100 Years of the New Statesman – some idle thoughts


A few weeks ago, The New Statesman celebrated its centenary with an omnibus edition. I’m not a regular reader, though I certainly have been in the past, but I was tempted enough to pick it up for old times’ sake (as, I suspect, were many others).

It’s a really entertaining read. News-making coded commentary from former Prime Ministers; a very direct and self-aware essay from the magazine’s current editor; a clutch of great archive pieces, including plenty by and about Orwell; interesting material from Stewart Lee and John Gray; the usual self-serving twaddle from Laurie Penny – and an unexpected (and unmotivated?) assault on the late Christopher Hitchens by Julian Barnes. If you can still find an issue, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.

It’s interesting to note that the tone that I’d certainly become used to hasn’t gone anywhere – a parade of mostly-familiar names and faces from the more populist end of the literati. The magazine is still redolent of a chattering class, chattering mostly to itself, on much the same essayist/gossipist circuit as ProspectThe London Review of Books and even The Spectator (which I also don’t read on a regular basis, but which seems, politics aside, to be the more consistently provocative publication overall).

The juxtaposition of the New Statesman‘s first ever leading article with the most current one is a moment of genius – the two glaring at each other over the binding in a double-page spread. Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s original effort is a fascinating historical artefact, but eerily similar to the contemporary fare: similarly vague, though more up-front about it. The 2013 leader is quick to point out that the Webbs quickly fell out with their periodical over the Statesman’s determination to be critical of the Labour party; I’m sure many current-day readers would welcome a similar determination in the magazine’s current incarnation. 

The 2013 reader takes a routine jab at the tax-avoiding habits of the rich. Of course, long before their adventures in journalism, the Webbs also founded the London School of Economics, whose library was set up a year later. When I was a student at the LSE, the very widespread scuttlebut was that the two institutions – the university and its library – had been set up as distinct entities for the purpose of ‘efficient taxation’ and the benefits of separate charitable status. I’ve never been able to confirm or deny this rumour, but it made me smile.

The Webbs were the arch-Fabians, and the Statesman was intended to be the vehicle for a rationalist approach to social questions, adopting “something at least of the detachment of the scientific spirit”. I wonder how that’s going.

In 100 years, this magazine has come to the conclusion that it must espouse some species of liberalism, rather than collectivism – and it’s interesting to see it being so explicit about that philosophical change. The leading article makes it clear that the outright socialist goals – ownership of the means of production, etc. – belong to the past. In its way, it’s been as influences by Thatcher and Blair as any part of the British establishment.

The Webbs were very wary, in their leader, to kill off any expectation of their actually describing the conditions of the good society. Similarly, in 2013, we are grateful merely for a historical trend toward “justice”, and hopeful for more of it, though not in any particular way.

Read from another standpoint, the New Statesman is simply the journal of a compromised left, long since detached from the real radicalism and revolutionary fervour of the original, more ideologically coherent movement. Donald Sassoon’s A Hundred Years of Socialism best describes the effects of a heartbreaking paradox: the more things change for the good, the less likely things can ever change altogether. With each incremental democratising step, progressive policy or component of welfare capitalism, the true, equalising revolution became more improbable. The Fabians were at the heart of this compromise, and the New Statesman still is today.

The Epistemology of Sherlock Holmes

Focus or branch out?

In 1887, Sherlock Holmes didn’t care at all about breadth of knowledge, and wasn’t interested in amassing esoteric information. He was ignorant of many things, focused purely on his rather narrow interests. He didn’t even know, for example, that the Earth orbits around the Sun:

“It is of the highest importance not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones … you say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” – A Study in Scarlet

But then something changed. In 1915, Holmes is reported to have said:

“Breadth of view, my dear Mr. Mac … the interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest.” – The Valley of Fear

And then in 1927:

“I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge … my mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein – so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there.” – The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane

The latter two statements clearly contradict the first. Holmes has moved from a tightly focused schema of knowledge to one that is all-encompassing and places value in ‘out-of-the-way’ information.

