The Spectator is a magazine for conservatives written by liberals. From that tension comes an editorial persuasion — there is no line — that can seem winsome, beguiling, even perverse. Optimistic but never idealist, sceptical of the big but not the new, The Spectator combines a radical’s grasp of the possible with a reactionary’s sense of the inevitable. It is instinctually Whiggish but plagued by spasms of Toryism, looking forward through the rear-view mirror of life. If National Review is in the business of standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’, the The Spectator has more often been found sprinting ahead of history yelling ‘hurry up’.
In the 1860s, it came close to bankruptcy for lining up behind Lincoln in the American Civil War while the sainted Guardian was for the southern slave-owners. It advocated a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael 15 years before Theodor Herzl was born and was branded ‘The Bugger’s Bugle’ when it called for homosexuality to be decriminalised in 1957. The Spectator is a fun, sprightly read that wears its history-making lightly but the tradition of noising up respectable consensus lives on. The magazine backed Brexit because it saw what so many clever people — and those of us who thought we were clever — could not: a chance for British renewal, not by withdrawing from the world but pushing past the boundaries of an old continent, ‘out — and into the world’.
The centre-right weekly has also become one of the sharpest, smartest voices for immigration reform. This teases out a longer-running thread — a 2001 leader asked why it was legitimate ‘to want to leave your homeland out of fear of persecution but not out of fear of poverty’ — but it is in recent years that these instincts have been stitched into a credible prospectus for a liberal, pragmatic border policy.