On the wall behind my desk hangs a picture of Alexander Chancellor when he was editing The Spectator, with cigarette and telephone in one hand and looking very much the hero that all of us in the magazine have long regarded him. His death, announced earlier on this morning, is awful news: we have lost not just a columnist but the godfather of the magazine. Some editors improve their publications, others aren’t so lucky – but Alexander saved The Spectator. The magazine as we know it today – its tone, its mix, its success – is his.
Before he took over, sales were tanking. We were the only publication to support Brexit in the 1975 referendum (other than the Morning Star); an admirable position but one that had become something of an obsession. Circulation had more than halved and stood at just 12,000 – and then we stopped counting. The longest-running magazine in the English-speaking world was heading for oblivion.
In 1976 Henry Keswick had bought the magazine as part of his (then) political ambitions and hired Alexander, a childhood friend who had spent the last ten years as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Alexander would protest that he wasn’t the right fit: ignorant of British politics and of literary London. As he put it later: “I had read the New Statesman a bit in my youth, but never The Spectator. I had never voted Conservative. Nobody but Henry could possibly have chosen me for the job.”
But then again, the Spectator didn’t have much to lose – so he gambled. He introduced a formula that has defined the magazine ever since: to assemble the best writers and, with a minimum of editorial interference, let them write what they want. He didn’t want it to be anti-Thatcher or too worried about Europe, or worried about any political line.