Anthony Howard: Amanuensis to the old regime

A scribe of Britain's Labour establishment had died

There will be a fine outpouring of media eulogies over the death of Anthony Howard of the "We won't see his like again", variety. I'd like to blow a small warning trumpet with a different note. 

We never met though I observed him. He was a determined opponent of Charter 88. He helped run the committee that was in charge of the official 1988 celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That tells you where his heart lay, entirely with the spirit of the old regime. Its feeble efforts were upstaged by a bunch of us, masterminded by Stuart Weir then editor of the New Statesman. Howard was very cross. He did what he could to sabotage the Observer's support for the Charter, telling its editor that he should not have rung Lord Scarman saying why he signed Charter 88 and supported a written constitution in its editorial space to coincide with a paid space that ran the Charter across two pages along with 5,000 signatures.

Perhaps his upset also stemmed from the fact that this was absolutely not the sort of thing he'd have done when he edited the New Statesman from 1972 - 78. He was at a loss about what was happening through those crucial years. I can't find the circulation figures but I recall that it was under him that they fell decisively. 

The heart of the problem was that Labour became part of the British establishment after 1945. Its welfare state was a consensus state and that consensus was an Oxbridge, mandarin dominated one that was profoundly conservative. It created figures who were in love with the game, wanting to be 'radical' while remaining part of clubland. Perhaps the most low standing of these was Richard Crossman, a Labour politician whose diaries were at the time seen as a pathbreaking revelation of how the game worked, a pure document of insiderdom. Howard was one of their editors. And he was, like Crossman, brilliant, fluent, Labour and in love with having it both ways. At least this meant he knew how to recruit young Oxbridge 'outsiders' cleverly. Peter Hennessy, now absurdly enough a 'Lord', has a similar nostalgia for post-war Labour as a patrician setup. Only in his case he can sustain the writing of genuine history and investigation - he loves to challenge. Howard was much more of a journalist dependent upon that which he purported to report, an ultimate insider.

Charlie Beckett remembers how he worked with Howard when he made an obituary BBC film about Harold Wilson,

I was lucky enough to make the BBC’s obituary film of Harold Wilson with Anthony. I had the pleasure of being with him as he interviewed all the great figures of that era: Shore, Castle, Healey, Callaghan, Benn, Jenkins etc. These were giants of a particularly compelling era. And Tony knew them all intimately. I delighted in the way he extracted wonderful anecdotes and important detail. But after every interview he would snort derisively and tell me exactly where they had lied or embellished the truth.

But did he expose those lies, or was he also party to the hypocrisy?

When the history of our time is written, one of the defining themes of British politics will be the transition from a self-confident 'Establishment' to a grasping 'Political Class'. Anthony Howard straddled the transition, always hoping that by his judgements he could turn back the clock, the swish of whose deadly pendulum was evident to all. Sustained by the infatuation with what he 'knew', he was unable to see the larger picture for the anecdote. Oblivious to larger intellectual questions that are an essential part of what is needed for understanding, he was a gatekeeper who ended up helping to ensure that what was good about the Establishment he loved was left defenceless.

PS: I forgot that he ended his career as Obituaries Editor as well as political books reviewer for the Times. No one person did more damage to the pro-European, Reithian, post-war Establishment that Anthony Howard spoke for, than Murdoch. And so it was that the ever shrewd and cynical Australian employed him; ensuring that as Murdoch's enemies died they and their familes, friends and colleagues would be comforted by the kind of sendoff they had come to expect.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy