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The Spectator stood for humour and civilised debate 190 years ago. It still does

Britain has a long-standing tradition of robust yet friendly disagreement

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

In the basement of The Spectator office, there is a 12-volume version of the paper in its original incarnation. That journal, started in 1711 by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, lasted barely two years. But collections of its essays could be found in almost every educated household for generations after. The first Spectator was seen as an example of something extraordinary: a journal full of humour, wit and civilised discussion at a time when Britain was being torn apart by partisanship and war. It was a freak of its time.

On 6 July 1828, a Dundonian printer named Robert Rintoul relaunched The Spectator. He had the good sense to adopt Addison’s formula: ‘the pleasures of books, conversation and the other accidental diversions of life’. One hundred and ninety years on, this is still what the magazine is all about. We feel it’s needed more than ever.

Only a few years ago, a call for civilised conversation about politics and life might not have seemed so urgent. It is now. The kind of rancour and tribalism that was apparent in Scotland after its referendum on nationalism has spread across the United Kingdom since the Brexit vote. Eminent economists, politicians and philosophers have been driven quite mad by the subject. We see Brexiteers who brag ceaselessly about their vanquished opponents, and Remainers who continue to portray the other side as knuckle-dragging xenophobes too stupid to grasp the enormity of their error.

In all this, something has been lost: Britain’s long-standing tradition of robust yet friendly disagreement. These days Twitter feeds emit howls of rage as otherwise sensible people go online to look for a fight. Social media tends to rely on ‘shares’, and this, studies show, encourages the posting of more and more rabid comments. The finest minds are whipped into hysteria because of their addiction to ‘likes’ and ‘follows’. Disagreement quickly turns into personal abuse.


Social media should be written off as a tiresome distraction. Yet many publications and politicians let it dictate the parameters of our national debate. There’s been much hand-wringing about the polarisation of our political debate. But the real problem is its narrowing. Public debate is squeezed into the confines of what is deemed socially acceptable. Those who decide to say something different, on immigration, perhaps, or even the nationalisation of British railways, risk being accused of bigotry or craziness.

This explains the rise of what’s called populism. It’s not all to do with poverty, in-equality, mass anger or bad education.

Until fairly recently, for instance, only a handful of MPs endorsed leaving the European Union, whereas about a third of the public were of that opinion. This mismatch created the conditions for Ukip to flourish. When the political system responded to public concern by holding a referendum, Ukip promptly collapsed.

Similarly, the French politicians who refused to listen to concerns about immigration helped ensure that Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in a presidential election. The failure of Sweden’s politicians to widen their discussion has put momentum behind the populist Sweden Democrats in this year’s elections.

A refusal to argue is normally a prelude to political defeat. When Hillary Clinton referred to Donald Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’, it was a sign that she had run out of ideas. When the Tories spent most of their time denouncing Jeremy Corbyn as an IRA-supporting Marxist, it showed a party that had run out of intellectual ammunition.

The likes of Beppe Grillo, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have all been dismissed as clowns, usually without anyone asking why they have been successful. Often it’s because they are so willing to use humour. Voters, like Spectator readers, find humour a useful antidote to the culture of outrage.

To Addison, a conversation without wit was no conversation at all, and he regarded a lack of cheerfulness as a threat to proper discourse. ‘Melancholy is a kind of Demon that haunts our Island,’ he wrote.

The spectre now haunting Europe is not populism, but the censoriousness of established political parties who refuse to broaden the parameters of what is up for discussion. It is a big problem, but it may be easily solved when there is a willingness to engage. The Spectator was launched, from its first issue, ‘to convey intelligence’ and to foster good-humoured debate. That’s what we strive to do today — because we feel our country needs it.


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