In Other Words

Politics as a Spectator Sport

Politics as a Spectator Sport

The Spectator,
175th Anniversary Issue, 2003, London

Ever since Britain’s Conservative Party defenestrated former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, after Thatcher had won three consecutive general elections, the party’s standing in British politics has rapidly deteriorated. The Tories suffered two of the heaviest electoral defeats in their history in 1997 and 2001, and now only their incompetence allows British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold on to power. In contrast, The Spectator — a weekly magazine traditionally regarded as the in-house publication of the Conservative Party — has gone from strength to strength, as its recent 175th anniversary issue attests. The issue showcases the best articles in the magazine’s history as well as some outstanding fresh content. Perhaps more important, The Spectator‘s weekly sales of 60,000 are nearly three times those of the New Statesman, the Labour Party’s counterpart. How has The Spectator flourished while the Conservatives have floundered?

One lesson that the Conservatives should learn from The Spectator is the power of personality. In the post-Thatcher era, the Conservatives have routinely picked insipid leaders whose main quality is that they prevent more flavorsome party candidates from getting the job. For example, the bland John Major, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 1997, was initially chosen to stop the candidacy of Michael Heseltine, the mace-wielding former defense secretary. Indeed, Conservative leaders often seem more threatened than enthused by signs of vigor in the party. These days, much of the party’s top talent remains outside the Conservative shadow government. Meanwhile, The Spectator‘s editor, Conservative parliamentarian Boris Johnson, is one of the biggest personalities in British politics and is not part of the shadow government. Moreover, the magazine’s contributors remain a who’s who of British intellectual, cultural, and journalistic life.

Of course, one can hardly view The Spectator as a simple cheerleader for the Conservatives. In 1964, for example, The Spectator uncovered how a "magic circle" of party elders dominated by graduates of Britain’s most socially elitist school, Eton, picked a rank outsider — also an old Etonian — as party leader, despite the wishes of the most senior cabinet members. The exposé caused such a furor that changes were introduced allowing Conservative members of parliament to elect the leader themselves. Similarly, an interview published in The Spectator in 1990 — and reprinted in the anniversary issue — marked the beginning of the Conservatives’ disastrous decade. In the interview, Nicholas Ridley, then the trade and industry secretary and one of Thatcher’s closest political allies, described plans for a common European monetary policy as "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe." His comments revealed the divide within Conservative ranks over Europe. These divisions persist and still play a crucial role in keeping the party out of power.

Charles Moore, an editor of The Spectator during the 1980s who went on to edit the Daily Telegraph, ascribes the magazine’s success to its "unique character." This character is distinctly English. Unlike The Economist, which is only 15 years younger and now sells 80 percent of its copies outside Britain, The Spectator has not morphed into an international publication. The magazine also takes a jocular approach to politics and is willing to publish any argument as long as it is well made. For instance, the anniversary collection contains an essay by Lord Jenkins, the most influential British progressive of the post-World-War-II era, and Blair’s first published article. Another Spectator trait is its love of the absurd, well represented in this issue by Digby Anderson’s essay on the best kind of picnic to take on a trans-Atlantic flight. (Travelers take note: Salad niçoise and stuffed goose neck come highly recommended.)

Ultimately, The Spectator‘s tone may help explain the magazine’s success in contrast to the Conservatives’ decline. The speech by recently ousted Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith to the October 2003 party conference was pompous, humorless, and poorly delivered. In contrast, The Spectator remains well written, amusing, and innovative. So, while Duncan Smith turned off all but the most hard-core Conservatives, The Spectator attracts the top writers from across the political spectrum — one more reason why editing the magazine is widely regarded as the best job in British journalism and leading the Conservatives as the worst one in British politics.