When Alan Rusbridger became editor of the Guardian in 1995, comparisons were drawn between him and another ascendant figure on the left: Tony Blair. Both men, born in 1953, reinvented their respective institutions. They helped drag the left into the 21st century and away from its “special talent for turning in on itself”, as Rusbridger put it to me.
Their careers took different paths: Blair gambled his reputation on fighting alongside the US government and lost, Rusbridger gambled his on taking it on and won. But despite these differences, the pair now agree on one thing: the left is turning in on itself again.
The modern left is split by cultural politics. As Blair recently wrote in these pages, a progressive party that looks askance at British authors such as Trevor Phillips or JK Rowling is not going to win power. When I put this to Rusbridger, he agreed. “JK Rowling has every right to be heard,” he said. Her critics should “argue with her, not… ban her or no-platform her”.
“It’s ridiculous to imagine [these authors] can’t be accommodated [on the left].”
“I hate the thought there are things that are undiscussable,” Rusbridger said when he spoke to me from his study in Oxford, where he is concluding a six-year spell as principal at Lady Margaret Hall. Inside major institutions filled with young progressives, from the Guardian to the Labour Party or Oxford University, new orthodoxies about race, sex and the overwhelming relevance of one’s identity appear to be taking hold. This is “not unique to the left”, he said, “but it is quite marked”.
[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]
“I think this idea of my right not to be offended, my right to have a safe space, is one that’s crept up in the last five years,” he said. If you mention John Stuart Mill’s arguments on free speech to “a bright 19-year-old in Oxford, they look at you a bit blankly. When you say, ‘Isn’t the best response to speech, more speech?’ it’s a new idea to them.”
Rusbridger understands the urge many young people may have to belong and feel safe in their identity. The question is what that urge requires: to belong, do you need to ostracise others who think differently? At Oxford, Rusbridger has debated with students “whose first instinctive position is, ‘But we want this to be a safe space, I feel threatened. Your job is to protect me.’”
His response is well-worn: there are no safe spaces in the world. You are supposedly the brightest of your generation – if you can’t defeat those you disagree with in an argument, who can? “It’s a bad thing,” he explained, “if the right not to feel offended overshadows the call of reason.”
These same tensions have emerged at the Guardian since Rusbridger’s departure in 2015. Last year Suzanne Moore, one of the paper’s columnists, resigned after 338 of her colleagues demanded Katharine Viner, Rusbridger’s successor as editor, stop publishing “anti-trans” views, which many took to refer to Moore. Moore said she’d received inadequate backing from senior editors. “I personally disagree with the letter,” Rusbridger told me, but he is sympathetic to Viner’s position. Editing a newspaper is “so much harder now because the young generation have no grounding in the classical view of free speech”.
There are benefits, he said, to having those who have been marginalised “rather aggressively coming in [to an institution] and making their voice felt”, whether at Oxford or the Guardian; he is delighted the paper’s staff is more diverse than ever. He thinks new voices develop “better tuned ears”, but starts to “lose sympathy” when people say, as some on the left now do, “‘my identity trumps everything’ or ‘you can’t understand because you didn’t live my experience’.” In reality, “there’s a thing called rationality and argument which is also valid”.
Rusbridger, whose quiet demeanour belies the confidence with which he ran the Guardian, made the paper internationally renowned by publishing the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden stories, alongside other investigations into torture, extraordinary rendition and phone hacking. He did so by backing reporters and empowering his lieutenants (Viner among them). “I was not the cleverest boy in school,” he said. “I relished hiring incredibly bright people and giving them responsibility. I was perfectly comfortable creating baronies.”
Rusbridger also sought to run the Guardian as a “broad church”. Under his editorship, the paper published a range of columnists who “provided a bit of grit in the oyster”. He quotes the former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown: “You have to bite the hand that reads you.” “It would be a dull old paper that didn’t have dissenting voices,” he added, but would not comment on what he thinks of the Guardian under Viner.
At times, his former paper’s criticism of Tory policy can seem knee-jerk. Rusbridger does think Boris Johnson, with his “special skill for dog whistle politics”, is pursuing an “ugly populism” over immigration and new proposals for voter photo ID. But, he added, “he probably does believe in the NHS, and free speech, and a big state”.
Most problematically for the left, Johnson is “spending like Keynes would, and that presents a huge problem”. Rusbridger did not need to elaborate. The political gulf is clear: the right is united behind a popular leader while the left is riven, seemingly more concerned with culling debate than building a broad church fit for power.
Update: A sentence in the printed version of this article has been updated from “…Moore’s views on trans issues” to “…”anti-trans” views, which many took to refer to Moore.”
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy