Paul Foot

New Statesman, Decline and Fall

(October 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.201, October 1996, p.21.
Copyright © 1996 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Not long ago a group of earnest young members of the Communist Party produced a theoretical magazine. Since they assumed they were Marxists, they called it Marxism Today. As Thatcher rolled from triumph to triumph, they decided that Marxism was pretty well irrelevant. They started to use the magazine’s awkward title not as a description of the journal’s content but as a kind of joke. The best part of the joke was to give substantial space to interviews with Tories. ‘The Tories are in power,’ they would explain. ‘They have a right to be heard.’ Thus month after month Marxism Today appeared with Tory ministers and their supporters on the cover.

Right wing politicians and ideologues were quoted in the newspapers as having said this or that – ‘to Marxism Today’. The circulation rose quite quickly. But soon the new readers realised that they could read what Tories are saying more accurately and more persuasively in, say, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Express, the Star, etc., etc., etc. Marxism Today sank swiftly into oblivion.

Its fate came back to me the other day as I was reading the New Statesman. A prominent feature was by Steven Norris MP. Norris had just resigned as a junior minister of transport in the Tory government, a post which he had occupied with studied mediocrity. He had just announced, in the style of so many of his Tory heroes of recent years, that he was leaving politics to spend more time with his wallet. Appropriately, he had taken a couple of directorships with the bus companies his ministry had been ‘liberating’.

What was he doing writing in the New Statesman? He was defending the privatisation of the railways, the most monstrous and corrupt of all the Tory privatisations. At the last count only 11 percent of the British population said they supported it. In a desperate effort to buck the popular view, the massed ranks of the right wing press pulled out all the stops to ‘put the case’ for railway privatisation. Now, to their astonishment and joy, they were joined by one of the very few influential journals on the left.

Is this an exception? Any socialist who with gritted teeth fights their way through a copy of the New Statesman today is struck again and again not just by the awful blandness of tone, or even by the supercilious sneers which professional parliamentary pundits substitute for ideas, but by its shamelessly reactionary politics. Under the banner of ‘letting everyone have their say’, the New Statesman has recently given tracts of space to the bigots of the anti-abortion campaign, to old style union bashing and to the most frightful reactionary economics. The strident support for free enterprise and the market takes its tune from the ideological heroes of the present editorial team, most of whom were in the late Social Democratic Party. These articles are worth reading for one reason only: to remind us that the SDP had no distinctive economic policy at all save to back the market; and that its only purpose was to keep the Tories in office by splitting the Labour Party. The fact that the splitters are now back in the Labour saddle is the clearest proof of Labour’s collapse into Tory ideology and Tory policies. But for the New Statesman Roger Liddle, Peter Mandelson and co., Tories in all but name, are the ‘radicals’ of the hour.

The New Statesman was started in 1912 by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. There was nothing revolutionary about their intentions. From the outset the New Statesman was directed exclusively to the middle class left. Although the New Statesman did not exclude Tories, its general thrust was to challenge received capitalist notions in politics and economics and to give some intellectual reinforcement to the burgeoning Labour Party.

In 1931, after the disaster of the 1929-31 Labour government, the New Statesman was bumping along with a circulation of 7,000. A new editor was appointed: Kingsley Martin, a man of great charisma and editorial skill. Martin was a maverick with no clear ideas, but he was permanently at war with the establishment, and gave acres of space not just to Fabian socialists like G.D.H. Cole but to more fiery types such as H.N. Brailsford, perhaps the best socialist writer in Britain at the time. Martin had the knack of picking out the best people to put the argument against the received notions of the time, and, as capitalism slumped into a deeper and deeper pit, more and more people bought his paper. He lasted 30 years. By the time he handed over to John Freeman in 1961, the New Statesman was selling 70,000.

There is no case for any nostalgia here. Again and again, the New Statesman got it wrong, usually through ideological cowardice. Martin, for instance, recognised George Orwell’s despatches from Spain as probably the finest British journalism of his time, but he refused to publish them for fear of falling out with Stalinist orthodoxy. But there was never any doubt of the paper’s hostility to the rich and powerful. Into the bargain, and for the same reasons, under a series of inspired literary editors, the ‘back half’ of the New Statesman became the best review section in all the British press.

These priorities continued under John Freeman and even under his successor, Paul Johnson (yes, the same Neanderthal reactionary who now infests the Daily Mail). Though the circulation started steadily to go down, there was no doubt that the magazine continued with its left wing priorities. After a period in which it seemed to be knocked senseless by the new victorious Thatcherism, the New Statesman regained some of its tradition of resistance and challenge under the now much reviled Steve Platt.

Its recent takeover by the millionaire Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson and the appointment of the former SDP stalwart Ian Hargreaves as editor heralded a complete break with all these traditions and a lurch to the right so shameless and so sudden that socialists everywhere have been throwing it away in disbelief. What was left of the challenge of the New Statesman has now been totally engulfed in the Blair menace, which instead of exposing and defying the hideous priorities of modern capitalism, sings its praises. Tories queue up to be interviewed in it. It has much more money behind it than had Marxism Today. It may last longer on the Robinson millions. But its future, I guess, will be much the same.


Last updated on 27.11.2004