Long life

My role in saving The Spectator

Forty years ago, Henry Keswick offered me a job for which I seemed wholly unprepared. Here's why I took it

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

I was wondering what to write about this week when I suddenly realised that exactly 40 years ago this Saturday I became editor of this magazine. Despite eventually getting the sack, I hung onto the job for nine years, from 1975 to 1984, which is still the longest that anyone has had it since Wilson Harris ended his 21-year tenure in 1953. The Spectator has had 15 editors since him, but none apart from myself has lasted for much more than six years. Fraser Nelson, however, looks set to outlast us all.

I am surprised how little I can remember of those years (or perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, given my drinking habits at the time), but I will never forget how they started. Henry (now ‘Sir Henry’) Keswick, back from 14 years in Hong Kong in a hereditary role as head of the great trading house of Jardine Matheson, bought The Spectator as a way of re-establishing himself in Britain and possibly helping him to get selected as a Conservative candidate for a seat in Parliament.

If he failed in this second objective, it was probably because he chose as editor someone with no experience of politics and without any useful political connections. That was me; and the only reason he chose me, Max Hastings wrote at the time in the Evening Standard, was that I was ‘the only journalist he knew’. I had known Henry since childhood; his father was my father’s best friend; his mother was my godmother; we had been at both school and university together. So, yes, he knew me; but it was nevertheless bold of him to entrust the loss-making Spectator to someone so unqualified for the task.

I had been a journalist for the previous 11 years, nearly all of them at Reuters, most of which I had spent abroad as a correspondent, first in Paris and then Rome. But I wasn’t just ignorant of British politics; I knew nothing of literary London or of the people who frequented it. I had read the New Statesman a bit in my youth, but never The Spectator. I had never voted Conservative. Nobody but Henry could possibly have chosen me for the job.

I also had serious doubts about accepting it. When I decided to do it, it was basically for two reasons. The first was that I thought that even I could make it more acceptable to its natural readership. It was visually crude and had become, prior to the in-out referendum on Europe of June, 1975, a strident, one-issue journal, devoted almost exclusively to campaigning in favour of withdrawal from the European Economic Community. It was performing a useful function, for it was almost alone in the British media in advocating this; but I felt that its decline in circulation — then down to a miserable 13,000 or less — was largely attributable to its gracelessness and its hectoring manner. It is as if the current Spectator, facing another referendum on Europe in the next couple of years, were to be a sort of house organ of Ukip.

My second reason was my reverence for Harold Ross, the founding editor in the 1920s of the New Yorker, the greatest magazine to be created in the 20th century. I would not dream of comparing myself to him, who was a sort of genius, in any respect except one: he, like me, had no literary background and had previously been no more than a news reporter on various American newspapers before becoming editor of an army journal for US servicemen in France during the first world war. But his unashamed ignorance of almost everything (most famously ‘Moby Dick. Was that the man or the whale?’) led him to query anything in an article that he didn’t know or understand, and this is something that I think editors should never be embarrassed to do. It’s a service to similarly ill-informed readers, and it’s amazing what waffle it can expose.

Anyway, I spent nine years losing poor old Henry substantial sums of money until even he, patient though he was, got fed up and sold the magazine. He is, however, the person who saved it. We did eventually turn it round, but with the speed of a giant oil tanker changing course. If he had been less patient, it might have died. And the recovery was not only slow, but also modest. By the time I left the circulation was still only about 20,000, much less than a third of what it is now. We have my successors to thank for making it the success story it is today.


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  • davidshort10

    You should tell us in a future column about your editorship of the Saturday Independent magazine for which I would have paid more than the newspaper cover price for it alone.

  • kaymanaisle

    Given that you liken the Speccie’s progress to an oil tanker changing course, you can certainly be thanked for being a part of the process of turning the magazine into what it is today. I’m a newish subscriber, I access it digitally from outside the UK and it’s a pleasure to read, so thanks.

  • aspeckofboggart

    The whale as Frankenstein is the monster.

  • David

    I am close to taking out a subscription. I really like Fraser’s writing, and Rod Liddle and Julie Burchill, and most of the rest of team. I don’t like some of the cheap shots at UKIP’s expense, but I manage to bite my tongue. As a former journalist and editor I can see it’s a very skilfully edited publication. Many magazines have gone to seed, but The Speccie is very much on the ascendent. Keep up the good work, boys and girls!

  • Hey Alexander Chancellor, how did you and The Spectator miss the West’s refusal to verify the ‘collapse’ of the USSR in early 1992, the West’s survival dependent on verification?! Oops!

    The following is a discovery I made in May regarding the fake collapse of the USSR, and what that fraudulent collapse proves about the institutions of the West…

    When Soviet citizens were liberated from up to 74 years of horrific Marxist oppression on December 26, 1991 there were ZERO celebrations throughout the USSR, proving (1) the “collapse” of the USSR was a strategic ruse; and (2) the political parties of the West were already co-opted by Marxists,* otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ruse.

    ZERO celebrations, as the The Atlantic article inadvertently informs us…


    For more on this discovery see my blog…



    The West will form new political parties where candidates are vetted for Marxist ideology, the use of the polygraph to be an important tool for such vetting. Then the West can finally liberate the globe of vanguard Communism.


    * The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848(1) thought Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly,(2) so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions. In the case of the United States…(continue reading at DNotice)…


    Now you know why not one political party in the West requested verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the “alternative” media. When determining whether the “former” USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the “former” USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    The fraudulent “collapse” of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Marxists, which explains why verification of the “collapse” was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    It gets worse–the “freed” Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of “Perestroika” (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.

    The above means that the so-called “War on Terror” is an operation being carried out by the Marxist co-opted governments of the West in alliance with the USSR and other Communist nations, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending “War on Terror”; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union “From the Atlantic to Vladivostok”; which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West “lost” China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms, and proving that the Sino/Soviet Split was a ruse, as KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn told the West back in 1962), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.