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'Spectator' editor vows not to soil his hands with politics

In his first interview, Fraser Nelson tells Matthew Bell his Tory weekly is also a journal of arts and manners

Sunday 14 March 2010 01:00 GMT

A poster on the wall of Fraser Nelson's office shows a gallery of some of The Spectator's past contributors: Nigella Lawson, Graham Greene, Bernard Levin, Nancy Mitford, Jennifer Patterson, Jeffrey Bernard – no wonder the parties are legendary.

On the opposite wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves groan with political biographies and books on Keynesian economics. On a leather chesterfield in between sits The Spectator editor himself, the latest incumbent of one of right-wing journalism's plum jobs. The configuration of his office – literary stars on one side, political library on the other – is a useful compass for anyone charged with guiding the 182-year-old magazine into the next stage of its history.

"People think of us as a political magazine," he says in what might be called a posh-Scot's burr, "but actually, less than 10 per cent is about politics. And that is one of the things as an editor I would like to project a little more. We're a journal of arts and manners." This declaration will soothe critics of the magazine's recent direction: under his predecessor, Matthew d'Ancona, The Spectator sought to reposition itself as a stronger political voice, also increasing its luxury goods content and featuring contributions from celebrities like Lily Allen. Three years ago the magazine moved physically to Westminster, leaving its Bloomsbury home for smart new offices a bun's throw from Parliament.

Though political, Nelson says he is not a political geek. "When I go home at night I don't want to think about politics." He is evangelical about the magazine's diversity of writers, which bodes well for a periodical once prized for its offbeat wit and columnists such as Taki, Jeremy Clarke and Mary Killen. Among his first moves was to reintroduce Portrait of the Week, a weekly sketch dropped by his predecessor, and he has begged Paul Johnson, who resigned after being asked to reduce his contribution from weekly to fortnightly, to come back.

Nelson is diplomatic in talking about his predecessor, whose unexplained departure last summer has spawned many a conspiracy theory. The most credible puts it down to a falling out with The Spectator's chief executive, Andrew Neil, although D'Ancona's funeral meats had hardly been served when Nelson was awarded the top prize, prompting some to wonder whether he had been destined for the job ever since Neil took over in 2005.

Being young and relatively unknown is, however, in keeping with a Spectator tradition of nurturing new talent: Charles Moore was only 27 when he became editor. Nelson, now 36, admits to never having thought of himself as a writer, and had no interest in politics and journalism until he left university – "even the idea that I was competent with words. I always thought I was a numbers guy".

Born in the Scottish coastal town of Nairn, Nelson attended the local comprehensive until his father was posted to Cyprus, when he was sent to Dollar Academy, one of Scotland's most expensive boarding schools. "I had a lucky and privileged background," he says. "I have not known any financial hardship in my life."

It wasn't until he read Stephen Glover's book on journalism in his early twenties that he considered it as a profession, and immediately decided it was a world he wanted to be a part of. " He made journalism sound so accessible that anybody could do it. I previously thought it was a world you could only get into if one of your family members were involved in it, and our profession is still quite nepotistic." Ironically, Glover has been one of the most vocal critics of The Spectator under Andrew Neil, but Nelson is unembarrassed in his praise.

His ambition had been to work for The Independent, which Glover helped to found, and his first national byline was in this newspaper, when he did a stint on the business desk while Paul Farrelly, now a Labour MP, was the deputy business editor. "He had to re-write my whole story but he left my byline on it." After training at City University, he became a business reporter on The Times under Patience Wheatcroft and was later poached by Andrew Neil forThe Scotsman, which was then owned by the Barclay Brothers, now proprietors of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. Neil swiftly promoted him to political editor of The Scotsman and The Business, and encouraged him to write for The Spectator. In 2006 Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, gave him a regular political slot, called Nelson's Column.

Some have wondered how much influence the Barclay Brothers and Neil have on the editorial direction of The Spectator, but Nelson says he is given an entirely free rein. "I would not describe Andrew in any way as an interfering boss. His trick is simple: he chooses people he trusts and leaves them to get on with it." Nelson regularly sees the Barclays and dismisses their reputation for being secretive. "That is down to the fact that they have little interest in courting a public profile. They are businessmen but there is no hint of there being any agenda."

Of his own politics, Fraser calls himself a Conservative, and says he will vote for them even though the party often "drives him to despair". When he was political editor of The Scotsman he did not vote, believing journalists should maintain impartiality, but now he is close to David Cameron. I ask him about a recent weekend when he and his family stayed with the Camerons at their country home. "That's not something I was expecting to talk about," he laughs. "I gave a speech to his local constituency on a Friday evening and then we stayed the night. There aren't many people you can go to their house for the weekend and find it totally relaxing. I do think Cameron is a tremendously impressive politician on many levels, but when you see him around his family you're more impressed than anything at all. He is so attentive. He is the exact opposite of a machine politician."

Nelson is married with two young children, and lives in Twickenham. It wouldn't be surprising, I say, if he were one day to pursue a career in politics. "No way will I ever enter politics!" he says. "The more I see it the more I harden my resolve not to."

Having discovered journalism almost by chance, he cannot see himself doing anything else, and says he is dedicating himself to making sure The Spectator is "the best magazine it possibly can be. It has a magic of its own. My job is to protect and project that."

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