For eighteen years I have subscribed to and enjoyed reading The Spectatormagazine. But under Fraser Nelson’s editorship from 2009 the magazine has slowly and irrevocably gone downhill and into the gutter. Gone are the days when it was a civilised, gentle, iconoclastic read where an article could surprise and entertain from unusual angles. Good pieces still occasionally appear, but in the midst of a very different content. One that is often nasty, condemning, quick to judge people, and with a sense of profound lack of curiosity about the world – and opinions beyond the Spectator bunker.
This decline is fed by the emerging dominance of an ignoramus commentariat who seem content to blow out numerous opinions with no recourse to facts that get in away of a good polemic. This is the magazine that regularly provides platforms for Rod Liddle, Toby Young, Douglas Murray, James Delingpole and, to prove dim-witted male Brits don’t have a monopoly on bigotry, Lionel Shriver.
My weekly Spectator read has increasingly involved navigating ill-informed ranting, hatred, and bile from these and others to find the isolated oases of wit and light. Thus, The Spectator still carries erudite political analysis from James Forsyth, its Political Editor, while Isabel Hardman and Alex Massie excel online; Charles Moore, Thatcher biographer, provides what The Spectator used to – an insight into poshness and privilege – while the book reviews contain numerous gems (although increasingly Rod Liddle pops up).
The decline of The Spectator has been a long time coming but is about deeper trends than one person, and reveals something dark and foreboding at the heart of what passes for British conservatism which should worry all of us.
A tour of The Spectator is a salutary one. There is Rod Liddle who seems happy to present himself as a caricature: an ill-informed, bad tempered ranter and sledgehammer who has never heard of subtlety. One senior staffer at The Spectator called him ‘a ghastly man’. A typical Liddle column of late was entitled: ‘Yet more derangement about rape’ – an accurate description of his comments. He writes of a fictitious world where rape prosecutions happen ‘even when police had direct evidence that no rape had occurred’, offering no proof for this ridiculous assertion. Bizarrely he still sees himself as on ‘the left’ – which he announced to bemusement on BBC Question Time last year – and remained a Labour Party member until suspended for allegedly racist comments.
Toby Young’s public persona has been built on causing controversy and a very obvious entitlement attitude that his views should be taken seriously. His column in the magazine reveals some of his peccadillos such as the long shadow the influence of his father casts over his life. Michael Young was a hugely important Labour figure, wrote the historic 1945 party manifesto, came up with the idea of the Open University, and wrote a book, ‘The Rise of the Meritocratic Society’, where he coined the word and viewed it as a negative. You can see why Toby has a problem; my Spectator insider said one of his main problems was that he wasn’t that intelligent and hadn’t yet realised the full extent of this; plus he gets all ‘Snowflake’ about people suggesting his father got him into Oxford after he was rejected.
Douglas Murray sees himself as a cultural warrior for Western values, democracy and tolerance. He is permanently partisan, condemning slippery thinking in Western liberalism and how it has appeased Islam, anti-semitism and enemies of the West. But Murray has double standards for his allies and friends. Hence, in 2017, journalist Kevin Myers stated: ‘Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest price possible’ which was widely criticised as anti-semitic; Murray jumped to his defence, attacking the critics as people ‘who should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves’ engaging in censorship. Similarly, Roger Scruton’s avalanche of offensive comments in interview with the New Statesman’s George Eaton, brought forth a counter-gotcha operation from Murray, getting hold of the interview recording to defend Scruton to claim a stitch-up.
Then there is the pantomime figure of James Delingpole, who works for the alt-right Breitbart News and sees himself as a court jester, daring to say the unsayable and the utterly stupid, awaiting the reaction. My Spectator person said of him: ‘Delingpole is really just a provocateur who – most of the time – doesn’t really think he should be taken too seriously himself’.
He met his comeuppance when he encountered Andrew Neil on the BBC’s This Week. This was a car crash interview, with Neil challenging him on the future of farming post-No Deal Brexit, and Delingpole struggling for air, saying of the UK ‘we’re going to take a hit but it’s a hit worth taking’ and when asked for further details: ‘I don’t have the answer to that.’ Realising his predicament, Delingpole took to social media and released a semi-mea culpa, confessing that an Oxbridge education teaches you to how to ‘do well in this shallow culture of ours’ because it ‘entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’
Adding to this gaiety is the voice of once liberal American author Lionel Shriver, who penned ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and has been on a downward trajectory of sophistry since. Shriver seems furious that there are people in Britain who refuse to see the world in her simple, judgemental way. A particular annoyance for her is why Remainers are so intolerant of Leavers on Brexit; but on not one occasion has Shriver tried to understand Remain. She even started a recent column addressed to the ‘Remainer Parliament’ (this the Parliament which has been trying to leave the EU and been stopped by ultra-Brexiteers) and signed it, ‘Yours, Over Half the British Electorate’ (the Leave vote was actually 37.4% of the electorate). Not bad to be 100% wrong at start and finish.
