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Better Read Than Red

Infuriating and brilliant, the “New Statesman” turns 100

The early years of the last century saw something of a golden age for the political press in England, with half a dozen serious daily papers published in London, another half dozen provincial morning papers as good if not better, as well as a clutch of evening papers with small circulations read intently by the West End equivalent of Beltway folk. But there were also the weeklies, with a mixture of politics and literature. Founded as long ago as 1828, The Spectator had become a voice of civilized Toryism, and there was The Nation, an influential radical-liberal organ whose chairman, a little later, was John Maynard Keynes.

One hundred years ago this spring, they were joined by the New Statesman, destined to become famous not just in England but throughout the English-speaking world as a byword for high-minded if sometimes obtuse progressivism. A magazine whose circulation never reached 100,000 may well in its day have wielded more real influence than papers that sold millions. More than that, this one paper’s career has been a subplot in an epic story: the rise and fall of socialism.

But a particular kind of socialism. There was a succession of events that led to the magazine’s birth. In 1889, Fabian Essays in Socialism was published, edited by George Bernard Shaw and with an essay by Sidney Webb, the desiccated, little man who began life as a clerk in the Inland Revenue and came to believe that a socialist New Jerusalem could be ushered in by what the Labour politician Tony Crosland later mocked as “total abstinence and a good filing system.” In 1902, the first degrees were conferred by the London School of Economics, which Webb and his wife, Beatrice, were instrumental in founding. In 1906, the Labour Party was born and 30 Labour men were elected to Parliament in its name. And in 1913, the New Statesman (NS) was launched by the Webbs and like-minded Fabians, with a debut editorial that saluted “the world movement towards collectivism.”

For its first half-century, the NS had no more than three editors. Clifford Sharp edited the paper from 1913 to 1928; although, in later years, he was editor in name only since he was rarely sober enough to do any work. That was done by Charles Mostyn Lloyd, who briefly occupied the editor’s chair until a new editor took over at the beginning of 1931. Kingsley Martin remained in the job for almost 30 years and more than anyone gave the paper its flavor—ardently attached to socialism; also attached, but less ardently, to civil liberties; and in conflicted agonized anguish over the rise of totalitarianism on the left as well as right.

In the year he took over, the NS merged with Keynes’s The Nation, and for decades the masthead read The New Statesman and Nation, implying maybe a tension between Martin’s socialism and Keynes’s liberalism. But there were deeper problems. For the left everywhere, the October Revolution was a challenge, and ultimately a catastrophe, even at The New Republic, which was launched a year after the NS.

In some ways, the magazines were transatlantic sisters. That included, alas, their painful intellectual gymnastics over Russia. By the late ’30s, The New Republic and The Nation, the two American liberal magazines, had stubbed their toes (in Dwight Macdonald’s phrase) on the Moscow Trials, which they halfheartedly endorsed. The NS was no better. In 1934, it ran a groveling interview with Stalin by H. G. Wells, old comrade-in-arms of the Webbs, who themselves toured Russia and then published Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?, which has been called, despite severe competition, the most preposterous book about Russia ever written. That was in 1935; two years later, at the height of Stalin’s bloodbath, a second edition appeared without even the qualifying question mark.

For the NS, the lowest moment may have been in 1937. George Orwell appeared quite often in its pages, but Martin refused to run a piece by Orwell giving a historically important account of the events in Barcelona that spring, when the communists took advantage of the turmoil during the Civil War to extirpate their rivals on the left. Orwell later found himself lunching in the same restaurant as Martin and changed his seat so that he did not have to look at his “corrupt face.”

Whatever its political vagaries, people bought the NS just as much for the “back half,” outstanding books and arts pages that gave one of the best reflections of serious English culture for most of the last century. Evelyn Waugh was not the only one amused by what he called the notorious contrast “between the Jekyll of culture, wit and ingenious competition and the Hyde of querulous atheism and economics which prefaces it.”

The centennial issue just published includes a glorious anthology of pieces that once appeared in those pages, T.S. Eliot writing about new poetry in 1917, Orwell on hop-picking with the poor in 1931, Keynes in 1937 on whether to intervene in the Spanish Civil War (which has a curiously topical flavor today, what with Syria), and Graham Greene in 1938 on the London suburbs. I had no idea that the NS had first published Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” still less Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop.”

After 1945, the NS became the house organ of Clement Attlee’s government, which was powerfully affected by the Statesman’s spirit of managerial socialism and the belief that, as one Labour politician of the day had famously said, “the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.” Martin was finally eased out in 1960 and replaced by John Freeman, a fascinating and curious figure, soldier, MP, journalist, British ambassador to Washington from 1969 to 1971, and now, at 98, a complete recluse. He was succeeded by Paul Johnson, under whom circulation reached 94,000, more than three times what it is now, sad to say. He too is still with us, at 84, having undergone a lurid voyage from left to right to become a darling of American conservatives.

For full disclosure, I should say here that the NS has been part of my life. Growing up in a good progressive home (as it was called in the days when we believed in progress), I read it every week when I was a boy, and we had family friends who worked for the magazine. By the 1970s, I came to know the NS gang older than myself. It was the first paper in which I was published, by Anthony Howard, who was then editor. The paper’s political columnist was Alan Watkins (Howard’s brother-in-law), who became one of my greatest friends, and I learned all too much about the baroque complexity of the marital and extramarital relations of the NS staff in those days, which would take a diagram to explain. With Claire Tomalin as Howard’s literary editor, a new generation of writers came to the paper, “my lost boys,” Tony Howard later called them: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens.

Despite this flowering, Howard was pushed out, and it all went wrong. There had been one editor for almost 30 years from 1931; since Howard’s departure in 1978, there have been ten. In his memoir, Amis implies that the problem was political, as the paper veered toward the hysterical left. To me, watching from The Spectator (to whose genial Tory pages I had defected), it seemed that this was the wrong analysis and that a collapse of serious cultural standards was what ailed the paper.

Sadly marking the end of an era, Alan Watkins and Tony Howard died in 2010, but today their old paper is looking in better shape than it has for some time, with Jason Cowley as editor and Jonathan Derbyshire, who has just left after doing his best for some years to revive the Jekyll of culture and wit, and I wish the NS well: We still need good magazines—the grand old English weeklies that Macdonald saluted in his essay “Amateur Journalism,” written in 1956 while he worked in London. By that word, he didn’t mean amateurish in a derogatory sense but that these papers seemed to be written knowledgeably and stylishly, for love or fun. And one of their great strengths, he said, were the letters pages, a long conversation among people who mattered, or who cared.

As I have said, the ’30s were not the Statesman’s finest hour, as Kingsley Martin gave strangulated voice to the contradictory themes of Russophilia, anti-fascism, and pacifist derision of traditional military values, not quite grasping that fascism might have to be met with force. In August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact threw the left into turmoil. Some were disenchanted with Stalin but others, writing to the NS, took his side and shied away when Great Britain went to war on September 3.

This prompted what may be the single greatest letter-to-the-editor of the twentieth century, perhaps unknown to Niall Ferguson, with his belief that Keynes’s sodomitical proclivities inspired an indifference to the survival of humanity and humane values. It appeared in the New Statesman of October 14, and would have justified that paper’s existence if it had published nothing else for the past hundred years:

Sir, The intelligentsia of the Left were the loudest in demanding that the Nazi aggression should be resisted at all costs. When it comes to a showdown, scarce four weeks have passed before they remember that they are pacifists and write defeatist letters to your columns, leaving the defence of freedom and of civilisation to Colonel Blimp and the Old School Tie, for whom Three Cheers.
J.ššM. Keynes
King’s College, Cambridge

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!