openDemocracyUK

Staggering on

The New Statesman then and now
Stuart Weir
22 January 2010

When George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs launched the New Statesman in 1913, Sidney Webb informed the (then) Manchester Guardian that “its distinctive feature will be its point of view - absolutely untrammelled by party, or sect, or creed.” (Editor's note: readers may be interested in Christopher Harvie's critical openDemocracy article on the Guardian and its Manchester roots.) Under the magazine’s new editor, Jason Cowley, the Staggers may very well be returning to its roots.

Webb went on to say:

Its general attitude will be best designated by the term 'Fabian,' but it will endeavour to bring to light and to appreciate in a wide catholic spirit all those features in other social projects or movements which can be recognised as making for progress. A number of these connected with it are members of the Fabian Society, but this is true of nearly every enterprise nowadays, and the paper is in no sense the organ of the Fabian Society, any more than it will be that of the Liberal party. It is going to be really independent.

 

A pretty good credo for a political magazine then and now, but not one that the New Statesman has always lived up to. No doubt every editor since 1913 will affirm its continuing independence, but in truth it became very close to being a house journal for an increasingly blinkered Labour party. Editors have taken the Labour party very much as the focus for its interests and when Geoffrey Robinson became the proprietor, it was widely said at the time that he would be pursuing the interests of Gordon Brown. Actually, there was never any sign that the magazine did, but it was an entirely believable suggestion since the Labour leadership had for some time taken an unhealthily close interest in its editorship and direction. 

For example, when John Lloyd resigned as editor in 1987, the board led by the late Philip Whitehead were clearly set on delivering the editorship to David (now Lord) Lipsey, a well-established Labour loyalist. That fix fell through and I was asked to take it on. The Labour leadership reacted furiously – they had been let down, and showered all sorts of lies about me on the head of Whitehead. To his credit, Whitehead put these lies – some of which were utterly absurd - directly to me. Then came a silly and unfounded letter to the magazine from a former Labour party spin-doctor.

I was invited the other day along with other former editors to the magazine’s contributors party. The magazine is now owned by Mike Danson (Robinson remains on the board) and has plush new offices off Fleet Street and the cleanest lavatories for some time. Jason Cowley was appointed editor in May 2008, but only took over in September 2008. He is not a tribalist, he says, and wants to edit a pluralist magazine. There have been signs of this approach of late and about time. Reformers need a magazine with, as Webb put it, “a wide catholic spirit” and political independence with which to consider issues of political and social progress.

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