Passing the Tebbit test

Dominic Lawson reviews 10,000 Not Out: The History of The Spectator, 1828-2020 by David Butterfield

10,000 Not Out: The History of The Spectator, 1828-2020 by David Butterfield, Unicorn, £25

Conventional wisdom has it that a business of any sort must change with the times in order to survive for very long. The Spectator, the longest continuously published weekly magazine on the planet, is the most emphatic refutation of this proposition and David Butterfield’s history of the Spectator is a lovingly produced and illustrated tribute to that achievement. As Matt Ridley observes in his preface, the book “shows that the Spectator has stood throughout its history for the liberty of the individual against the power of the state. In the 1820s that placed it on the left of the political spectrum; in the 2020s it places it on the right.”

In that sense the magazine was entirely consistent in its championing in the 1950s of the cause of decriminalising homosexual acts, and its precocious advocacy of Margaret Thatcher at a time when small “c” conservative opinion regarded her plans for economic liberalisation as dangerously radical. (Incidentally, the Spectator’s long campaign for what later became known as gay rights earned it the title of “the Buggers’ Bugle”, courtesy of the editor- in-chief of the Sunday Express, John Gordon.)

It shames me somewhat — as a former editor of the magazine and the son of an earlier one — that I did not realise until I read Butterfield that the Spectator in the 1860s had been an outspoken supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the North in the American Civil War and an equally firm critic of the slave-owning southern states. This set the magazine not just against most opinion in this country, but, fascinatingly, the Guardian, whose vehement editorials against Lincoln were not moderated even by his assassination at the hands of a supporter of the defeated Confederates.

But Butterfield’s truly extraordinary discovery is that the Spectator’s support for Lincoln came after a brief period in which it had been secretly acquired by an American diplomat, with the intention of using it as a medium for the endorsement of southern slave owners. I suppose that is a tribute to the fact that the Spectator has long had a political influence quite out of proportion to the size of its readership. But despite what many on the left nowadays imagine, this has not stemmed from a special closeness to senior figures in the Conservative Party.

Quite the reverse: its influence, at least in terms of public debate, is a consequence of its constant willingness to challenge Conservative policy of the day. In my own time as editor, this was most apparent in the Spectator’s consistent opposition to the decision (made, actually, by Margaret Thatcher) to take the pound into the EU’s exchange rate mechanism. The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express (not to mention the non-Tory press) were for some time reflexively behind the policy.

The Spectator was seen as maverick in its opposition, but eventually it was only the Economist and the Financial Times left plaintively singing the government’s tune as the whole strategy fell apart for pretty much the reasons we predicted.

Earlier, under the editorship of Charles Moore (to whom I was deputy at the time) the Spectator — again, alone among the so-called “right-wing press” — attacked the Conservative government for its refusal to offer residency rights to Hong Kong British National Overseas passport holders, in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. I have little doubt that the current prime minister, a former editor of the Spectator himself, knew of this when (only about 30 years too late) he announced that such an offer would be made if Beijing carried through its plan to apply its own security laws to Hong Kong in contravention of the “handover” treaty signed with the UK in 1984.

Strangely enough, the Conservative who led the opposition in the party to any additional immigrants from Hong Kong (with such success that it scared off an initially sympathetic Mrs Thatcher from adopting the Spectator line) later became a director of the magazine.

This was Norman Tebbit, one of a number of illustrious figures that Conrad Black put on the board of the Spectator. A few months into my editorship, Tebbit made his instantly notorious “cricket test” remarks — to the effect that if a British citizen supported, say, India, in a cricket match against England, then he could not be considered a loyal subject, or properly assimilated into the British way of life.

We published a leading article, “No Cheers For Mr Tebbit”, which was as complimentary about his remarks as that headline suggests, and included the observation that “Mr Tebbit is in danger of confusing Yobbo chauvinism with citizenship”. At the next board meeting, Tebbit, looking at me with apparent menace, said: “I wish to address the matter of the recent leading article, ‘No Cheers for Mr Tebbit.’” He then proceeded to declare that it was a tribute to the editorial independence of the magazine that its editor felt free to traduce one of its directors, and that this independence was part of the reason for its continued success.

It is hard to imagine any other publication which would directly, indeed gratuitously, attack a member of its board, or of said board member responding so broadmindedly. And it helps explain why the Spectator has always attracted a following from people who would never count themselves as being on the right. I used to get quite a lot of letters from such readers. One was from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, renewing his subscription with a note telling me that the Spectator was his favourite weekly read, “despite the fact that I disagree with almost all the opinions you express!”

I was not that interested in what line Boris might take as political columnist, just in the joyful creativity of his copy

Another reason is that the Spectator has always put the highest premium on beautiful writing — or if not beautiful, then at least deftly amusing. That, actually, was why as editor in 1994 I appointed Boris Johnson as its political columnist (he was at a bit of a loose end at the time). I was not that interested in what line he might take about this or that, just in the joyful creativity of his copy.

In the light of recent history, though, it’s interesting that in his very first contribution, on Conservative Euroscepticism, he described what he called “the Euro-Ultras” in Westminster: “These men and women have black, black hearts . . . they live in hope . . . of Britain’s departure from the European Community.

But to be fair to Boris Johnson (an increasingly rare attitude), as editor in 2003 he swung the magazine behind the idea of a referendum on EU membership, which, again, had it ahead of the mainstream Conservative press, which has always had much more yearning to be appreciated by whoever happened to be leader of the party than has ever been the case at the Spectator.

Nowhere is this more amusingly identified in Butterfield’s book than when, for the only time in its history, the Spectator didn’t appear for two weeks — because of legislation imposed during a nationwide fuel crisis in 1947. The then editor, Wilson Harris, also an Independent MP for Cambridge University, approached his parliamentary colleague Winston Churchill to remonstrate about the silencing of the magazine. Churchill’s response? “That’s the first good thing I’ve heard to come out of this mess.”

Long may the Spectator continue to infuriate.

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