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The decline of the Spectator

My article yesterday about the Aidan Rankin piece in the Spectator, and some of the feedback in the comments section, got me thinking about the state of that magazine these days.

Frankly, it is a much diminished force, even though in raw terms it has a larger circulation than 20 years ago. I recall first reading this weekly back in the middle of the 1980s, when it had writers of elegance and dagger-sharp wit, such as the late and much missed Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn Waugh), ex Daily Telegraph editorial writer Colin Welch (a great student of Hayek and other classical liberal writers), Ferdinand Mount and much more. There was even dear old drunken Jeffrey Bernard musing at the back of the mag about his slow vodka-assisted march towards the Grim Reaper, love of horseracing and racy women.

Alas, with the exception of the incomparable Mark Steyn and the odd individual firecracker of an article, there is more to annoy than charm about this publication today. It reached its high point, I think, when Charles Moore was editor more than 10 years ago. It has never really managed to hit the heights consistently since. It is all too often snobbish, cliched (like the Rankin article quoted above), and inexplicably still gives a perch for that old bigot, Taki.

The Spectator used to be a great sounding board for some of the more challenging ideas coming from conservative/libertarian circles. But today the magazine has lost much of its intellectual espri de corps. Instead we the likes of Matthew Parris bemoaning the demise of Saddam Hussein, for goodness sake.

I think change is needed. The current editor, Boris Johnson, is obviously too busy working as an MP and working on his role as the Young Fogey for the 21st Century to spend a lot of time improving the magazine. Something needs to be done.

I am of course far too modest to suggest a possible replacement.

20 comments to The decline of the Spectator

  • Tony H

    Don’t be modest – put yourself forward! When you’re in the editorial chair, perhaps you’ll consider publishing my highly interesting piece on the history of UK firearms legislation, recently rejected (politely) by Boris Johnson…
    I stopped subscribing during, I think, Frank Johnson’s reign.

  • Liberty Belle

    Oh gosh, Jonathan, re the editorship of the Spectator, will you allow me to drag you reluctantly and shyly to the front of the stage?

    You are right about the declining quality of the Speccie. It just isn’t funny or challenging any more. Sometimes, I go back to it the next day and start reading an article that sounds if not interesting, at least worthy of the five minutes it takes to read it, only to realise after a couple of paras, that I’d already read it the day before. The writing is simply dull. The regular columns are dull. Sometimes the Diary is entertaining if a particularly spirited writer has been roped in (even Joan Collins has her unintended charm), but the Leader is generally a wet and squishy, leftish piece on a subject of little interest. There’s no spike. No wit. No daring any more. Actually, there’s hardly even a real conservative point of view.

    Only the incredibly clever Mark Steyn (who doesn’t usually appear in the online edition) has wit and acuity. And John Oborne turns in highly readable pieces.

    The Letters column isn’t even edited. People write in letters the length of articles, detailing points which are clearly important to them but have no place in a letter to an editor, and they are run as is. It’s drab.

    I read it online and cannot imagine anyone actually paying money for it, as I was once, when Moore was editor, happy to do. In fact, I used to look forward to it each week.

    Boris Johnson appears to be a very charming man, but he doesn’t have the instincts of an editor and these can’t be taught. His column in The Telegraph shows a better instinct for what will catch the reader’s thought than does his editorship of The Speccie. If Boris is reading this, I’m sorry. I like you as a person. I really do.

  • Guy Herbert

    Funny, I’ve always thought of Matthew Parris as being on the side of the angels. I don’t always agree with him, but there’s no point in reading what you can be guaranteed to agree with.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Parris is like a lot of certain columnists – AN Wilson also springs to mind – who likes to shock. I quite like some of his writing. He can be devastating on Blair, whom he obviously loathes. But writing an article saying the Iraqis would be on balance better off under Saddam is plainly bonkers. I have been reading Kevin Pollack’s book on Iraq under Saddam and the tales of mistreatment and torture are horrifying. I really cannot fathom what Parris is thinking.

    Even the isolationists out there should be glad the thug has gone.

