I wish it well. But as well as having a clear political identity, Tribune, if it is to thrive or even survive, will need to recapture something of its old Orwellian spirit, and this seems far less likely. Orwell despised totalitarians, of left and right, and what he called “orthodoxy-sniffers”. Tribune needs fewer orthodoxy-sniffers and more scepticism; it is well designed but it also needs to be well written. Reading the same political point of view expressed over and again – those evil Tories, the horror of neoliberalism and late capitalism, and so on – is rather like being trapped in a sealed room: you long to break free, to breathe fresh air, to hear different voices.
I’ve long believed that the New Statesman has been at its worst when captured by the Labour Party or factions within it. The early 1970s, when an aged Richard Crossman was editor for two years, were – I’ve been told by former staffers who worked under him – an especially bad period: the party came first. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the magazine embraced the extra-parliamentary left and came close to bankruptcy on several occasions, one senior editor used to say: “Don’t worry if the circulation is collapsing, at least the politics are correct.”
In the age of Brexit our media-political culture has become increasingly partisan and once-great newspapers have become little more than propaganda sheets. Commissioning is programmatic and it can seem as if no contributor is allowed to diverge from fixed editorial positions. The spirit of scepticism is absent.
Yet how much more valuable if, say, the hard Brexit-supporting Telegraph published the occasional pro-Remain or even pro-Corbyn piece alongside the relentless anti-left diatribes and paeans to libertarianism. We made our position on the Labour leader clear in our pre-election issue, but in it we also published pieces by Corbynites such as Yanis Varoufakis and Grace Blakeley. John McDonnell was interviewed. There were voices from the liberal centre and the right. The publications and writers I admire are those most committed to defending the intellectual traditions of scepticism, independence of thought, the spirit of criticism and a willingness to debate. Hyper-partisan journalism and orthodoxy-sniffing are of no interest to me – nor, I presume, to most of our readers.
By the time you read this note, the result of the 2019 general election will be known. On 20 December we are publishing a post-election special in which we will try to make sense of what has happened and why, which means that we shall have two issues of the magazine out at the same time – an extraordinary response to a period of extraordinary politics. In the meantime, may I wish all our readers a happy Christmas and peaceful new year – and see you next week, with or without your copy of Statesmanship.
“Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman”, edited and introduced by Jason Cowley and with a foreword by Claire Tomalin, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20