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12 April 2023

Rowan Williams on 110 years of the New Statesman: “I’m unrepentant about my guest-edit”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury on his time as a commissioning editor and critic, 2011-present.

By Michael Prodger

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, academic, poet and writer, has a long association with the New Statesman. He started reading it in his student days and wrote his first book review for the magazine in the late 1980s. It was and is, “an important part of my life… there is no other weekly magazine like it. And I like the crossword.”

There are times when, on reading some articles, he mutters “I wouldn’t have done that”, but he has a “broad sympathy with its approach”. The point of a good ­current affairs magazine, he believes, is ­political diversity: “Simon Heffer, Louise Perry, John Gray – none are typical leftists”, he says, “but all have a voice. A bit of grit.” He appreciates the NS’s “European perspective”, too: “there aren’t many places ­doing the same sort of analysis”.

In June 2011, while archbishop, Williams guest-edited the magazine. “I liked the idea of looking at immediate urgent issues,” he says, and was pleased to secure a short story from AS Byatt, a novelist he greatly admires. He hadn’t bargained for the reaction to his editorial, where he criticised the coalition government and wrote that “a lot of people were feeling frightened because of policies they hadn’t voted for”. Williams was accused of straying from his spiritual role into politics.

“I am unrepentant,” he says, “it wasn’t party political.” Of the media responses, he particularly enjoyed a cartoon based on the poster for the film Jaws, showing a swimming David Cameron oblivious as a mitre shoots up from the deep.

Since then, Williams’ presence in the NS has mostly been as a book reviewer – a form he relishes because of the link between cultural coverage and current affairs coverage. “I feel some obligation to connect any book to where we are as a society. There is always something to say about how people are imagining the human.” This is indirectly a theological issue as well, although he is careful not to use his reviews as a platform.

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He thinks the magazine remains important because of the state of contemporary politics. “It’s a febrile time,” he says, “and I worry about the thinness of the hinterland of people going into politics. Things are too two-dimensionally focused, it’s all about the Westminster tennis match.” The challenge is how to interest grass-roots voters. “We need a massive push, otherwise we’ll have an ­alienated population and a feverish political class. We’re not a million miles from that, in fact.”

[See also: Cristina Odone on 110 years of the New Statesman]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue