Distilling the frenzy: my five years editing Prospect

Brexit, Trump, Covid—this has been a turbulent time to run a current affairs magazine. But we can look forward with hope
November 3, 2021

Five years is a very long time in politics. When I took over Prospect weeks after the EU referendum, few yet grasped that it was not just David Cameron, but the whole Blair-Cameron style of modernising managerialism that was over. That reality sunk in gradually via an accumulation of shocks—the election of Donald Trump that November; the Brexit-related constitutional convulsions, which claimed the scalp of a second prime minister and culminated in a third unlawfully suspending parliament; the stunning performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 election; and the equally breathtaking Tory renaissance during 2019, when the party bounced back from just 9 per cent of the ballot at the spring European elections to 44 per cent, and a landslide, in December.

A few of the issues we tackled could be seen coming, like the rise of China and the shambolic end of the west’s war on terror. But the job I’m now moving on from has been less about scanning the horizon than, in Peter Hennessy’s phrase, distilling the frenzy. That’s especially true after the unscripted arrival of a tiny bundle of RNA in a spiky protein ball transformed the state’s role in private and business life, as well as the way we all work. (Philip Ball brings you the latest on a virus that isn’t going anywhere—until, that is, we can vaccinate the whole world in the way that Gordon Brown urges.) It seems fitting that I’m writing these valedictory remarks 200 miles away from the office—while infected with Covid-19!

Amid the many tales of the unexpected, economics was one field where we were able to, well, prospect. We traced the roots of our gnarled politics back to the way we had come to govern and understand the economy. My first cover was an in-depth interview with Joseph Stiglitz, who used to champion globalisation but now cautions, given the way it has unfolded, that “you might not want to do it.” He was the first of six Nobel laureates in economics we hosted, several of whom were ready to discuss where their subject had gone wrong. As were other prominent thinkers, including Kate Raworth (who charges the discipline with relegating the environment to an afterthought) and Thomas Piketty, who wrote the book on inequality. We gave over one cover to Howard Reed to unearth and expose the assumptions smuggled into traditional economics textbooks.

But as I say in teeing up my conversation with Carlota Perez, one of the most original economic thinkers of our era, the many sharp diagnoses that we have run about what’s wrong have not, at least until this month, been matched by an equivalently clear prognosis for recovery. Perez is different. A 250-year view persuades her that every great burst of technology unleashes inequality and social disruption, followed by a populist backlash, and only then a new settlement in which economic advancement and social harmony are reconciled. I hope she leaves you, as she left me, with new hope.

The new and more inclusive economy Perez demands would be founded on solidarity. We’ve needed plenty of that in running Prospect, especially during the last 20 months of remote production. The writers and past staff are too many to name, but know who they are—and all they’ve done to make the title what it is. It takes more than journalists to keep a magazine on the road, and our operational staff—David, Paul, Adam, Susan, Donatienne and Lucy, amicably led by Alex Stevenson—have done exactly that.

Half of anything I’ve achieved editorially has been by leaving my consummate colleague Sameer Rahim to get on with things. As well as a visionary graphic artist, Mike Turner is the selfless Stakhanovite on the backbench: the man who actually makes the magazine happen. The budding young journalists I inherited, Chris Tilbury and Alex Dean, are both award winners today—respectively for transforming our website and making Prospect legal England’s must-read magazine. Amid the dark of lockdown, we recruited three new stars who immediately sparkled: David McAllister, Emily Lawford and Sarah Collins. Take careful note of their names!

My final debt of thanks is to our publisher Clive Cowdery, whose belief in the role of a title like this in public life has been matched by practical support that we couldn’t have survived without. While I’ll continue to write and be involved, I now pass the reins to the legendary former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, whose redesigned magazine will be the next one you read. I won’t say anything except that the rumours I hear are exciting! So thanks for reading, and—just as important—keep doing so. The world’s next few years may be calmer, but Prospect’s next chapter should be thrilling.