The Spectator at 10,000 (More)

The Spectator’s celebration of its 10,000th issue continues to spread and produce comment. The Daily Telegraph provides an opportunity for The Spectator’s current editor Fraser Nelson to explain what he has found to be the magazine’s approach to politics:

…David Butterfield, a Cambridge don whose new history of The Spectator is published this week, was […] expecting to find a magazine that had evolved hand-in-hand with the Establishment; he found that, instead for two centuries, it had been tweaking the tail of those in power. It was The Spectator that came up with the phrase “the Establishment”, in a 1955 article explaining where British power really lay. The magazine’s first big campaign was to push through Parliament the 1832 Reform Act. In the 1975 EEC referendum, the only publications backing Brexit were The Spectator and the Morning Star. We were also the only one to back the north against the slave-owning south in the American civil war. [… ] And we were denounced as the “bugger’s bugle” when we advocated the decriminalisation of homosexuality, a decade before it happened.

These causes are not really left wing or right wing, and have been taken up by individual editors whose own politics have varied wildly. Over the years, readers have been advised to vote for all kinds of parties – but, usually, given no advice at all. Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1959 about his “aspirations of a mugwump”, saying he would not vote: “I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign in her choice of servants.” Alexander Chancellor, whose inspired editorship saved the magazine in the 1970s, put it best: The Spectator, he said, is a cocktail party rather than a political party. Bang on too much about politics, and it’s over.

The National Review, the American magazine which likes to think of itself as The Spectator’s translantic counterpart (despite itself dating back only to the 1950s), also weighs in with its congratulations in an article entitled “The (Other) Greatest Magazine in the English-Speaking World”.  This is written by Kyle Smith who includes this reference:

The television critic and columnist James Delingpole […] is a master putdown artist himself and once wrote delightfully about getting high with David Cameron while listening to Supertramp during their Oxford years. Delingpole even had freaky photographic evidence. (Yes, they all know one another, the Brits; they all live in the same Evelyn Waugh novel.)

It should be noted in this regard that, when the National Review was started, its founder and editor William F Buckley Jr was a leading admirer and defender of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Waugh in 1960 wrote a review in The Spectator (5 February 1960) in which he praised a book critical of McCarthy by Richard Rovere. In the review, Waugh associated himself with those critical views. Buckley wrote to urge him to reconsider his position and sent him several books and articles supporting McCarthy. Here’s an excerpt from Waugh’s reply:

…McCarthy is certainly regarded by most Englishmen as a regrettable figure and your McCarthy and his Enemies, being written before his later extravagances will not go far to clear his reputation. […] Your book makes plain that there was a need for an invesitgation ten years ago. It does not, I am afraid, supply the information that would convince me that McCarthy was a suitable man to undertake it. Rovere makes a number of precise charges against his pesonal honour. Until those are rebutted those who sympathize with his cause must deplore his championship of it. [Letters, p. 536]

Buckley’s letters to Waugh continued, and he also urged Waugh to write for his magazine. This frustrated Waugh to the point where he wrote to Tom Driberg: “He has been showing me great & unsought attention lately and your article [in the New Statesman] makes me curious. Has he been supernaturally ‘guided’ to bore me? It would explain him.” (Letters, p. 543) Waugh finally relented and wrote a few articles in the magazine. There are at least two: a 1961 review of a biography of Chesterton by Gary Wills and a 1962 report of Waugh’s revisit to Guyana; both are reprinted in EAR which does not, alas, contain his review of the McCarthy book in The Spectator. But neither of these NR articles reflected any change in his views on McCarthy. See previous post. Whether Buckley or his magazine ever changed their views is not known to me.

The Spectator itself has posted another article on its celebration. This is by Simon Courtauld and is entitled “The radical history of The Spectator”. He covers much of the same territory as Fraser Nelson’s article in the Telegraph but adds this brief comment about the magazine’s literary coverage:

Among the fairly entertaining book reviews of the time was one by Bel Mooney, which the literary editor, A.N.Wilson, altered to read as an insult to Clive James. Wilson’s sacking by [Alexander] Chancellor subsequently cost the editor his job. Rebecca West threatened legal action when her wartime book on Yugoslavia was described by Alastair Forbes as ‘Balkan balderdash’. When reviewing a collection of Spectator and New Statesman articles, Auberon Waugh wrote that he couldn’t think ‘of a single reason why anyone should buy it’. In the previous century, more significantly, Spectator reviewers had been dismissive of some of the works of Dickens (especially Bleak House) and the Brontë sisters (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre).

Auberon also wrote for The Spectator from time to time. But of course that wouldn’t stop him from making a joke about them if they were the most convenient target available.



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