A distinctive melody in the melodrama of our time

Our founding editor looks back on a decade in which Standpoint sought to uphold the highest political and cultural values

Daniel Johnson

What does Standpoint stand for? People have been asking this question ever since I founded the magazine more than a decade ago. The answer I usually give — Western civilisation — begs a further question: what does the West stand for? Much of our purpose has consisted in telling and, more importantly, showing you — the readers — what our values are in theory and what they might mean in practice.
One of my heroes, the late Irving Kristol, used to say to me, and just about everyone else, “If you have an idea, start a magazine”. He started many, and his son Bill ran the Weekly Standard for two decades until it sadly closed last December. Mine started life as a mere pipedream (not that I ever smoked), while my wife Sarah and I began our wedded life in Bonn, where I was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent. The idea that I might one day found Standpoint was about as preposterous as that David Goodhart, my colleague from the FT, might found Prospect. Only Sarah believed it would ever happen.

But it was an era when outlandish ideas somehow became reality. When on November 9, 1989, the Communist Party spokesman Günter Schabowski said at a press conference that East Germans would be allowed to travel to the West, I was the awkward Englishman who asked the question: “What will happen now with the Berlin Wall?” He had no answer, but his people gave him one: they tore it down.

Fast forward 16 years: in 2005, after doing everything from Literary Editor at The Times to Associate Editor at the Telegraph, I found myself suddenly once again a freelance. If I were ever to realise my ambition of founding a magazine, now was the time. My assets were few: an unusual mix of transatlantic contacts and European experience, a scholarly hinterland and an equal passion for politics and culture. I fondly imagined that these modest credentials equipped me to defend Western civilisation.

I did have role models. My lifelong obsession with Continental thought meant that I had spent countless hours steeped in such journals as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Raymond Aron’s La France Libre, German expressionist magazines such as Der Sturm and Die Aktion, or more recent ones such as Merkur, edited by that grand old man of letters Karl Heinz Bohrer, and Commentaire, founded by Aron and edited by Jean-Claude Casanova. Then there is Die Fackel: financed, edited and written in Vienna by Karl Kraus from 1899 to 1936. Though his eviscerating satire of all things Jewish resembles a charismatic kind of cannibalism, Kraus is an irresistibly magnetic figure, and the little red booklets of Die Fackel (“The Torch”) remain peerless among periodicals.

Among the great English-language magazines of the past were T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, Cyril Connolly’s Horizon and above all Encounter, to which I had been just in time to contribute before Mel Lasky, its last editor, closed it down at the end of the Cold War. I had also admired and contributed to many American magazines and newspapers. Their editors and columnists — Norman and John Podhoretz, Neal Kozodoy, Seth Lipsky, Roger Kimball, John O’Sullivan, Rusty Reno, Bret Stephens, George Weigel, the late Charles Krauthammer and many others — were and are my friends and mentors.

Magazines are defined by two factors: people and events. I was blessed to find a group of outstanding people who gathered together to help me create Standpoint. Its distinctive “look” was established by the graphic designer Simon Esterson and a succession of artists, above all Michael Daley, who succeeded André Carrillo as our cover artist early on and has remained ever since. Among the original team who have stayed involved, honourable mentions go to Michael Mosbacher, our Managing Editor, Miriam Gross and Emily Read, all of whose contributions went far beyond the purely journalistic. Soon after the launch in June 2008, Bob Low joined us, bringing his wisdom and experience to the task of ensuring that every article was edited to the highest standard. We had a succession of younger recruits, too, taking charge of production, among whom I would single out Oliver Wiseman, now editor of CapX, and Boadicea Meath Baker, who has also developed a unique style of food column. A special mention goes to Alan Bekhor, who came to me soon after I left the Telegraph, proposed to fund the magazine I had dreamt of for so long and invited me to edit it. Without his loyal financial support and commitment to editorial independence, Standpoint would never have taken off.

I was fortunate with the people I was able to gather together; but what about events? Standpoint was defined by two great world-historical upheavals: 9/11 and the Great Recession. The global jihad had already long since thrown down its challenge to the West by the time we picked up the gauntlet, but no other magazine had emerged in Britain, at least, to address the moral vacuum that had by then manifested itself. As for the financial crisis: it blew up a few weeks after our first issue in June 2008. We had, it turned out, picked a hell of time to launch a business.

Standpoint was no ordinary business: we had charitable status, courtesy of our publisher, the Social Affairs Unit. But this arrangement did not insulate us against the economic storms that eviscerated entire economies. The adverse environment made even the wealthiest philanthropists think twice about supporting a not-for-profit enterprise that in their view ought to stand on its own feet. Throughout its existence, Standpoint has struggled to keep afloat — and pointing out that highbrow periodicals never make money cut no ice with potential donors. Contributors occasionally had to wait for months to be paid; for them it was no consolation that the Editor and Managing Editor often had to wait for years. Editing a magazine is (or ought to be) a 24/7 job, but it sometimes felt as if far too much of the time that should have been devoted to writing, commissioning and editing was actually spent on fundraising.

The cover of the first edition of “Standpoint” , June 2008

Despite all these impediments, Standpoint got off the ground with a splendid party at the Wallace Collection. Speakers included Sir Tom Stoppard, Michael Gove and Frank Field, while the great and good turned out in force, including some legends who are no longer among the living, such as the late V.S. Naipaul and Robert Conquest, who flew in from California in his mid-nineties. Other Standpoint contributors whose memory I cherish include Hugh Thomas, Geza Vermes, John Gross, Geoffrey Hill, Chris Woodhead, Robert Wistrich, Helen Szamuely, Alexander Chancellor, Anthony Howard, J.W.M. Thompson, Martin Gilbert, Simon Gray, Dan Jacobson, Walter Laqueur, Bryan Lask, Nicholas Mosley, Raymond Carr, Pam Neville-Sington, Michael Novak, Berenika Stefanska, Rodney Leach, Ken Minogue, George Weidenfeld, David Watkin and Philip French. This is an impressive list, by any standard. These names are of course far outnumbered by writers who are still with us, too numerous to mention here, to all of whom I owe profound gratitude.

