Liberalism at Large: The World according to the Economist by Alexander Zevin - review by William Keegan

William Keegan

Gunboat Journalism

Liberalism at Large: The World according to the Economist


Verso 538pp £25 order from our bookshop

Although as fallible as any newspaper or periodical, The Economist has a great reputation. Its weekly issues almost reek of confident and well-informed authority. This sense of authority is especially recognised by the American political, financial and business elites. Successive editors in recent decades have invested heavily in improving its North American sales, with impressive results.

I have long thought that this authority comes from one simple policy: with rare exceptions, the news and views to be found in The Economist are presented from on high, anonymously. But one of the many virtues of this impressive book is that Alexander Zevin gets behind the mask. By delving into the history of The Economist – it was founded in 1843 – and interviewing recent editors and staff, Zevin, an American academic, has produced a lively account of the many disagreements (often fierce) that lay, and lie, behind the seemingly confident assertions that appear in print.

Assertions? Yes, there is plenty of news, though more selectively reported than in the average newspaper. But The Economist’s opinions are presented with less of the ‘on the one hand and on the other’ approach that is favoured in that other success story to which it is related (having once been part-owned by it), the Financial Times.

As the title indicates, this is a book about liberalism and The Economist’s propagation of it. But as the great Professor Joad would have said, ‘It all depends what you mean by liberalism.’ These days there is much talk of the differences between political liberalism, economic liberalism and social liberalism. In the 19th century, when The Economist was establishing its reputation, its commitment to free trade and capitalism was such that, with regard to the humanitarian 1844 Factory Act, it could opine: ‘the more it is investigated, the more we are compelled to acknowledge that in any interference with industry and capital, the law is powerful only for evil, but utterly powerless for good.’

Zevin points out that, from the Crimean War to the present day, The Economist has championed ‘liberal imperialism’, to the point where one of its journalists felt able to come out in a farewell speech with the crack that, in all his time there, The Economist ‘never saw a war it didn’t like’. The author gives us the embarrassing revelation that the magazine was up to its neck in its relations with Henry Kissinger. Perhaps enough said. However, the redeeming features of recent times include the paper’s brave assault, under editor Bill Emmott, on the appalling Silvio Berlusconi, and its recognition, before many others, of the monstrosity of the eurosceptic move to take the UK out of the European Union.

Full disclosure, as they are fond of saying in one of my favourite newspapers, the New York Times: I myself have known every editor of The Economist since Geoffrey Crowther (editor from 1938 to 1956) with the exception of Donald Tyerman (editor from 1956 to 1965), who single-handedly brought the paper down to earth and made it human, by participating in a television programme in which he was so drunk that, for decades afterwards, Private Eye referred to the magazine (by the way, Zevin tells us it doesn’t like being called a magazine) as ‘The Econopist’.

The sequence of its postwar editors tells us a lot about the evolution of The Economist’s declarations from on high, and about changing economic fashions in Britain. The formidable Crowther was what your reviewer would regard as a good Keynesian. Under the influence of that power behind the scenes Norman McRae – who was apparently ruled out of the editorship because he cut his own hair – the paper was again, in this reviewer’s opinion, rightly slow to bow to the Friedmanite doctrine of monetarism pursued by Thatcher in the early 1980s.

Alas, the paper relented under the editorship of my old friend Rupert Pennant-Rea, whom I myself had introduced to The Economist when we were both working at the Bank of England in the 1970s. The man I had thought of as a fellow Keynesian fell, according to Zevin, for the false god of monetarism – a concept subsequently disowned by the high priest himself, Milton Friedman, in, of all places, a ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview during the early 2000s.

What matters in journalistic life, however, is the big issues. The Economist repented on monetarism, grasped the need for an expansionary fiscal response to the banking crisis of 2007–8 and has, from the moment of the announcement of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, been outstanding in emphasising the absurdity of the idea of leaving.

This is a great book, of considerable scholarship. I strongly recommend it, not least for its historical focus and the engrossing chapters on the 19th century. The greatest name connected with the paper is probably the mid-19th-century editor Walter Bagehot, whose insistence on the vital function of central banks as ‘lender of last resort’ in a crisis is gospel to this day. Indeed, his name is still used in the paper as a pseudonym for its political commentator.

Being an author myself, I do not subscribe to the practice of some reviewers of saying ‘this book would have been better without the following forty-five errors’. However, I cannot resist pointing out that only an American academic would have written that Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married in Westminster Cathedral. It was not a Roman Catholic ceremony. The wedding was at St Paul’s.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter