Back in the good old days before the new puritanism, I was nursing a lunchtime pint and the political weeklies alone in Annie’s Bar in the Palace of Westminster when the Labour MP Eric Heffer burst in, as he did everywhere. ‘What are you reading?’ demanded the burly Bennite. ‘The Spectator,’ I replied. ‘I prefer it to the Staggers.’ A proud autodidact, Eric looked around the bar to be sure there would be no other witnesses to his heresy. ‘So do I,’ he whispered.
It was a widely shared view. New Statesman readers were being bored comatose at that time by the dour editorship of Bruce Page, whereas The Spectator’s thirty-year decline was being reversed by Alexander Chancellor (editor from 1975 to 1984). An Old Etonian charmer, whose anarchic scepticism and curiosity came with a lifelong aversion to voting Tory, Chancellor remains my idea of what the magazine should be about: he was a ‘thoughtful Whig’, as Spectator contributor J S Mill might have put it.
Appearing eight years ahead of its bicentenary (don’t be so impatient, boys), David Butterfield’s highly readable romp through its history reminds members of The Spectator club – it has always had a very clubby feeling – of editorial triumphs and disasters, commercial horrors and some remarkable luck. That luck saved the Spec (some say Speccie) from Murdoch and Maxwell, but not from Benjamin Moran, an American diplomat who in 1859 connived with railway moneybags James McHenry to buy it as a vehicle for pro-slavery sentiment ahead of the Civil War.
If the pair had succeeded in wrecking its reputation beyond rescue, few would now remember Robert Rintoul (1787–1858), the workaholic Scottish Nonconformist and printer-turned-entrepreneur who founded The Spectator and edited it for thirty years. Backing the 1832 Reform Act and repeal of the Corn Laws, Rintoul made himself one of the great men of early Victorian England, a friend of Dickens and Walter Bagehot (mastermind behind The Economist) and an enemy of ‘toothless’ Lord Melbourne and young Disraeli (‘a spoiled child of parliamentary fashion’). Rintoul, the only editor with a mountain named after him in New Zealand, consciously emulated the spirit of Addison and Steele’s revered, eclectic Spectator of 1711 to 1712. In his turn, he bequeathed features and habits of mind that survive in today’s era of Aston Martin and Cartier sponsorship.
These included disrespectful political and cultural criticism. The high jinks of La Traviata (1853) and Wuthering Heights (1847) may barely have warranted a shrug among staffers in the Boris Johnson ‘Sextator’ era (1999–2005). But Verdi’s masterpiece was denounced by Rintoul’s Spec as ‘sensual profligacy and moral degradation’; Emily Brontë’s novel was ‘coarse and disagreeable’. Nowadays such qualities would be enough to earn Emily and her sisters a column – Parsonage Life perhaps. Emily and Charlotte are very Spectator names.
The newspaper – it regarded itself as such well into the 20th century – was rescued by the remarkable partnership of Meredith Townsend and Richard Hutton, editors and proprietors from 1861 to 1897, when its large pages were still being cut and folded by ladies before dispatch. Clever, learned and Nonconformist, they denounced the Confederacy and the ‘servility to cotton’ of commerce and much of the intelligentsia, including Gladstone. Gladstone would later write a famous letter protesting that The Spectator’s reporter had misquoted him when claiming that, as busy as he was as prime minister, he still read Homer every morning. It couldn’t happen now.
Under Townsend and Hutton the Spec floated between Liberal and Tory, its lodestars liberty and free trade. It broke with Gladstone over Irish Home Rule, as it would with Edward Heath – definitely not a Spectator type – over Europe in the 1970s. But in the 20th century it steadily drifted Tory, with three future Cabinet ministers, Ian Gilmour (also the owner from 1954 to 1967), Nigel Lawson and Johnson among its editors. There was also Iain Macleod (editor between 1963 and 1965), whose denunciation of how the Tory ‘magic circle’ made Alec Douglas-Home PM instead of Rab Butler remains one of the Spec’s most famous articles. All the while, the New Statesman, its sales peaking at ninety thousand a week, was dominant and the Spec sinking gently – until Chancellor was appointed editor by its new owner, Henry Keswick, who sold it on in 1981 to another moneyed Hong Kong taipan, Algy Cluff.
Butterfield is a classics don at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and an authority on the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, which may help explain his passion for The Spectator. He has written this labour of love in a lively, even jaunty style. This serves the reader well for two thirds of the book, though his declared indifference to politics ensures that we learn less about the Spec’s attitude towards Hitler (ambiguous for too long) or the Suez invasion (admirably savage) than about the mysterious identity of a waspish academic gossip columnist trading as Mercurius Oxoniensis (Hugh Trevor-Roper, it turns out, not Rod Liddle).
As the book approaches the Big Question (‘How will he treat Boris?’), the tone becomes more reverential, the narrative of sackings, misjudgements and betrayals more euphemistic. Brilliant contributors (Katharine Whitehorn pioneered a women’s page in Gilmour’s time) were willing to write almost for free for the Spec, as they always had been. As editors, Dominic son-of-Nigel Lawson, Charles Moore, Matthew d’Ancona and the lovably elusive Frank no-relation Johnson all showed themselves to be clever, talented journalists. But Butterfield seems happy to endorse the self-congratulatory, triumphalist tone that increasingly marked the Thatcher-to-Brexit decades and – even – growing profitability. Take your pick, as we all do, but a Spectator reader did not have to be a politically correct prude or a (Spectator-coined) ‘virtue-signalling’ leftie to raise an eyebrow at the often-flippant, illiberal excesses of Taki, Mark Steyn, loutish James Delingpole, Liddle or, on a bad day, Bron Waugh.
Excess in the name of free speech is their justification, though it is less attractive when tempered by discreet deference to the powerful. A Martian reader with a digital subscription (online expansion was d’Ancona’s lasting legacy) would not learn from Butterfield’s book that Conrad Black, who became its proprietor in 1988, went to jail. Black’s successors as proprietor, the weirdo Barclay twins, are treated here with the respect once reserved for dukes. As for Bent Bananas Boris (whose gentle biographer Andrew Gimson, also once of The Spectator, likened his appointment as editor to ‘entrusting a Ming vase to an ape’), he is even accused of being hard-working. It is a view that Andrew Neil, chief executive of The Spectator post-Black, did not share. He got him out but has yet to get him on television.
Butterfield approvingly quotes Johnson’s defence in 2003 of his future employee Andrew Gilligan for revealing that the Blair government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been ‘sexed up’. Blair’s government ‘did ramp up, flam up, soup up, big up, rev up aspects of the data it was given, to maximise its political impact,’ Johnson – by then an MP – waffled. No one can say that Johnson and his Vote Leave colleague and strategist Dominic Cummings (briefly the Spec’s online editor) failed to note the trick for future use. In 10,000 Not Out Boris gets away with it. He usually has done – so far.
I parted company with the Spec towards the end of the Bush presidency, when one of its precocious young sparks predicted in the cover story that the USA would ‘bomb Tehran by Christmas’. Yeah, right. It had become too bulked out with ads for vulgar baubles, I felt. There was also too much glib, overconfident punditry, too much hard-hearted ideological fervour and not enough genuine humour. As an occasional contributor and awards judge over several decades and an enthusiastic guest at its boozy summer parties, I miss it. I don’t blame earnest Fraser Nelson, editor since 2009, for this. I blame Neil, a formidable hack but a Calvinistic Scot (like Nelson) who lacks a light editorial touch. Roaring Twenties bling and worldly success do not sit easily with rectitude. In the fearful new post-coronavirus world we will soon, with luck, be entering, rectitude may prove the better formula for survival until 2028.