The Prospect editorial—a new year and renewed purpose

Time to take stock in the battle between enlightenment and its opposite
December 10, 2020

Basking in Trump, Brexit and various shades of nationalist nastiness in Europe, Vladimir Putin gave a provocative interview. “The liberal idea,” he told the Financial Times in 2019, had “outlived its purpose.” Hostility to multiculturalism had rendered it obsolete.

You might be a red-blooded socialist or a communitarian conservative, but if you’re reading Prospect, you’re unlikely to take instruction in political theory from the man in the Kremlin. This sort of magazine inescapably embodies the “very small l” liberal intellectual values—curiosity, scepticism and reason—that arrogant rulers kick against. And as a raging demagogue is evicted from the White House, it is a fitting moment to take stock of the struggle between enlightenment and its opposite.

Timothy Garton Ash provides a magisterial panoramic on where liberal democracy stands in the world, where liberalism has gone awry, and how it can reset. Meanwhile, Rafael Behr warns liberals against mistaking their 21st-century foes for familiar 20th-century ogres, and Eliane Glaser argues that even radical socialists can do better by working through, rather than pulling down, the formal institutions of liberal society. For good measure, Ferdinand Mount looks back to Obama’s presidency and argues that, for all the disappointments, there could be “worse fates” than Joe Biden recreating the America that his former boss left behind.

Beyond this quintessentially Prospect substance, I must fill you in on how we’re refreshing the Prospect style. We’ve made our opening columns shorter, snappier and more to the point. And we have rearranged our back half into a new “critical thinking” section, bundling up the critics proper, who review books each month, with pieces that offer a sideways look at currents in our society (see Thomas Marks on the evolving role of graveyards) or lives so interesting that they have to be read to be believed, such as that of Jean van Heijenoort (Ray Monk).

With this space for serendipity carved out, we have taken the chance to curate our main pieces on the affairs of the day more pro-actively, marshalling essays around four convening themes. One, as you’d expect, is “tomorrow’s economy,” kicked off here by former FT Editor Lionel Barber’s examination of whether Britain’s traditionally-dominant Treasury is a devalued currency, Rebecca Liu’s thoughtful interrogation of UK PLC’s “diversity project,” Martin Sandbu’s analysis of the surprising continental drift of Brexit Britain’s business model and Jem Bartholomew’s searching reportage on its food bank boom.

Another theme concerns all the problems that go “beyond borders,” exemplified by Cal Flyn’s take on the counterproductive way we talk about climate. A third we have called “eternal vigilance,” the price that always has to be paid for liberty, a point borne out by Francis Wade’s damning analysis of the horrors unleashed in Myanmar when the UN looked away. The final theme concerns “liberal democracy,” which will cover the condition of the British and other political systems that describe themselves this way. There is obviously plenty under this heading this time, not least Garton Ash’s essay.

Our design is changing too. We are about to launch a new website, designed to ensure our online journalism—which is updated daily, and already has a fast-growing audience—looks crisp, uncluttered and is easy to read. The exercise got us thinking about whether the magazine itself could also be crisper and easier on the eye. And so we have made the font slightly bigger and more spaced, so that our signature extended essays can breathe more on the page.

Hope you enjoy it. Do let us know—and here’s hoping 2021 will be a happier year.