He was a contender! openDemocracy's co-founder looks back to his frustrated attempt in 1986 to be made editor of Britain's formost leftwing weekly, the New Statesman, as he celebrates its revival on its 100th birthday. See what it might have been.
The New Statesman, the foremost magazine of the British left, is one hundred years old. A centenary issue of nearly 200 pages glitters from British newsstands to mark the achievement. After thirty years since it crashed into loss making at the end of the 1970s, it has been stabilised financially by Jason Cowley, a great accomplishment, not least because he has made it the home of good writing and essays, as the rest of the mainstream media goes gobbit.
At the same time its website, overseen by Helen Lewis, has well overtaken openDemocracy in this country. The combination of a strong brand, efficient funding, the political connection to Labour as readers look to replace the Coalition, the resources to make the website daily with a sharp eye on the rest of the UK’s web, and not least its participation in the new wave of feminism, all this has revived ‘The Staggers’. It even took on the derogatory term for the journal as the moniker for its blog. Three years ago under Gordon Brown the Spectator showed what a group blog could do in Westminster politics. Now the right and the Coalition seem intestinal, lacking the breadth and inventiveness that made their days under Thatcher – days of which they still dream. (The contrast of the right then and today is neatly summed up by Nick Pierce’s succinct post-Thatcher overview). Fittingly, as the Spectator’s Coffee Shop blog loses the aroma of the future, the Staggers has apparently overtaken it.
One of Jason Cowley’s editor’s reflections in the anniversary edition kindly refers to my pitch for the editorship in 1986. With James Curran as my campaign manager, and the support of John Berger, Hugh Brody, Angela Carter, Mary Kaldor, Mike Rustin, Salman Rusdie, Joan Smith, Marina Warner, Francis Wheen and others, I bid to transform the paper’s political culture. The application process had two stages and for the second which demanded the presentation of business plans I made a careful analysis of how the readership could be doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. Jason Cowley has asked that the applications go on line: you can read the first one here and the second, detailed plan here. As part of the second stage I also mocked-up a dummy to show the appointment committee what the magazine needed to be like to deliver my strategy. It is reproduced below, like a time capsule from another age.
My candidacy was blocked by the then leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, who insisted that the then Chairman Philip Whitehead appoint John Lloyd.
I was incensed and to manage my own anger and purge the frustrated ambition I analysed what happened by writing a private account for my supporters called The Twots. The New Statesman has now published it for the first time, as part of its centenary coverage. It stands as a mini-analysis (at 25 pages) of the mid-eighties as seen from the left at the time. Someone sent it to Lloyd, for whom it was not intended!. Ten years later, in 1996, writing in Prospect (subscriber only) Lloyd admitted
Barnett was in one respect right. He had been kept out of the job by the Labour hierarchy, even though he had prepared for it much more carefully than I had. His first presentation to the NS board was so good, compared to my scepticism, that I was rung up by Kinnock and told - amiably but unmistakably to pull my socks up in the second interview…. I made a muck of the magazine and left it: unlike Barnett, I had not wanted it badly enough. The social democratic takeover of the NS failed. It might have been better with Barnett.
Indeed, but then we would not have had Charter 88... or openDemocracy and today the New Statesman’s masthead announces that it stands for “Free thinking since 1913”.
I’m delighted that as part of their centenary publishing the Statesman has done this. Meanwhile here is the mock up designed and laid out by Alan Hughes now of the New Internationalist. If you click on the front page you can see the proposal for what might have been.
I had three broad aims
- To break the front-half / back-half pantomime horse of politics and literature inherited from the 1930s
- To profile a few longer pieces but use lots of notice boards for small publishers, theatres, causes etc, to build readership
- To bring an alliance of constituencies together around the broad themes of making Britain a democracy
Looking back at the mock up (click on the front page to see it all) over a quarter century is an odd experience. I used Liberation as the model for a high-energy design both intellectual and graphic. For those interested in detail, I’ll mention some of the features below the dummy whose copy is filler, it was a purely presentational device.
For those interested in how I intended to realise the argument set out in my application and described in The Twots, here are some detals, working through the mock-up from the back:
I proposed a long weekly essay or interview to run at the back, an idea borrowed from Nouvel Observateur: it could be political, high culture or in this case using a well known writer to address an issue of ecology and ideology. This device broke the back/front half distinction and took copy into small ads and small display ads, crosswords etc and cartoons.
The essay is preceded by a page on cookery, a huge circulation driver, the idea being to get well-known writers on a specific dish, here Angela Carter, a much missed friend, on hot dogs (I can hear her laugh).
The idea was to have only one review essay on a play, a movie, a book, a TV programme. The latter, Salman Rushdie on the world cup, was agreed – if there had been the money for plane and tickets he’d have gone. At the same time rather than pointless 700 word reviews there were ‘Signs of the Scene’ (I don’t think anyone has ever used the term); also a small but regular feature on poetry. The lead essay would be on culture and society, here David Widgery (I don’t think with his permission).
Letters were given a central position in the magazine, with a regular CND column by Bruce Kent (again without his permission) as naked circulation building.
Both the media and ‘experience’ were to have dedicated spaces after the international coverage. There would be a regular coverage of education issues, as schools were a significant market for subscriptions, as well as ‘Citizens and Subjects’ an early pointer to the politics of democratic reform, Charter 88 and today for modern liberty against surveillance and the database state.
I was very keen to have an editorial cartoon at the front but to open the magazine, then restricted to 40 pages for cost reasons, with a single strong photograph. This one was, I think, from South Africa then under Apartheid.
The cover was conceived to be very flexible, putting words before images but not being literary or dull.