Monday, 14 December 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 December 1998

I first thought something was up at the New Statesman when I read Peter Wilby’s media column in last week’s issue. It was an extended argument for not taking circulation figures as the sole criterion for judging the success of a publication. I agreed with it wholeheartedly – but it made me suspect that the Statesman editor was himself presiding over a stagnant or falling circulation and was getting grief from Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster General and the magazine’s proprietor. My suspicions increased when I looked at the Audit Bureau of Circulations website and discovered that the most recent audited circulation for the magazine, just under 26,000, was six months out of date.

Then, last Sunday, the Independent on Sunday carried a story on its front page announcing that the Statesman was about to be sold to a consortium led by Robert Harris, the Sunday Times columnist and best-selling author, and Nick Butler, an economist. According to the Sindy, the idea behind the bid was to make the Statesman more Blairite. Both Harris and Butler are good friends of Peter Mandelson, it noted, whereas Robinson is very much in Gordon Brown’s camp.

On Tuesday, the Independent introduced a twist to the tale, claiming that news of Harris’s interest in the Statesman was an old story that had been resuscitated by Brown’s chief spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan, in an attempt to scupper the bid. According to the Indy, the Brown camp is concerned that Robinson might sell to a Blairite in order to curry favour with Blair and save his ministerial career. Harris denied that he would get rid of Wilby, who has been noticeably more critical of the government than his predecessor as editor, Ian Hargreaves.

Politicians who take a keen interest in what goes on at the New Statesman are nothing new. Its founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, intervened constantly in editorial decision-making. Dick Crossman edited it (very badly) in 1970-72.

But in recent years, with its circulation well below 30,000 and its losses barely sustainable, the venerable weekly has been particularly vulnerable to meddling by Labour politicians. In 1986, after the resignation of Hugh Stephenson as editor, Neil Kinnock intervened forcefully to ensure that his successor would be John Lloyd and not Anthony Barnett. After Lloyd left, Kinnock tried – unsuccessfully – to prevent the appointment of Stuart Weir, whom he had fired as editor of New Socialist, the Labour Party monthly, for advocating tactical voting. In 1991, a consortium led by the Labour peer Lord McIntosh of Haringey (and including Robert Harris and Peter Mandelson) made a hostile bid to buy the magazine which got nowhere.

Three years ago, it was the opposition of Margaret Hodge and various other New Labour trustees to a (fully underwritten) plan to raise capital by selling shares to readers that forced the magazine into the near-bankruptcy from which it was rescued by Geoffrey Robinson, then an obscure backbencher. Robinson was put up to buying the magazine by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And it was Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who first suggested the name of Ian Hargreaves as a replacement for Steve Platt at the Statesman’s helm.

Here I should declare an interest: I was Platt’s deputy; I applied to succeed him; the first thing Hargreaves did when he became editor was fire me; and I don’t like what he did to the magazine editorially or politically. I didn’t exactly hit it off with Robinson either. In the interregnum between Platt and Hargreaves, when I was acting editor (though Robinson told me not to describe myself as such), he grumbled constantly about the content of the magazine. When he interviewed me for the editorship, he seemed more interested in finding out about my sex life than in my ability to do the job. (He’d got it into his head that I was gay – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) I particularly remember him asking whether I had “a mistress”. I don’t think he meant as well as the regular squeeze, but I still wish I’d told him to mind his own business. As for his taste in aftershave, well, the less said the better.

But I’m not grinding an axe – honest. I’m more than happy to accept that Robinson has been the ideal hands-off proprietor to both his editors. He has certainly been as generous with the cash as anyone could wish, losing £2 million in his first year as owner. I’ve no reason to disbelieve Wilby when he says that Robinson leaves him to his own devices.

The point, however, is that it doesn’t look that way to most outsiders. The Statesman’s big problem these days – the reason even millions of pounds cannot buy a respectable circulation – is its reputation as a tame New Labour house journal. And it won’t shed it, whatever it publishes, as long as it is owned by friends of Tony, Gordon or Peter. In this respect at least, Robert Harris is no better than Geoffrey Robinson.

Friday, 4 December 1998


New Times, 4 December 1998

I do not think that I am the only person in Britain who reckons Oskar Lafontaine is a good thing, but there have been a few times in the past month when I have wondered.

His remarks about the need for the countries of the European Union to harmonise their tax policies have attracted a quite extraordinary outpouring of venom here – and not just from the anti-European press and the Tories.

That the Sun dubbed the German finance minister ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ was hardly surprising (though the space it allocated to doing it, three pages, certainly was). Nor was there anything new in William Hague’s reiteration of his party’s tired xenophobia.

But they were joined in their synthetic outrage by others of a normally pro-European disposition – most significantly, the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the prime minister, Tony Blair. "Britain has a veto on tax policy and we will not hesitate to use that if we have to," declared Brown. "It is by cutting taxes, not raising them, that is the way forward to create jobs."

In British political terms, it is easy enough to understand why Brown and Blair reacted as they did. They firmly believe that Labour won the 1997 general election because they spent five years assuring the electorate that Labour had ceased to be a party of "tax and spend". Because tax levels are lower in Britain than everywhere else in the EU apart from Ireland, harmonisation would almost certainly mean an increase in British taxes. So harmonisation is politically unthinkable.

From an economic point of view, the Brown-Blair position is just as easy to grasp. They believe that Britain’s low business taxes and anti-pollution taxes have helped attract inward investment. Harmonisation will reduce Britain’s competitive advantage over its European neighbours.

But this of course is precisely why Lafontaine and nearly everyone else on the continental European centre-left favours harmonisation. To them, Brown and Blair are trying to have their cake and eat it. They want all the advantages of access to the giant affluent EU market – to the extent that they might even sign up for membership of the euro. But they want Britain to undercut continental disincentives to pollute and undercut the continental ‘social wage’. Although they want Britain to benefit from continental infrastructure spending, they don’t want to pay the fair share of the costs.

Worse, if Britain manages to scupper harmonisation, the temptation will grow for other EU governments to emulate its "free rider" position, which in turn could set off a frenzy of competitive tax-cutting that destroyed the capacity of most EU countries to maintain generous welfare states and high infrastructure spending. That would be a betrayal of everything most continental social democrats stand for, and they are quite right to want to stop it.

The spat over harmonisation might turn out to be insignificant. My hunch, however, is that it is a foretaste of a rocky relationship between the British Labour government and the rest of the EU over the next few years.

With the single currency in place from 1 January, the participants in monetary union will have a mass of common problems to solve – and Britain, as a non-participant, will necessarily find itself out of the loop. In these circumstances, it might well be that Brown and Blair will have to threaten use of the British veto to have any influence on EU macroeconomic policy (and not just on taxation). But the more they throw their weight around, the less respect they will command among their partners.