What are we to deduce? Did Holmes change his mind, and his methods? Did he receive a serious bash on the head at the Reichenbach falls? Did Watson misunderstand or miscommunicate some (or all) of these moments? Are we then to consider him an unreliable narrator?

Perhaps this is the more interesting question: Why did Arthur Conan Doyle switch tacks?

Is an obsessively focused mind more convincingly capable of observation and induction in the investigation of crimes, or do we prefer the Renaissance Man of the late Holmes, whose holistic sense of knowledge enabled him to make unlikely connections?

I think these differences really caught my attention because they seem to mirror the choices we are asked to make – or, at least, the unconscious patterns we eventually fall in to – when it comes to knowledge. To become expert in any one area is usually predicated upon selective ignorance in a host of others. We might be impressed by someone with a vast range of information at their command, but how often would we call them a genius? Is it realistic to horde tidbits of esoterica on the basis that it might some day come in handy?

Top Ten Online Article @ Prospect Blog

Speaking of my occasional writing at Prospect Magazine’s online presence (see previous post), I was surprised and gratified to discover one of my articles on their end-of-year online content roundup.

I’m officially no.9 on their top ten list of online-only articles! See!

It’s important to bear a few things in mind here: first of all, while it says that the list is in “no particular order”, my splurge about the end of Lost and its important online following is still probably one place too high.

Secondly, this DOES mean that I made the list and Brian Eno did not. Brian Eno. I am not worthy.

Students should vote (!) @ Prospect Blog

Happy New Year!

I forgot to say that I wrote another piece for First Drafts, Prospect Magazine UK’s blog.

It’s called Shouldn’t students put voting ahead of activism?, which was (I thought) a fairly uncontroversial thing to suggest.

Here’s an extract:

Students’ tendency to self-disenfranchise may contribute to their willingness to express themselves in alternative ways. But to engage in the public sphere in a non-systemic way without participating in the institutionalised structures of democratic change seems terribly incoherent.

Old news now, I know, but any thoughts or reactions would be welcome.

LOST’s Ingenious Apologists @ Prospect Blog

My third piece for First Drafts, the blog of Prospect Magazine UK. I’m quite pleased with this one.

I offer a few critical thoughts about how the show was wrapped up. I think most sensible folk agree that it was unsatisfying. But I also argue that the fun was always in the magnitude and cleverness of Lost’s web following.

I’ve got a bit of form talking about Lost on this blog – take a look through the ‘TV’ category if you don’t believe me. I think I’ll miss it.

My Prospect post is here, and here is a little extract:

Perhaps Lost’s creators shelved whatever overarching explanation they had originally concocted when they realised that it could never compare to the intricate, crowd-sourced theories of their viewers.

Oh, and beware the spoilers.

“The English do not Love a Coalition” @ Prospect Blog

I’ve scribbled a bit more over at First Drafts, Prospect Magazine’s blog. Mostly to do with Disraeli’s failed ambition to form a government with Gladstone and his angry clique of free-trading “Peelites” in 1852: has David Cameron simply succeeded where Disraeli failed?

Take a look here.

Here’s a wee excerpt:

He [Disraeli] seemed to see that coalitions indicate a recognition that differing, conflicting ideas can be equally valid. In both cases he was able to play the hand he was dealt as if it were the one he had been hoping for all along: one trait that Cameron really can claim to share.

The David and Nick Show @ Prospect Blog

I’ve written a short piece on the day’s events and our brand new governing coalition over on Prospect Magazine’s blog.

Here’s a small extract:

In fact, the Lib Dem members I’ve been speaking to are surprisingly open-minded about the future of this deal. There is a sense that the real gain here is the chance for real debate, not only in the newspapers, not only in parliament, but in the heart of government itself: debate around the cabinet table. Gordon Brown tried for a “government of all the talents,” but Cameron has come closer to achieving it.