Ian Gilmour was not the only proprietor of The Spectator also to be its editor, but he was unquestionably the best. Patrician, wealthy, high-minded, unassuming, the 28-year-old Etonian ex-Grenadier Guardsman raised a number of eyebrows when he bought the magazine in 1954 and took over the editorial reins himself. However, the five years of his editorship were to cause a lot more surprise when, in fostering The Spectator’s libertarian tradition, he not only espoused radical causes but frequently opposed the Eden and Macmillan governments. In some important respects The Spectator under Gilmour’s direction anticipated the free-thinking mood of the 1960s.
He was a junior barrister, in Lord Hailsham’s chambers, and not getting much work when he decided on an impulse that he would like to own a political weekly. This was made feasible with the help of family money and the support of the then co-owner of The Spectator, Angus Watson, who had greatly admired a previous home secretary, Sir John Gilmour, and mistakenly believed him to be Ian Gilmour’s father.
Gilmour had no political ambitions when he bought the magazine — he did not become an MP until 1962 — but it did not take him long to establish his radical credentials. The execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955 (the last woman to be hanged in Britain) provided the occasion for Gilmour to write a devastating leader, castigating the Home Secretary for failing to exercise his prerogative of mercy and calling for capital punishment, which in his view was ‘absolutely indefensible’, to be abolished. Letters of protest poured in, subscriptions were cancelled. Later that same year, Gilmour wrote a signed article on the conviction and imprisonment of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and two others for homosexual offences. In commenting on ‘the many repellent aspects of this case’ he did not spare the Director of Public Prosecutions; and two years later gave The Spectator’s support to the proposals of the Wolfenden committee. The magazine had the distinction of being dubbed ‘The Bugger’s Bugle’ by the fiery Presbyterian columnist of the Sunday Express, John Gordon.
At a time when much of the national press was reactionary or supine, and television had little influence, the political weeklies were more prominent. Gilmour’s Spectator was a powerful motor for social reform, leading Michael Foot to comment in 1958 that ‘no journal in Britain has established a higher reputation than The Spectator for the persistent advocacy of a humane administration of the law or the reform of inhumane laws’. Whether ridiculing the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre censorship, or criticising the judiciary, ‘the young master’, as he was often called in the office, did not hesitate to stand up to authority.
It was unfortunate that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, whose enthusiasm for hanging insane murderers had been deplored by The Spectator, should choose to preside over a libel action brought against the magazine in 1957. An article on a conference of the Italian Socialist party in Venice had commented on the drinking habits of three English delegates — Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips — and ‘their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky and coffee’. This would hardly be considered defamatory today — they were not actually accused of being drunk — but all three, then leading Labour party figures, decided to sue.
Having satisfied himself that the article was accurate, Gilmour resolved to fight the case in court if necessary, taking the reasonable view that, when it came to the point, the plaintiffs would not want to commit perjury for money. But that was exactly what they did want to do. Years later, Crossman admitted in his posthumously published Diaries that they were all drunk and had shamelessly lied under oath. With the help of a brilliant advocate (Gilbert Beyfus) who did not shrink from bending the rules, a slippery solicitor (Arnold Goodman), and a blatantly biased judge, it was no surprise that the distinguished Labour politicians won the case, which was described by Bernard Levin as ‘one of the greatest scandals since the war’.
It was a blow for Gilmour, costing him, in damages and legal fees, around £185,000 in today’s money. The previous year, The Spectator had lost substantial revenue from sales and advertising by standing out against Eden over Suez. It went on to criticise the government under Macmillan for its continued pretence that Suez was a noble venture and even advised its readers not to vote Conservative at the 1959 election. (The editorial decision was taken by Brian Inglis, who had been appointed editor a few months earlier, but with Gilmour’s agreement.)
The lively, left-of-centre stance of Gilmour’s Spectator had attracted a number of outstanding journalists to its pages: Henry Fairlie, who famously identified and took on the ‘Establishment’, and Bernard Levin, who wrote his coruscating Westminster commentary under the pseudonym of Taper, also Randolph Churchill and William Douglas-Home. Inglis brought in several more — Alan Brien, Katharine Whitehorn — and under his editorship The Spectator achieved record sales and profitability. Some would remember the Inglis years as the golden age of the magazine, but Gilmour came to regret his choice of editor, not because Inglis was anti-Conservative but because he was anti-politics. There was plenty of slightly anarchic fun in The Spectator, and it was gaining a more eclectic readership. But it was, as Gilmour wrote to Inglis, ‘completely divorced from the political life of the country’. For some time it did not even have a political correspondent.
So Inglis went, Iain Hamilton, Gilmour’s former deputy editor, came and went, sacked in unhappy circumstances in favour of Iain Macleod. He was replaced as editor by Nigel Lawson, with whom Gilmour never got on, a year before the magazine was sold. In later years Gilmour would reflect that he should have sold it when he gave up being editor in 1959.
The 1960s were not satisfactory years for him at The Spectator — after 1962 there was always the difficulty of his being also an MP. He went on to write distinguished books on his Conservative philosophy, and to hold office under Heath and Thatcher. He may be remembered principally for his sustained opposition to Thatcherism in his later years. But in the annals of The Spectator he is counted as one of its finest radical editors and among the foremost libertarians of the mid-20th century.