Can 'Prospect' and 'Standpoint' be the best of enemies?

Margareta Pagano asks if a new centre-right political monthly with big-name writers can sit happily alongside its left-leaning rival

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:15

There's a new kid on the block who wants to kick up a fuss. The new boy is Standpoint, a highbrow magazine that launches next month to "defend and celebrate" Western civilisation in the post-9/11 era.

Standpoint's editor, Daniel Johnson, says it's time the West stood up for itself: "There are certain dangerous fallacies that have grown up over the past few years, which Standpoint will challenge - myths such as multiculturalism or political correctness, which is stifling comment on anything from the environment to religion."

Conservative with a small c, the magazine is staking out similar ground to Prospect, the centre-left monthly for which Johnson still writes. A former assistant editor at The Times and a writer for the Telegraph, he adds: "The old left and right divide is no longer valid. You have the spectacle of Ken Livingstone on the left finding common cause with the Islamists, while many on the liberal left have been made homeless by the Iraq war. The anti-US or anti-West view dominating the left is alien to them - this magazine will be a new home for them."

Johnson caused his own stir when he defended ex-prime minister Tony Blair and his decision to go to war in an article for the Evening Standard: "I got a lot of stick over that. But I believe history will be kinder to Blair and George Bush than it is at the moment."

Designed by the award-winning Simon Esterson and art director Ingrid Shields, Standpoint promises elegant, witty and humorous pages - but they will be lifestyle free. "There's enough of that out there already," Johnson says, although lifestyle advertising will not be banned.

Instead, there will be poetry, prose, science, the arts and graphic art alongside essays by the likes of Professor Jonathan Bate, the leading Shakespeare scholar, or Alain de Botton, novelist and broadcaster. Martin Amis, Nick Cohen and Mark Steyn will also be writing. Catholic in range, Standpoint's second issue carries a scholarly analysis of the Koran. "It's important we understand the issues facing moderate Muslims," says Johnson. "We want to be part of that debate."

Taking a stand doesn't come cheap: the 80-pager will cost around £4.50. It launches on 29 May and the first print run is for 30,000; Johnson hopes it will become much bigger. "Schools and universities will be bombarded with the magazine - as much as we can afford," he says. There will be an online edition and blogging.

But the rest is hush-hush. A peep behind the half-closed doors at Standpoint's freshly painted but still spartan offices, in the basement of 11 Manchester Square in central London, shows a few clues: delicately drawn graphics and cartoons by Peter Blegvad and a white-board scribbled with eclectic names.

Standpoint is funded for "at least" a year by the Social Affairs Unit, the independent think-tank linked to the Institute of Economic Affairs (the source of Margaret Thatcher's free-market thinking). One of the SAU's most generous backers is Alan Bekhor, the shipping magnate who has supported causes such as the Forum for European Philosophy and the British Academy's annual Elie Kedourie memorial lectures. Johnson hopes the magazine will attract its own backers, helped by its charity status.

Johnson has a broad church of heavyweights to help him. They include the historian Michael Burleigh, whose latest book on terrorism, Blood & Rage, has been described as "brilliant" by the Conservative leader, David Cameron; the novelist Sir VS Naipaul; maverick Labour MP Frank Field; playwright Sir Tom Stoppard; Lord Lawson; Balkans expert Noel Malcolm and Tory MP Michael Gove. Johnson's brother, Luke, chairman of Channel 4 and a Financial Times columnist, is there to help out with the business side. (Their father is Paul Johnson, the writer and historian, who famously crossed from left to right.)

Burleigh says: "It is useful to be reminded that Europe has conservative intellectual traditions distinctive from some of those in the US and under-represented in the left-liberal media consensus." But, he adds Western civilisation should be understood in its current globalised sense and not in terms of a nostalgic refight of the Cold War, after the missed decade of Bush Snr and Bill Clinton, in which the Western Right lost its way.

Also on board is the 85-year-old US historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose husband, Irving Kristol, is considered the godfather of neo-conservatism, while she is its queen bee. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is a fan of her Victorian approach to morality, having written the preface to the British edition of her book The Roads to Modernity. As Johnson remarks, the old boundaries are shifting.

What does Standpoint's main rival think of its chances? Prospect editor David Goodhart is bullish: "I'm sure it will survive and flourish but I doubt it will make its circulation target - perhaps about 15,000. It's more ideological than we are, and will be seen as neoconservative. But it won't be bad for us - there is a gap on the right, particularly now with the Tories coming back. There is more intellectual ferment on the centre-right."

Indeed, Goodhart says Standpoint's launch can be mirrored to Prospect's own in 1995, just two years before New Labour came to power. "I hope this doesn't mean too bad news for Gordon Brown, but Standpoint coming on the scene now reminds me of when we started."

Even Prospect is changing tack, shifting to a more liberal, centre-left view, more concerned with current affairs than politics with a big P. Just as Standpoint may be filling ideological ground, so Prospect is moving on to new ground, with plans for more American-style narrative reporting. Not being able to pay top-dollar rates for journalists has been the problem, says Goodhart: "In the past we have not been able to pay enough money for the serious, well-researched articles you see in American magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker. There is so much extended commentary in the UK, mainly because it's cheap and too easy to do. In the US some top journalists, who perhaps spend a month on a piece, can earn £10,000 for an article - unheard of here."

But Goodhart wants to break the mould. Talks are under way with new investors who are more interested in taking stakes now that Prospect sells 27,000 copies a month and breaks even.

Johnson also draws inspiration from across the Atlantic: "We are unashamed fans of the US," he says. "There is a fresh debate of ideas, which has led to a thriving magazine market."

Johnson and Goodhart may be new rivals but they are old friends; they reported the fall of the Berlin Wall as newspaper correspondents in West Germany. Chess is Johnson's other great passion; his book White King and Red Queen looks at how chess became the proxy war between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, and he's advising Richard Eyre on the chess scenes in his new film, The Other Man, starring Liam Neeson. His next move will be watched with more than usual interest.

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