Chris Harman

The Media Reviewed: The New Statesman

Swinging back to the left

(April 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 4, 20 April–17 May 1980, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There was a time when the New Statesman was an essential part of any aspiring leftist’s apparel. In the period between the Suez debacle and the formation of the Labour government in 1964 it was the first introduction to anything like left-wing ideas to many thousands of young, mainly middle-class people. They would march annually from Aldermaston to London against nuclear weapons, make the occasional pilgrimage to the Academy to see the. latest French New Wave film, timidly ask for the New Statesman in the local Smiths, and wonder whether they ought not be buying the more turgid Tribune which, allegedly, was organising the left in the local Labour Parties. It was said that if you wanted to get into the sociology departments at universities, a New Statesman sticking out of your duffle coat pocket would see you through the interview.

All that changed in the mid-sixties. The young radical upper class writers who had shocked; their parents in its pages became older and decidedly more right-wing. The duffle coated droves who had read their articles with glee subsided into marriage, mortgage repayments, middle class incomes and respectability. Borne along by its writers and readers, the New Statesman was uninvolved and uninterested in the issues that stirred the next generation of radical youth, from Grosvenor Square to Grunwicks, from the Sorbonne to the Saltley Gates. Its aim became, as the then editor told a young Paul Foot when offering him a job in 1965, ‘to win more Tory readers’.

It bore – and bored with – the imprint of mediocre editing by the rapidly rightward moving Paul Johnson, the failed cabinet minister Crossman, and the ephemeral political columnist Anthony Howard. Its circulation sank from close to 100,000 right down to 37,500 as those who moved on from duffle coats to denim jackets found what they wanted – from way-out rock and Singhalese restaurants to instant armchair activism – in Time Out (in London, at least). The Statesman was left desperately trying to hold its own in a middle ground already crowded out by the ‘quality’ Sundays, the Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Economist.

The Statesman was bound to realise sooner or later that it had taken a wrong turning. This occurred about two years ago. After dubious reports (in Private Eye) of backstabbings and betrayals that made the antics that sometimes occur in left-wing sects look like child’s play, the unlikely figure of Bruce Page was placed on the editorial throne.

In itself that did not seem to portend any great change. Page was a founder member of the Sunday Times Insight team and an excellent investigative journalist. But he was hardly identified with the left – trendy or otherwise.

But if the king did not have a radical past, some of those around him did. They had been at Grosvenor Square before moving on to the fleshpots of Fleet Street, exchanging revolutionary enthusiasm and youthful looks for fat expense accounts and premature flabbiness. It soon became clear that they saw the New Statesman as a platform for their sort of politics – flabby in parts, but with a vigorous streak of radicalism. Around the escapees from the Insight team and the refugees from the revolutionary left coalesced an editorial group that was soon two-timing Time Out and out-levelling The Leveller. In the Statesman’s pages stars of the ABC trial have regularly been ripping the lid off some of the nastier bits of the state machine; Chris Hird (who once wrote an excellent city column for Socialist Worker over the by-line T.H. Rogmorton) just as regularly exposes leading companies and nationalised corporations; Mary Holland – too honest a reporter for Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Observer – has moved in as Irish editor. The guest contributors now are the likes of Paul Foot, Fred Halliday, E.P. Thompson, Tariq Ali, rather than Paul Johnson.

Some of the old housewriters seem to have been reborn: Patrick Wintour who three years ago had no compunction in doing a typical hack Fleet Street job on an imprisoned Andy Strouthous (’the face of a student Dave Spart stared out at bourgeois Britain’) now pens very useful articles with Chris Hird.

There has even been some shift in the ‘literary’ back half, which under successive editors had been a sanctified retreat for the same bores who praise each others reminiscences of the Bloombury group week after week in the Sunday Times and the Observer. There is still an element of that – but also increasingly discussion of ideas, arguments about Marxism, accounts of what left historians are trying to do, even occasional reviews of books you might want to read.

All this is to the good. It means that after buying your Socialist Worker and Socialist Review you could do worse than to spend any spare few shillings on the Statesman.

Yet behind the silver lining there’s a cloud. The New Statesman says a lot about what is wrong with things. But when it comes to what should be done about them, all you get is an unvoiced hint that perhaps those who have broken with reformism and the Labour Party should go back to them.

