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The Spectator is a British right-wing magazine currently edited by Fraser Nelson. In 2004 it was bought by David and Frederick Barclay, who also own the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph (David died in January 2021).
Although early in its history it supported the Liberal Party, since the 1950s it has been closely linked to the British Conservative Party, initially on the moderate wing, but more recently moving much further right.
It shouldn't be confused with The American Spectator, a conservative American magazine.
Although it is unconnected with the historic Enlightenment daily The Spectator founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711, The Spectator still has a very long history. It dates back to 1828 and Scottish publisher Robert Stephen Rintoul; initially he intended it to be a "family paper", free from polemic, but it soon got involved in the campaign that led to the 1832 Great Reform Act, and it opposed the First Opium War.
In 1858 it was bought by James McHenry and Benjamin Moran, two Americans, who redirected it in support of then-President of the United States James Buchanan, the Democratic Party who had attempted to fudge over the issue of slavery, cheerleading him in the run up to the 1860 election won by Abraham Lincoln. Around this time it hired Leigh Hunt as a celebrity columnist. There are rumours it was also funded or secretly owned by then-Emperor of France Napoleon III, publishing a lot of pro-France material around 1860. However it supported the Union in the American Civil War, contrary to the British upper classes' support for the Confederacy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the magazine was radically Liberal and pro-free trade. In 1924 it was sold to Evelyn Wrench, and in the 1930s although it opposed fascism, it supported Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement.
Ownership and editorship in 1954 passed to Ian Gilmour, later a moderate Conservative politician known for his opposition to Margaret Thatcher; it opposed capital punishment and the Suez invasion and supported legalisation of homosexuality while generally being aligned to the liberal wing of the Conservative Party, with politicians such as Iain Macleod contributing.
In 1975, it was bought by Henry Keswick, a businessman whose family had a long history of trading in Hong Kong. With Alexander Chancellor as editor, it engaged famous writers including fogeyish humorist Auberon Waugh, distinguished war correspondent Richard West, notorious drunkard Jeffrey Bernard, and the even more notorious racist Taki Theodoracopulos. Editorship then passed to Charles Moore (later of the Sunday Telegraph) and then Dominic Lawson, son of Tory Chancellor Nigel. In 1994 it published a controversial article "Kings of the Deal" by William Cash which claimed that Jews ran Hollywood, attracting allegations of antisemitism.
In the era of Tony Blair it tilted briefly towards New Labour under the editorship of Frank Johnson, but his replacement in 1999 was a more controversial figure: Boris Johnson (no relation). Boris left in 2005 to further his political career, and was replaced by Matthew d'Ancona, who in 2009 was succeeded by Fraser Nelson, who remains editor as of 2021. Fraser launched an American edition digitally in 2018 and on paper in 2019.
While the magazine has long been right-wing, and has had a certain amount of racist shock material (mostly from Taki) since the 1970s, it has since around 2000 gone in pursuit of political extremism, rejecting its old conservative values in favour of identitarian politics and an embrace of alt-right values in a culture war against immigrants, Europeans, and liberals. As Panjak Mishra wrote in 2017:
The Spectator, once suavely edited, now serves as a fraternity house for Douglas Murray, Toby Young, James Delingpole and Rod Liddle; pummelling Muslims and high-fiving on Brexit, these right-wing bros are to the posh periodicals what Jeremy Clarkson was to the BBC.
Ian Buruma said of the change:
It used to be libertarian, cheeky. Now it’s like the Daily Mail. The difference is, I suppose, that its old spirit came from superiority. Now it comes from resentment and disappointment.
Gavin Jacobson added:
The Spectator has become a sounding board for resentment, amplifying the catastrophist mentality that has gripped the right in Britain and the US.
Many of its controversies have revolved around Taki. In 2003, under Boris Johnson's editorship, it was investigated by the crown prosecution service to see if an article by Taki violated section 19 of the Public Order Act; Taki complained about "black thugs" who "multiply like flies" and praised Enoch Powell, and the dispute led to black lawyer and judge Peter Herbert receiving death threats.
It was criticised in 2015 when Charles Moore wrote an article questioning whether Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were pretty enough to lead the Labour Party, which was seen as somewhat sexist if not misogynistic, as it didn't apply similar standards to Andy Burnham and Ed Balls.