Spectator music reviews used to be done by Markus Berkmann who loved the artists and albums he wrote about. Now as if the world needs more Rod Liddle, we have a weekly, shorter music review where he dishes and trashes various artists with little obvious love or attention. The ‘Dear Mary’ column at the back of the mag used to provide a hilarious take on the comedy of modern manners in middle class England, but now is tellingly reduced to not very funny concerns of status anxiety and social climbing.
The decline of The Spectator matters beyond the tale of one magazine taking a wrong turn. For a start the publication has influence, Andrew Neil chairs the company that owns it, and it sits at the centre of a cluster of networks of right-wing ‘think-tanks’ and advocacy groups such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and Taxpayers’ Alliance that peddle the same view of the world.
The Spectator has always represented a strand of English conservatism with a small ‘c’: one prides itself on independence of mind, love of tradition, eccentricity, and belief in manners. Small little shoots of gentility hold out in pockets in the magazine, but are increasingly beleaguered. Its descent mirrors a deep crisis of English conservatism and can be seen in the rise of an absolutist interpretation of sovereignty which has come to the fore in Brexit and which has torn apart Theresa May’s Tory Government.
The Spectator’s lurch into the wildness of bigotry, hated and prejudice is also part of a wider shift across the Western world that is witnessing the demise of the traditional centre-right politics, historically shaped by the church and religion, authority and order, and the hold of the old establishment.
In 2012 I took part in a Spectator debate in London chaired by Andrew Neil – involving Margo MacDonald, Fraser Nelson, Kelvin MacKenzie and Rory Stewart on the subject of Scottish independence. Four hundred people paid top dollar to say things like ‘when I think of Scots I think of Red Indians – both with a grievance culture, drinking and abusing themselves into oblivion’. We each got nine minutes and I opened by saying some of the things I admired about The Spectator then, but concluded that majority Scottish opinion had a problem politically with living on the same island as the gathering world of right-wing England which I called ‘Spectatorland’. I remember pausing before I said this for added affect, to be met by complete silence, apart from four young left-wingers who applauded. Little was I to realise, with the decline of conservatism and fantasy version of Brexit Britain, the full import of my remarks.
One unprincipled alliance under Nelson’s editorship is between the online Spectator and Spiked – and in particular, the latter’s editor, Brendan O’Neill. Spiked, in partnership with Claire Fox’s Institute/Academy of Ideas, are front organisations for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a discredited bunch of ultra-left outliers who closed shop in the 1990s when their journal Living Marxismlibeled ITN. Since then Fox and O’Neill have embraced hard right, libertarian politics, with Spiked funded by the uber-right US Koch Foundation, and supporting the Brexit Party – of which Fox is a candidate in the Euro elections. The Spectator-Spiked alliance has to be one of the most unprincipled ever, which hopefully won’t survive when Nelson steps down.
Running through today’s Spectator is a deep-seated irresponsibility. It can be seen in Nelson’s recent remark that: ‘The biggest myths is that editors have control over their columnists’, as if conceding he doesn’t actually edit or commission anything, but is just a TV pundit promoting himself. Whenever Nelson is challenged about the content of The Spectator his default is to deflect. Last year I asked Nelson about the mag’s moral decline after a particularly odious Rod Liddle column subtitled: ‘My own view is that there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory Party’; he answered: ‘All I can say is that the decline you talk of isn’t reflected in the mag sales figures that are at a record high and growing’, as if all that mattered was box office.
This is the sad story of the decline and trashing of a once proud English institution: one currently edited by a Scot and established by a Dundonian. Media cycles go in fads and fashions, and magazines are no different, but The Spectator used to stand for something worthwhile and unique that reflected positively on a part of culture and politics.
Today it still stands for something, but has become a cheerleader for stupidity, bigotry and nastiness in a world which needs more generosity, kindness and understanding. The decline of The Spectator and the narrow worldview of its editorial and leading commentators give it ideological blinkers and a dogma which used to be found on the revolutionary left. This is not writing or politics that I want to read or subsidise. So for now I bid you au revoir Spectator.