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 Prospect, The 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.