  • David Duff

    I, too, cancelled my subscription to ‘The Speccie’ ealier this year when it slowly dawned on me that I was only reading a quarter of it! As your other commentators have noted, it is dull, dull, dull. There was a time when if asked to choose between my wife or ‘The Speccie’, I would at least have given the matter some thought.
    David Duff

  • Hi Jonathan,

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. I will hear no word against the great Boris Johnson, Oliver Letwin’s future Chancellor, and then this country’s greatest future Prime Minister, holding the post for a magnificent 20 years, perhaps combining the Foreign Secretaryship, in the style of great Lord Salisbury.

    Don’t vote Tory. Vote Boris! 🙂


  • Johnathan Pearce

    Andy, don’t get me wrong. I like Boris, but he is a great columnist, not really all that great as an editor, as far as the end-product of the Speccie is concerned.

    Mind you, I like the fact that Boris is unashamed of his Etonian background. He has developed a bit of a cult following, it seems.

    Cannot see him as a chancellor, though. Pity. He’d abolish duties on wine in his first budget, followed by inheritance tax. Heh,

  • Johnathan Pearce writes:

    He’d abolish duties on wine in his first budget, followed by inheritance tax.

    That’s why he’d be great! $-)

    Boris won’t even try to understand the Treasury’s Galbraithian economics. They’ll give him the figures, he’ll ignore them, he’ll cut every tax he can lay his hands on, and then wait to see what happens. He’ll let the coins of the people fructify in the pockets of the people.

    As to the Speccie itself, I don’t think the blame can be laid entirely at Boris’s door. I suspect Mr Rod Liddle is taking more of an editorial hand these days, and if/when IDS finally gives Boris a job, the blonde one will hand the Speccie on in full.

    (If he doesn’t, the constituents of South Oxfordshire, who pay Boris’s parliamentary wages, will have something to say about the matter.)

    What surprises me though is why IDS doesn’t make immediate use of the Top Gear funster, the only likeable Tory in the country the people recognise? Can Boris’s strange vote for Ken Clarke still be holding him back? Well, we all make mistakes.

    AndyD, President, The Boris Johnson Fan Club, Henley-On-Thames, South Oxfordshire

  • George Peery

    Well, I’m obviously out of my depth here, but …

    I began subscribing to the Spectator about a year ago. There are certain disadvantages to being American, and one of these is that my Spectator issues arrive probably two weeks after you British receive yours.

    And yet, I’m very satisfied with the magazine. True, I’m not interested in all the articles, columns and features, but the same is true of the closest American counterpart, the National Review. I like the funny, witty writing in the Spectator; also the fact that the contributors usually don’t take themselves or the magazine terribly seriously (unlike in the US, where political commentary is a blood sport).

    Yes, some of the content is snobbish – but the world could do with a few more snobs. And it’s true that (as it seems some of you are suggesting) the Spectator is not ideologically consistent. The pre-war coverage on Iraq was a real street brawl. But that’s not a problem; that’s an asset.

    The book and arts review sections are exceptionally well-done, and reading one of Deborah Ross’s zany restaurant write-ups can brighten up the gloomiest day, even though I’ll surely never visit the places she writes of.

    Some are complaining about the online edition. It should be no surprise that what’s online and what’s printed between the covers is not the same. People who want free content shouldn’t complain. (In the US, one cannot view the political journals online at all unless one subscribes, and sometimes not even then.)

  • Have to think that the crit is a bit premature – the last couple of editions haven’t been great, but then again so haven’t large sections of the rest of punditry and bloggery. Over the cycle of a couple of years its still seems to me quality.

    As for the question of BoJo’s editing is the problem with the editing or the writers? And if its the writers who would you hire for sharp witty prose? Steyn – hired. Can’t think of anyone else.

  • Yeah the Speccie has been getting a tad lame of late. I toyed with re-subscribing but found myself not reading much of it.

    If I were editor I would hire Steyn, Boris, Jonathan, Tim Blair, Damian Penny, Iain Murray, Iain Dale and Dan Hannan.