From the very first issue, Standpoint set itself the task of raising the level of intellectual life in a country that was already suffering from what Clive James, one of our regulars, called “cultural amnesia”. For that issue David Hockney, another member of the editorial advisory board, and Matthew Carr gave us new artwork. Jung Chang and Simon Sebag Montefiore explained to me in a Dialogue why Mao and Stalin still matter. (When I bumped into Jung Chang recently, she said that her warning a decade ago that Mao’s Communist Party had not changed its character was now even more relevant, in the era of Xi Jinping: “They destroyed Chinese civilisation. Now they are coming for the West.”) Some of our first columnists are still with us a decade later (Douglas Murray, Tim Congdon, Nick Cohen), as are several feature writers (Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Alasdair Palmer, Andrew Roberts). Guest writers included Craig Brown, Julie Burchill, Andrew Marr, Antonia Fraser. In the Civilisation section, Jonathan Bate lamented the decline of universities, while Bob Conquest contributed unpublished verse, not all of it bawdy. The books pages featured Charles Moore, John Gross, Raymond Seitz and Noel Malcolm.

The late V.S. Naipaul (left) and Alan Bekhor (right) at the magazine’s launch party at the Wallace Collection

Early issues established our abiding, idiosyncratic and nonconformist themes. Resistance to Putin and Islamism, wariness of China and the EU, scepticism of political correctness and climate alarmism. On the latter, Oliver Letwin and Nigel Lawson had a wager which caused much amusement; Oliver paid up with a good grace. The playwright Simon Gray made positively his last — highly entertaining — appearance in dialogue with Charles Spencer and me; he died shortly afterwards. We broke a taboo as well as a big story by running Julie Bindel’s exposure of grooming gangs in Rotherham, later followed up by The Times. Robert Skidelsky debated the relevance of Keynes to the financial crisis with our columnist Tim Congdon, whose sustained critique of the role of Gordon Brown and the Bank of England has stood the test of time. Charles Murray, Chris Woodhead and Katharine Birbalsingh demolished the shibboleths of the “educational romantics”. Our sometime columnist Lionel Shriver and the demographer David Coleman debated mass migration in 2009, long before it upended the politics of Europe and America.

We published a galaxy of transatlantic talent: literary criticism by Cynthia Ozick, intellectual history by Gertrude Himmelfarb and short stories by Joseph Epstein; Conquest on Solzhenitsyn and Niall Ferguson on “Chimerica”; Midge Decter on Sarah Palin and Paul Wolfowitz on Robert Kagan; George Weigel on Benedict XVI, as well as John Bolton on Obama’s “post-American presidency” — those who wish to understand Trump’s foreign policy would do well to read his National Security Advisor’s articles for Standpoint. The same applies to those by Myron Ebell, who set the direction of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement.

The question of values, what it is to be civilised, has always been at the heart of our mission. Music, for example, has always figured prominently, from the early columns of the singer Ian Bostridge to the more recent ones of the composer James MacMillan. In Michael Prodger’s columns, in features by art historians such as David Ekserdjian, in illustrations throughout, art illuminates our pages. Theatre found its chronicler in Anne McElvoy, while Nick Cohen and David Herman have dissected television. Standpointy heads have unlocked scientific realms as recondite as consciousness (Adam Zeman), anorexia (Bryan Lask) and mathematics (Mark Ronan). Nor have we neglected the erotica of restaurants (Lisa Hilton), the esoterica of wine (Saintsbury) and the arcana of chess (Dominic Lawson). It would be otiose to mention the many writers whom we have published on philosophy and religion: we have fought a rearguard action against the disenchantment of the world. Instead, we have sought to cultivate what Oakeshott called the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind: over the years dozens of poets have graced our pages, among them the late Geoffrey Hill, Clive James, Anthony Thwaite, John Fuller and Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

The most satisfying part of being an editor is discovering new talent. Among the many outstanding young writers that Standpoint has nurtured are Laura Freeman, Louis Amis, Ben Judah, Alexander Woolfson, Mara Delius (now literary editor of Die Welt), Daniel Hitchens and Jonathan Neumann, several of whom have gone on to write well-received books.

Standpoint has never tried to exclude anyone who subscribes to the values of Western civilisation. Our hugely popular Overrated and Underrated profiles have always been fair and measured. The magazine has provided a platform for thinkers across the political spectrum. There is no conservative monopoly: how could ideas passed down from Biblical times belong to any party or faction? Luminaries of the Left, from R.W. Johnson to Geoffrey Robertson and Julie Bindel, have avoided the danger of becoming a coterie or cabal. One of the most important stories we ever broke came when Maureen Lipman, a lifelong Labour voter, denounced Ed Miliband for allowing the metastasis of anti-Semitism within his party, two years before Jeremy Corbyn replaced him as leader. On Brexit, on Trump, we have eschewed one-sided advocacy; but we have never compromised on the fundamentals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

I step aside now to make way for a new Editor, confident that Standpoint will continue to make its mark as an antidote to cultural amnesia and to survive as a distinctive melody in the melodrama of our time. Taking Irving Kristol at his word, I have a new idea and so am launching the first post-Brexit online magazine, TheArticle.com, but I shall continue to write for Standpoint for as long as I have anything useful to contribute.

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