Feel free to try liberalism

After 183 years, The Liberal is back on newsstands. The timing is right, its editor tells Ben Chu
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The Independent Online

These are uncomfortable times for liberals. Our own Government, panicked by the threat of terrorism, has suspended the ancient principle of habeas corpus. Compulsory ID cards loom. The United States is establishing an international gulag of prisons, away from the prying eyes of human-rights observers. In red-state America, the word "liberal" has long been a pejorative term.

These are uncomfortable times for liberals. Our own Government, panicked by the threat of terrorism, has suspended the ancient principle of habeas corpus. Compulsory ID cards loom. The United States is establishing an international gulag of prisons, away from the prying eyes of human-rights observers. In red-state America, the word "liberal" has long been a pejorative term.

Does that make this a good or a bad time to launch a magazine championing liberal values? Ben Ramm, the 22-year-old editor of The Liberal, is convinced the timing is good. "This is an important time to be a liberal," he says. "Liberalism may be under attack, but there is no disguising the fact that the grand narratives of Thatcherism and socialism are over. There is a genuine third way."

Third way? That sounds suspiciously New Labourish, but Ramm, who graduated from St Catherine's College, Cambridge, last year, is keen to stress that the concept of liberalism that will be propagated by his bi-monthly magazine owes nothing to Blairism. To Ramm, liberalism is about tapping into the noble tradition of championing social progress.

Liberalism is also an international agenda for the magazine. As well as carrying pieces on ID cards and domestic politics, The Liberal covers issues affecting human liberty all over the world.

Unlike other periodicals such as New Statesman and The Spectator, The Liberal is determined to avoid any political affiliation. "I want us to be explicitly partisan, without being party political," Ramm says. Not even the Liberal Democrats, formed out of the ashes of the old Liberal Party of Gladstone and Lloyd George, will get any special treatment.

Something else differentiates The Liberal from existing political magazines: poetry. A journal called The Liberal was founded in 1822 by the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Leigh Hunt. They wanted to challenge the consensus of conservative publications with original poetry, prose fiction and reviews. When Ramm re-founded this magazine last year, he was determined that The Liberal would remain true to its literary heritage. The magazine will publish the work of some of the best new poets, as well as more established names.

Verses can be found slotted into the top right-hand corner of most pages of the magazine. But they are not intended as light relief; Ramm sees them as a key part of the liberal mission of his magazine. "We choose a poem that complements the prose piece," he explains. " The Liberal is founded upon the belief that, as Shelley put it, 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'."

This unashamedly literary approach has attracted a number of big-name writers. The first three editions included Germaine Greer, Terry Eagleton, David Aaronovitch and a poem from Clive James. "Clive picked up a copy in a Cambridge wine-merchant where it was on sale," Ramm says. "He sent me a poem out of the blue and asked if we'd like to print it."

Ramm admits that The Liberal's main competitor in terms of broad political coverage is Prospect, a monthly offering "essays, politics and argument". But, as a concept, he argues that only The Atlantic, a US magazine that prints political essays alongside new poetry, is similar. And Ramm is extremely happy with the way his business plan is developing so far. "We keep overheads low. Unlike Prospect or the New Statesman, we were born in the internet age."

The Liberal has a number of individual financial backers, although Ramm does not want to name them. "Some are driven by the political aims of the magazine," he says, "others by its heritage." But he is aware that the lifeblood of this type of magazine is its subscription base. " Prospect sells around 24,500 copies; 6,000 of these are picked up from newsstands. The rest is all subscriptions. Both the New Statesman and The Spectator have 75 per cent subscribers."

Ramm expects to increase the print run substantially. "Our goal is to overtake Prospect within two years," he says. The Liberal will be given a major boost when a supplement of its fourth edition, a general election special, is distributed with some editions of The Independent in April. " Indy readers are very much our target audience," Ramm says.

The original 19th-century version of The Liberal produced just four editions. Shelley drowned before the first issue came out. Ramm is confident that the new version will enjoy better fortunes. "The broad church of modern liberalism does not have a publication that can act as a platform. We can provide that," he says. " The Liberal is here to stay this time."

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