  • Cydonia

    Can’t agree with you on this one. I’d buy it just for the wonderfully mordant musings of Theodore Dalrymple and for Ross Clark’s “banned wagon” (pure libertarianism.). Also, you may not agree with Parris but he’s a superb writer and one of the most thoughtful tories around.


  • George Peery

    And we shouldn’t forget that many of the cartoons are simply wonderful — my notice board (“bulletin board”, as we Yanks say) is littered with them.

  • Andy Duncan

    Giles writes:

    Can’t think of anyone else.

    This SUPERB writer’s only ever had one piece in the Spectator, and how he keeps being overlooked by the blonde one, I have no idea:

    Why I No Longer Love Tony

    (Except, I think Boris thinks the writer is slightly mad – hell, he’s probably even right! 🙂


    PS> Oh, and BTW. Boris did a superb editing job on the piece linked to above. He got it down from 4,000 words to around 2,000ish, without the author realising he’d cut it at all. The man can do no wrong for me (except vote for Ken Clarke, talk about how we should help Africa, and other we-should-be-doing-more stuff, but nothing of consequence – By God, I’m a lightweight! 🙂

    PPS> Oh, and in answer to that mad must-have-smoking-skunk Giggle meister yesterday, this article changed Conservative Party policy to make them promise to abolish IR35 when (if?) they get back into government. Ok, it’s not much, but to all IT contractors out there, whose fortunes revive under the forthcoming govt of IDS, as a result, the author is expecting a compensatory free drink in every bar in the land! X-)

  • have to agree with George up there that the cartoons are probably the best in the media at the mo – definitely better than private eye.

    And Andy I apologise and hereby proclaim you the new Orwell!

  • Liberty Belle

    Andy – Editing a 4,000 word piece down to 2,000 words and thereby increasing its quality and readability undoubtedly takes talent, but it is the talent of a sub-editor.

    Giles asks if “it’s a problem with the editing or the writers”. Giles, if the wrong writers are being run and the wrong stories commissioned, that is a real problem with the editing. You could ask about a ship that landed in the wrong port, is it a problem with the captain or the crew?

    Although there are always a couple of readable pieces, usually Ron Liddell among them, the Speccie is stuffed with pedestrian, unchallenging, unwitty dross.

    And the cartoons are dire.

  • Belle, having a good crew depends on the availibilty of a good crew – my point was that I’m not sure portsmouth’s overflowing with talent at the moment. If it was surely there’d be another mag running the articles bojo isn’t. But there isn’t so I’m not sure there are writers out there.

  • Liberty Belle

    Giles – You make a fair point. But magazines tend to take on – in fact, it’s inevitable – the character of the editor. Frank Johnson and Charles Moore didn’t have a problem attracting clever writers with interesting viewpoints. Boris Johnson is, I fear, just too nice. He’s reluctant to wound. This is a charming trait, but not an effective one in the editor of a conservative political mag with a reputation for wit. In the current Speccie’s scenario, no one’s allowed onstage with a rapier. That’s too bad! There are several sharp-edged conservative writers around whom I’ve never seen in the Speccie.

  • Liberty Belle

    Sorry to post twice, but Giles, I failed to address your other point: why doesn’t someone start a new mag with all the brilliant writers I claim are hiding in the wings or are on the scene but just not commissioned by the Spectator? The start-up costs for a magazine are horrendous. Actually, so are the costs of keeping a magazine running. I know nothing about the Speccie’s finances, but I would be surprised if it is not being subsidised by Conrad Black. If not, then it is barely breaking even.

    But the cost of getting a new mag up and running, and getting its voice heard and its presence noticed in the marketplace needs, today, the financial backing of a publishing giant like IPC, and those giants only start new ventures for the mass market, not small mags with limited readership potential.

  • Innocent Abroad

    Come on, Liberty Belle, what do you think this place is? Anyhow, I think I read somewhere that BJ didn’t have time to edit the Spectator and let his secretary do it – but, like you guys banging on, he may not have been entirely serious…