I have now been editor of the New Statesman for a decade: how did that happen? I started just as Barack Obama became president of the United States and thought I was just passing through, on my way to the next challenge. I didn’t apply to be editor and wasn’t much interested in being so when I was first asked to meet the businessman and philanthropist Mike Danson (who would soon buy full control of the New Statesman from the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson) back in 2008. I had only recently been appointed editor of Granta magazine, which is owned by Sigrid Rausing, a culture-loving billionaire, and our offices were located in a splendid white-walled Holland Park town house. Granta is only published, in book format, four times a year and, having left the faster pace of newspapers, this seemed to be a role I could combine with doing some writing and flâneuring around town. What was there not to like about it?
From the outside the New Statesman – which was rapidly losing circulation and struggling to adapt to the challenges as well as the opportunities of the digital age – looked to be a magazine in serious trouble. Did it even have a future? And being editor of the Statesman always seemed to me to be a bit like being manager of Newcastle United: the potential was boundless and you could be beguiled by it but the reality was invariably one of conflict, struggle and decline. And it usually ended with the sack.
Plus, there was the “golden period” of the magazine, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, which, it was always being said, could never be recaptured. “Every editor starts with a belief that he (it’s always been a he so far) can restore the magazine’s glory days,” wrote Peter Wilby, who was editor from 1998 to 2005. “I was fired in the end. Not all the others suffered the same fate, but most left office with a sense of disillusion and disappointment and, in some cases, mental turmoil.” Disappointment, mental turmoil, the sack… oh dear.
And yet, it seemed to me, there were some things that could be done to improve the New Statesman in an era of declining newspaper circulation and revenues. Wilby had aspired to create “a left-wing Spectator”. But that wasn’t my aspiration, not least because the Spectator is a magazine of opinion that does not publish essays or more ambitious long reads. And as a reader of American magazines such as the Atlantic, reinvented as a print-digital hybrid, it seemed obvious to me what was needed: take the New Statesman upmarket; make it more politically sceptical and unpredictable; free it from the clutches of the Labour Party; publish longer and better-written pieces; burnish its literary pages; create a dynamic website; and discover and nurture a new generation of political writers.
An editor, like a sports coach, must of course have a method, a plan and a style of play, as it were, but he or she also needs luck. In my early weeks in the job I received an email from a young fellow called Leo Robson who had just graduated from Warwick University. He expressed an interest in writing book reviews and I read some of the pieces he sent in, which had been published in the Boar, the student newspaper. “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Robson, who was a Man Booker prize judge in 2018, seemed to have his own attractively natural style.
One bitterly cold morning we had coffee in Victoria, sitting outside at a table. After a couple of hours of animated conversation my mind was made up: he would become our lead fiction reviewer. A week later, I received an email from a friend of Robson’s, another recent Warwick graduate called George Eaton. He wanted to write about politics and so I called him in. After one conversation, I hired him as a graduate trainee. Eaton and Robson were the first of a group of writers who would define our expansion in print and online: Laurie Penny, Mehdi Hasan, Jonathan Derbyshire, Rafael Behr, Helen Lewis, Stephen Bush, John Bew, Shiraz Maher. And the next generation is now emerging: Sophie McBain, Anna Leszkiewicz, Anoosh Chakelian, Patrick Maguire… Watching their progress has been one of the pleasures of my job.
The philosopher John Gray was the first writer I contacted when I became editor. I was delighted when he agreed to become our lead book reviewer, and over the past decade John’s review-essays and longer pieces exploring the history of ideas and the crisis of liberalism have contributed hugely to the redefinition of our political and cultural coverage, as we attempt not only to understand but to analyse and explain the forces driving this period of extraordinary upheaval and technological disruption.
Editing the New Statesman has made me less rather than more partisan: my politics are sceptical and the shocks of recent times – the collapse of the centre-left across Europe, the rise of the new national populist movements, Brexit, Trump – should make us all much warier of prediction. Pragmatism and moderation are desirable, especially in this age of extremes. In the words of the American commentator David Brooks, “Being a moderate does not mean picking something mushy in the middle but picking out the strong politics at either end, because politics is essentially about balance, getting the balance right.” For the economist Paul Collier, there are no permanent solutions. “You’ve got to learn from context and work out what’s best in the context.”
Getting the balance right, learning from context: this is what we have been trying to do at the New Statesman. It seems to be working. Thank you for your support and happy Christmas to all our readers.
Jason Cowley’s book of essays and profiles, “Reaching for Utopia”, is published by Salt
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special