The nearest thing to an explicit putting of the answers was in the Christmas issue. An article from a war-time Statesman by the veteran radical journalist H.N. Brailsford was republished, with a note from the editor saying its ideas were still relevant. The ideas called for a rebuilding of society, for a challenge to the narrow upper class group who control the state machine, for a break with the politics that leaves real power in their hands as governments come and go, for an end to an economics that produces dole queues and social welfare cuts.

Yet the break was to be accomplished by ... radical action through the existing political structure by ‘drastic reform! to ‘our Parliamentary system’, by new hands on the same levers of power, by a new movement to pressurise the same enemy. And the people from whom it was to be built were not those who sweat it out on the assembly line and occasionally battle it out on the picket line, but rather the sort of well intentioned people who read the New Statesman.

In his editorial note on the piece, Page explicitly distanced the Statesman as much from those who believe ‘no change is possible short of millennial cataclysm’ (and who refuse ‘any allegiance to the existing institutions of an imperfect democracy’) as from those who believe in ‘the impossibility of change’.

The futility – and the dangers – of this approach are shown most strongly when the New Statesman deals with economic issues. Here article after article pours well-deserved derision on the monetarist fantasies of Thatcher and Joseph. But what alternative is offered? Nationalisation of the commanding heights? Workers’ control of the great corporations? Occupy, nationalise? Nothing so ‘crude’. Instead, the only half explicit suggestion is a revamping ‘ of the Keynesianism that seemed to work in the golden age when unemployment was two per cent and arms ate up ten per cent of the national product.

Much the same applies to the police and foreign policy. There are marvellous exposures of the phone tappers and the secret policeman – indeed, if anything there is an overestimation of the ability, of the state to act independently of wider social forces – and a belief that the way to deal with this danger is through the traditional parliamentary forms provided by the state itself. There are brilliant denunciations of the new generation of nuclear missiles that are being deployed – with calls for ‘Britain’ (no worry here about whose Britain) to ‘take a lead’ in pressing for a neutral Europe.

There is the radical onslaught on the politics of Thatcher. The emphatic assertion that things can and should be different. But when it comes to how they should be different, you get a collection of outdated reformist nostrums that do not even begin to come to grip with the real forces controlling British society.

It is an approach to politics which can be expected to increase in popularity within the milieu to which the New Statesman has traditionally appealed. It fits in with all the prejudices of those who Paul Foot calls the Non-Aligned Non-Activists (NANAS), the drop-outs from the post-68 euphoria, those who sympathise with all the left-wing causes as they watch them on TV, but who would not be seen dead on a picket line. It ties in with the ‘new’ politics being pushed by Beyond the Fragments (much inspired, like some of the New Statesman writers by the brand of militant populist reformism preached by E.P. Thompson) and the rather older (and increasingly old hat) politics of the Eurocommunists. It cross-cuts neatly with many of the arguments used by the Bennites.

Indeed, it is almost as if the Statesman is consciously trying to become a vehicle for taking aboard all these differing groupings. Certainly, the list of the contributors to any issue reads like it.

But where, if anywhere, does it want to take them all? Political logic would seem to indicate towards the Labour left. If you want radical reform, you need a reformist agency, and the Labour Party is the only viable parliamentary reformist agency in Britain today. Some of the Statesman’s staff and contributors clearly see Benn as some sort of answer: even Robin Blackburn has insisted in its pages that ‘Labour is shaking off its Fabian tutelage’, and the message of a recent exchange of correspondence about the ‘Militant’ group was very much that the group gave the rest of the Labour left a bad name.

Yet the Statesman as such is holding back from endorsing the Labour left perspective. No doubt there are relatively accidental reasons for this; some of the editorial team probably still remember a little of what they learnt as young revolutionaries; Page is said to have an intense dislike of Benn. But there is something else involved as well.

The Statesman’s milieu has always been the fellow travelling milieu in British politics – those who would go along with the CP in the thirties, with CND in the late 1950s, with Wilson in the mid-60s – but whose lives were too comfortable and secure for the bother of organising anything.

The post-68 part of this milieu is a bit tired of fellow travelling with the revolutionary left or a bit bored with the CP (witness the decline of the Communist University of London) but is not yet quite enamoured with Benn. In time that mood could shift, and the milieu could well throw itself behind Benn, dragging in its wake, the New Statesman (and Time Out, The Leveller, most of the Fragments and, probably, bits of Socialist Challenge, the more steadfast people around the Statesman will then have to choose whether to go along with the milieu, or to try to construct a different sort of vehicle, relating to a different sort of milieu.

Last updated on 21 September 2019