Britain's lovably dishevelled future prime minister edited the Spectator from 1999-2005. There were various controversies in this period. Johnson was known for his womanising, earning the publication the nickname The Sextator, including a relationship with journalist Petronella Wyatt which resulted in one abortion and one miscarriage. When challenged about this by his bosses at the Conservative Party, he lied; when he was proven to have lied, he was sacked by Tory leader Michael Howard. Toby Young and Lloyd Evans wrote a play called Who's The Daddy? about the scandal, to mixed reviews.
He annoyed the entire population of Liverpool (traditionally of socialist leanings), when The Spectator accused the city of wallowing in victimhood over incidents such as the deaths of 96 football fans at Hillsborough in Sheffield and the murder of British engineer Ken Bigley by Islamist terrorists. The remarks were in an editorial by Simon Heffer, but Johnson as the editor was forced to apologise after criticism by Michael Howard.
Johnson was involved in a feud with right-wing journalist Andrew Neil, who was appointed over him by the Barclays in 2004 when they bought The Spectator; the feud continued in the 2019 general election campaign where Johnson refused to be interviewed by Neil.
Rod Liddle is another odious columnist. In December 2017 he poked fun at Labour MP Rosie Duffield for speaking out about being a victim of domestic violence. Liddle called Duffield "the sobbing and oppressed Rosie '#MeToo' Duffield"; she called him "racist and misogynist". He also suggested that the general election be held when students couldn't vote and "Muslims are forbidden from doing anything on pain of hell".
In the late 2010s it became increasingly interested in the alt-right, with James Delingpole penning an article headlined "The alt-right isn’t all wrong". Delingpole defended his "friend and colleague" Milo Yiannopoulos, and insisted that the alt-right's antisemitism and racism were ignorable because "most of this stuff is confected and insincere". He also cited Sargon of Akkad in defence of the white genocide conspiracy theory:
it’s about the idea that white culture (which they identify interchangeably with western civilisation) is under threat and must be preserved for the future of the race. Hence the alt-right’s violent objection to immigration; hence the nationalistic ‘America first’ theme of Trump’s campaigning: it all appeals to that increasingly popular impulse, from northern England to middle America to Angela Merkel’s immigrant-friendly Germany, that this represents ordinary white folks’ last chance to preserve their culture and traditions before they’re overwhelmed by the dusky hordes.
Should more mainstream conservatives be worried by this? Well yes, of course, but they have largely themselves to blame. It’s why the alt-right refers to them disparagingly as ‘cuckservatives’ — that is, cuckolds whose spinelessness, compromise and me-too virtue signalling has enabled the social justice warriors of the progressive left to take so much territory.
- See the Wikipedia article on David and Frederick Barclay.
- See the Wikipedia article on The American Spectator.
- See the Wikipedia article on The Spectator.
- The Press in a Mess, David Butterfield, History Today, Volume 70 Issue 5 May 2020
- What's the point of Taki if he isn't offensive any more?, The Independent, 23 Oct 2011
- Filthy is as filthy does, New Criterion, February 1995
- What Is Great about Ourselves, Panjak Mishra, London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 18. 21 September 2017
- Why the Spectator tolerates the intolerable, Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman, November 2019
- Spectator and its Tory MP editor may face charges over Taki race rant, The Guardian, 28 Feb 2003
- Spectator magazine under fire for article on Liz Kendall's and Yvette Cooper's looks, ITV News, 23 August 2015
- The 10 ages of Boris Johnson: a guide to his road to power, The Guardian, 21 July 2019
- For Boris Johnson’s wife, it’s one affair too many. But his party doesn’t care, Suzanne Moore, The Guardian, 7 Sep 2018
- Who's the Daddy?, Michael Billington, The Guardian, 26 July 2005
- See the Wikipedia article on Kidnapping and murder of Kenneth Bigley.
- In one article, Boris manages to offend an entire city & and his boss, Ian Herbert, The Independent
- A Visit With Andrew Neil, Spectator Publisher and Boris Johnson’s Old Boss, NY Magazine, Feb 14, 2020
- When Andrew Neil called out Boris Johnson, he was making a big mistake on behalf of the BBC, i News, 17 Dec 2019
- Outrage over Rod Liddle's misogynistic attack on Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield, Kent Live, 1 Nov 2019
- The alt-right isn’t all wrong, James Delingpole, The Spectator, 30 July 2016