Cristina Odone was the New Statesman’s deputy editor under Peter Wilby. She arrived from the Catholic Herald, where she had been editor, and swapped matters of the clergy and liturgy for the machinations of New Labour. The atmosphere of the magazine at the time was, she says, “Like a 19th-century Victorian boarding school crammed with lefties of every hue, from Marxists – the Che Guevara flag-waving types – to New Labourites who were very prissy in their socialism, as well as the less partisan.”
Odone was a leavening figure, being more to the right than most of her colleagues. Wilby called her “the grit in the oyster” and she saw her role as being a reality check, not just to him but to the readers too.
The brief she was given on her arrival was: “Let’s open the magazine up – bring in lots of different voices, some not sympathetic, and get a debate going.” Looking through her address book, the names she had on call amount to a formidable roster; Christopher Hitchens and Claire Tomalin, Joyce Carol Oates and John Gray, JG Ballard and Hanif Kureishi, Shirley Conran and Claire Rayner, Tony Benn and Roy Hattersley.
Another part of Odone’s role was to organise fortnightly political lunches. It was, she says, a “wine-soaked and cigarette-smoked” experience, though not necessarily an edifying one. Close exposure to politicians of every party convinced her that “there were only a handful of MPs I would have wanted to see socially”.
Key topics in the office at the time were grammar schools, the NHS and redistribution, while the wider political interest was in the power struggles within New Labour. The NS, then owned by the former Labour MP and paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, was more Brownite than Blairite and was viewed with suspicion by the Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson cabal. Indeed, Odone recalls being told by Andrew Neil that the magazine was a more effective opposition to New Labour than the Spectator, which had Boris Johnson occupying its editor’s office. “We had kudos and cachet,” she says. “We struck nerves.”
That was certainly the case after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when Wilby wrote an infamous leader suggesting that American imperialism had in some ways invited the atrocity. The opinion was not widely shared among staff and the article caused a furore. Odone says, “I was asked by 50 per cent of my friends to leave the magazine.”
The NS was on surer ground on social issues. Peter Wilby took the lead: “I saw him once in conversation with John Birt, the then director-general of the BBC, and later, back in the office, with our cleaner Louis, and he spoke to them both in exactly the same way.” It was Wilby who “made me look at how unequal things were”.
Odone, who is currently serving on the cross-government family policy advisory group, credits her years at the magazine for “my interest in social justice”. It may now feel “more polished and with younger voices” but it still, she says, addresses that.
[See also: John Gray on 110 years of the New Statesman]
Become a subscriber and support our truth-telling journalism from as little as £49 a year! Or get a free tote bag if you subscribe to our bundle plan. Visit newstatesman.com/110subscribe to explore our anniversary offers
This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue