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10,000 Not Out

The History of The Spectator, 1828-2020


David Butterfield


London: Unicorn, 2020

Paperback. 256 pp. ISBN 978-1912690817. £25


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





Being published each week without interruption since July 1828, The Spectator is the longest-lived current affairs magazine in history and the first to bring out 10,000 issues. To commemorate this remarkable event, Classics don David Butterfield (Queens’ College, Cambridge), an occasional contributor and enthusiastic supporter, has assembled a lively and well-illustrated volume that seeks to ‘give a balanced history of The Spectator from its foundation through to the present day’ [2]. At present, The Spectator is generally supportive of the Conservative Party, but some contributors provide notable exceptions to this position. In outlook, the magazine tends to be Atlanticist and Eurosceptic, emphasising links with the USA rather than the European Union, and opposing calls for Scottish independence. It is currently owned by the owners of The Daily Telegraph. However, The Spectator has not always shared this orientation, having been

Radical, Liberal, Liberal-Unionist,Conservative, and on occasion even Labour. More tellingly, for most of the last hundred years, its duty has been to defend a conservative, liberal and avowedly independent outlook. It has always been worldly, but always British; it has been a stout defender of the Union [United Kingdom], but able to look within for insight and to look without for inspiration. [7]

During its long life, The Spectator has had many owners, two dozen editors (no women so far), and has ‘witnessed the reign of eight British monarchs and the rise and fall of fifty-five prime ministers’ [6]. Its survival, Butterfield declares, has been due to ‘a mixture of good writing, bloody-minded grit and genuine luck’, but there has also been ‘a public acceptance that The Spectator is here with a job to do’ [7].

Borrowing its title from a short-lived daily publication by Addison and Steele (1711-1712), The Spectator was the creation of Robert Stephen Rintoul (1787-1858) who had been editor of The Dundee Advertiser, then The Edinburgh Times, and from 1827 of The Atlas in London. In the following year workaholic Rintoul launched The Spectator as ‘a weekly journal of news, politics, and literary, dramatic and musical criticism’ [12] offered by former principal contributors to The Atlas. Appearing from offices in the Strand and from 1833 in Wellington Street (between the Strand and Waterloo Bridge), it was backed by wealthy bankers but managed to lose money in its early years. Its all-important goal was to provide information in order ‘to create an efficient and transparent system of government, so that the people could vote and live as they chose’ [25]. To this end, over the years special Spectator supplements were issued on religious tolerance, postage reform, abolition of slavery and saving the sugar trade, repealing the Corn Laws, promoting a uniform railway gauge, supporting settlement in New Zealand, and many other topics. With editorial assistance from his daughter Henrietta, Rintoul’s paper ‘manifestly grew to be something of an intellectual magnet’ [25] for countless politicians and writers. But now, Butterfield notes, the Rintoul family ‘lies as one in Highgate Cemetery, buried without fanfare in a grave that is at once untended and unvisited’ [77].

Rintoul sold The Spectator in February 1858 at a time when its circulation was falling through competition from a new rival, The Saturday Review; he died two months later. The Spectator changed owners and editors several times during the next three years. With its readership ebbing away, ‘the very survival of The Spectator depended on the purchaser it now found’, and ‘only the most formidable of editors could steer it back to health’ [47]. The new owner (and initial editor) was Meredith White Townsend (1831-1911), a man ‘well-disposed to journalism [who] lived and breathed editorial verve’ [47]. After a few months, Richard Holt Hutton (1826-1897), editor of The Economist, joined him in the editorial role. Educated at University College London, he suggested that UCL was ‘a much more awakening place of education for young men than almost any Oxford college’ [49]. Townsend adopted a firm anti-slavery stance in his powerful writing about the American Civil War. The two men remained co-proprietors and joint editors for a quarter century, supporting the Federalists against the South, parting company with Gladstone when he declared support for Irish Home Rule, and aligning themselves with Liberal Unionists. To bolster the impact of The Spectator, they assembled a formidable list of contributors, including foreign correspondents and travel writers as well as political and literary critics.

Upon Hutton’s death in 1897, John St. John Strachey (1860-1927) became co-owner with Townsend and then sole editor and proprietor by the end of the year. He was an energetic writer, manager and critic who supported schemes to train new soldiers, to promote decent housing for working families in garden cities and suburbs, and to defend Free Trade. He arranged for The Spectator’s editorial offices to relocate to Covent Garden. His dynamism served his influential paper well and circulation continued to rise for over a decade but then declined during the First World War. Strenuous efforts were made to revitalise the magazine, which launched a bold promotional advertisement in 1922 that declared The Spectator to be:

The predominant impartial and independent weekly review. Its articles on politics, civics, literature, country life and the arts have earned for The Spectator a high place in the regard of the educated and intelligent classes. As a commentator, it is fearless and outspoken, and never withholds facts which might be inconvenient to powerful interests [88].

In 1924, after prolonged ill health, Strachey sold his controlling interest to John Evelyn Wrench (1882-1966). He died four years later.

As owner and, from 1926, editor, Wrench used his social connections to secure important interviews with such personalities as Henry Ford, Mahatma Gandhi and Benito Mussolini. On 3 November 1928, he brought out the centenary issue of The Spectator, comprising 96 pages of articles and an equal quantity of advertising matter. Its cover assembled the likenesses of sixteen distinguished past contributors, including Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Mark Twain and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Wrench also launched a campaign to ease serious unemployment in the mining town of Aberdare in South Wales. While remaining owner, he retired as editor in 1932, with Wilson Harris (1883-1955) becoming his successor. The Spectator adopted a critical stance on international affairs declaring itself a friend of freedom rather than of the National Socialist Party in Germany or of Mussolini in Italy. However, Harris gave broad support to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. When war broke out, The Spectator temporarily left its Gower Street editorial office but soon returned. Paper shortages in wartime required downsizing, but publication continued as a central ‘weekly landmark in news and comment’ [110]. Circulation rose from 26,000 each week in 1939 to 41,000 five years later, and 53,000 in 1947.

On 15 May 1953, The Spectator brought out its 125th anniversary number, with an impressive cover depicting the Coronation Crown and the bold declaration that the weekly had appeared ‘Through eight reigns’. From the traditional two-column format, it changed to a striking three-column layout, an arrangement that is followed in 10,000 Not Out from page 114 onwards. However, it was acknowledged that The Spectator appealed to a rather staid, elitist audience. Certainly, ‘politicians, literary people, Oxford and Cambridge dons, and clubmen’ read it but not members of the wider public [152]. In 1954, Wrench and co-owner Angus Watson sold The Spectator to Ian Gilmour (1926-2007) who, as editor, brought a new element of controversy to the paper, injecting criticisms of Conservative governments and even supporting some Labour policies. Under his leadership, The Spectator campaigned to end capital punishment, opposed British involvement in the Suez crisis of 1956, and advocated the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. In 1959, Gilmour gave up his editorship and appointed lively successors to ensure that The Spectator maintained its incisive edge and continued to increase sales. Unfortunately, their efforts were not always crowned with success.

During the following decade, the pace of change accelerated in the editorial office, with a suite of Conservative politicians among those at the helm (Iain Macleod 1963-1965, Nigel Lawson 1966-1970, Dominic Lawson 1990-1995, Boris Johnson 1999-2005). So too does Butterfield’s style of writing, with lists of contributors, topics, intrigues and scandals coming to the forefront of his final chapters devoted to ‘making the news’, rather than the more leisurely approach of earlier parts of the book. Surely this is the difference between writing history and keeping abreast of current affairs. Nonetheless, scholarly attention continues to be paid to the academic pedigrees of contributors, with Eton, Oxford and History degrees remaining to the fore. Butterfield’s rather breathless gallop through the varying fortunes of the magazine in the recent past defies summary here. Instead, attention is directed to the changing appearance of The Spectator.

The cover of the 170th anniversary issue (4 July 1998) had presented the likenesses of eight prime ministers but under Johnson both the appearance and content of the magazine changed. There was greater use of colour and arresting illustrations and entertaining cartoons were inserted. In Butterfield’s opinion, Johnson proved to be outstandingly persuasive in bringing to The Spectator a more international and publicly visible cast of writers. Alongside a lively crop of journalists and Tory grandees are various political and cultural curiosos’, of the kind one might find at an ‘Oxbridge High Feast Table’ [191].

In January 2000, The Spectator appeared on-line for the first time and began ‘rocketing into cyberspace’ [190]. Under Johnson’s watchful gaze, the 175th anniversary issue had a cover adorned with a dozen photographs of contributors ranging from John Betjeman and Bernard Levin to Graham Greene and Auberon Waugh. In 2008, Spectator Australia was launched, to be followed ten years later by Spectator US as a website, with a print version appearing in 2019. Unlike the true to life photographs of 2003, The Spectator Jubilee Double Issue (2 June 2012) had on its cover a cheeky array of thirteen cartoon depictions of prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron, together with an unmistakable likeness of the back of the head of Her Majesty the Queen. Four years later, with Fraser Nelson as editor from 2009, The Spectator declared its support for Brexit, with a suite of strikingly illustrative covers proclaiming that choice.

From the standpoint of 2020 and with weekly sales in excess of 85,000, David Butterfield offers a ringing endorsement:

The Spectator has never been more read, nor closer to political power. And yet politics has never been held in greater disdain, nor been a greater turn-off to many educated and sympathetic readers… The magazine finds space between its covers to foster and foment discussion and dissent, hosting the debates so rarely conducted in the public arena… So long as the world is worth watching, and The Spectator is free to speculate, this magazine is set fair to retain a firm but forgiving readership into its third century and well beyond [231].

His fascinating volume, ever entertaining as well as informative, concludes with no fewer than 1,204 endnotes (mainly to specific volumes of the magazine), useful lists of editors, deputy editors, literary editors and political editors, anthologies of articles from The Spectator, and prime-ministerial contributions to its pages, from William Gladstone in 1972 to Boris Johnson in 2019. A valuable graph charts print circulation from 1828 to 2020, with a catastrophic trough in the 1970s being followed by a spectacular rise in fortune in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Both folding covers are cleverly used to reproduce a galaxy of past covers in full colour.

Of course, not every reader of 10,000 Not Out will identify with the current political emphasis of The Spectator, appreciate the notoriously bibulous lunches of its editors and contributors, or feel comfortable with its enduring public school, Oxbridge and clubby feel, but many will share in its invitation to discuss, debate and challenge. As Butterfield declares: ‘The Spectator wills its reader to take up and take on the facts, to confront new opinions – and crucially, to think. It seeks not just to convey but to curate intelligence, in the hope that it will flower and flourish’ [233]. Many will empathise with this ‘particular form of journalism, in which exaggeration allows you to get away with making a point while not being held accountable for it, because you are being both funny and absurd’ [5]. Without doubt, The Spectator’s irreverent cartoons will produce many a smile and chuckle among the readership of 10,000 Not Out.



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