Drunken editor staggers into history

The New Statesman
April 12, 1996

If only The New Statesman could win readers with the same facility as it attracts publicity. Its vicissitudes claim screeds of space in the media supplements of the broadsheet press. Its name is so deeply rooted in the national consciousness that it has been given to two situation comedies - Rik Mayall's 1980s Thatcherite B'stardry was preceded by an odd short-lived vehicle for the Welsh actor Windsor Davies. And its instinct for survival makes the first half of its old nickname, Staggers and Naggers, wholly appropriate.

Adrian Smith's study of its early days, pre-1931, is well timed, the book's House of Commons launch party coming on the very day of yet another change of ownership taking place: the room was dotted with staff journalists contemplating an extremely uncertain future. They and their paper, still labouring in the afterglow cast by Kingsley Martin's defining reign (193160) as editor can doubtless identify all too readily with the earlier period described by Smith, when the merger of The New Statesman with The Nation was yet to come and the downs in its fortunes were as common as the ups. Smith is alive to the contemporary resonances of his research, although perhaps with a surer touch for the earlier period than for more recent times.

His resuscitation of those days is a worthwhile exercise. History, we are frequently told, is written by the winners. But it has an equal propensity to be written about winners. So we know more of Martin's New Statesman and Nation, Delane's Times and Christiansen's Express than of the less successful papers that came before and after. But the strugglers, who far outnumber the soaraways, also deserve to be studied.

Smith is particularly concerned to revive the memory of Clifford Sharp, editor throughout the period under study. He is undoubtedly right when he argues that Edward Hyams's previous history of the paper, idiosyncratically de haut en bas, is unfair to Sharp. He was certainly an unpleasant individual and, in numerous fields, a lousy judge. But these are characteristics of many successful editors, and Smith correctly notes that the offers made to Sharp to edit Liberal national dailies and his undoubtedly distinctive editorial voice together demonstrate considerable talent. The image of Sharp in his years of drunken decline staggering to the office "eager to put the paper, though not himself, to bed" is both poignant and an example of Smith's taste for the crisp one-liner - while the Statesman board's attempt to dry Sharp out by sending him to prohibition-era New York is both the funniest and the saddest story in the book.

There is more than a little wistfulness in Smith's reiterated view that The Nation, though the junior partner in the 1931 merger, was the better, livelier and more readable paper for almost the whole of 191331 period. Smith's reference to the Labour party in 1928 appearing "dull, complacent and self-righteous and thus curiously akin to the New Statesman at the time" suggests occasional regrets that he did not choose to study The Nation. Not the least of the problems facing the press historian is the sheer bulk of material to be mastered: anything is potentially of significance, as Joel Wiener has noted. But if vast quantities of print are to be waded through, it helps if they are readable.

And yet the fact remains that The New Statesman emerged the winner in this particular battle. Locating his analysis firmly in the context of the Lib-Lab battle for leadership of the left, Smith makes it clear that The Nation may be ranked with The Daily Chronicle and The Westminster Gazette among the victims of the decline and virtual destruction of Liberalism in the 1920s. The Liberals had more and better ideas than their two main rivals combined at the 1929 election (another point with contemporary resonance) - and much good it did them.

Smith demolishes any suggestion that The New Statesman's victory was down to the quality of its arts and books coverage, although his judgement benefits a little too much from hindsight to be entirely fair. And he is definitely right when he says that Labour's attempted formal takeover in 1925 could only have led to disaster. The varying voices of Mostyn Lloyd, Douglas Cole and Sharp may have made the paper's politics erratic and often inchoate, but at least they preserved what Francis Williams termed "the priceless journalistic gift of surprise". And by the late 1920s the Statesman had one supreme virtue: it was the only paper of its type Labour had got. "The Labour Party needed the New Statesman, even if it did not know it," says Smith. That message, like this lucid, readable book, remains relevant.

Huw Richards is a reporter on The THES. His history of The Daily Herald will be published next year.

The New Statesman: Portrait of a Political Weekly, 1913-1931

Author - Adrian Smith
ISBN - 0 7146 4645 8 and 4169 3
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £30.00 and £15.00
Pages - 340

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