The Editor: ‘you have to be pretty nasty’

Michael Fotis 23 October 2009

Sir Max Hastings, one of Britain’s most influential journalists, tells Michael Fotis all about leadership, Brown’s “insane extravagance,” the media, and his adoration of a “very oldie-worldly image of Britain”

Sir Max Hastings, this is your life: Former BBC foreign correspondent, former decade-long editor of the Telegraph (Britain’s most read newspaper of record), former editor of the Evening Standard, present Mail on Sunday star columnist and bestselling historian.

This rather tall, booming voiced 63 year-old has come to Cambridge to address Churchill College’s Phoenix Society on Winston Churchill, the subject of his latest historical research. He is aware that “some academic historians tend to rather look down on people like me, who don’t hold tenure at universities, and are therefore regarded as amateurs”. But by attempting “to tell a good story,” Hastings has gained a much wider audience than most academic historians. Round one to Hastings! “Some academics are almost embarrassed to try and entertain. I get sent a lot of books from academics to review, some of which are atrociously written, and I suppose people like me ought to be grateful for that.”

This gratitude extends from his appointment as editor of the Telegraph in 1985 at the age of 39, a position he gained following a background with scant editorial experience. His leadership philosophy is clear-cut. “People will forgive you for making bad decisions if you make decisions, and what I tried to do was always make decisions, and make people understand what I wanted. Whereas it is amazing how many ditherers even get to be Prime Minister, it’s quite extraordinary.” Hastings brushes off any suggestion that he is directly referencing the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

In trying to make people understand what he wanted, colleagues dubbed him ‘Hitler Hastings’. Was this reputation deserved? “I hope so. If you’re running things, you’ve got to be prepared to be tough.”

“I’m afraid it is broadly true that nice guys finish last. In almost all effective societies, in peace or war, you have to be willing to be pretty nasty. We’ve been through a period in which there was so much money around, that it has been possible for Britain to play at being a comparative society. One of the things that is going to have to happen in the next generation, which your generation are going to hate, is that we are going to have to be a good deal nastier to each other in order to get through.”

Hastings is concerned about the future of Britain’s next generation. “Britain has got this vast weight of debt, and your generation are going to pay the bills for Brown’s excesses for years to come.”

In his column on the eve of this year’s Conservative party autumn conference, Hastings advocated increasing VAT to around 20 per cent, in order to help pay-off Britain’s debt mountain. But wouldn’t that be the most regressive way of increasing taxation, disproportionately hitting the most economically vulnerable in society?

“We are going to have a choice. If you are serious about raising money from taxes, you have to raise either the standard rate of income tax, or VAT. Even if you raised taxes dramatically, even to 80 per cent for people earning over £200,000 a year, the sums of money don’t amount to anything, partly because they go abroad. Now you lot are going to have to pay the bills for Browns almost insane extravagance. For your generation it is going to be really tough. I’m not worrying about me, my age group are worrying about you, because we can see that you lot are going to spend your working lives paying back Mr Browns folly, and it’s a hell of a fine mess.”

It is unpalatable to contemplate the inevitable social costs of any future government cut-backs, but it seems impossible to challenge his message of doom and gloom. The mess is such that Hastings believes “we need more bright young things in government, and in public administration, and fewer in the media. The trouble is that everyone likes the media because it is fun.” It is hard to challenge this logic, and the bright young things attracted to The Cambridge Student (TCS) team would probably agree. Nevertheless, Hastings describes the strain of running a newspaper as “terrific.”

“Three years running I would have to abandon holidays and charter aeroplanes to get me back to the office, because of some crisis in the world. In the end, when the shit hits the fan, you’re the one in charge, and you take the rap.”

The most endearing part of the interview comes with Hastings describing being brought up by his father “to believe that being born British was the best thing that could possibly happen, and so I grew up adoring a very oldie-worldly image of Britain.”

All that said, Hastings is no fool. “The old Britain was not perfect by a long chalk…the British army was not that good, everyone likes to pretend it was, but it wasn’t…British industry was disastrously bad. Only stupid people believe that Britain doesn’t have to change in order to remain dynamic.”

Is Hastings an establishment man? “No, the establishment wouldn’t recognise any part of me. I’ve always been a wet Tory, a Ken Clarke-type Tory (Hastings is also pro-European). I loathe the right, always have done”. This is a pretty major confession for a former Telegraph editor now seemingly going rogue. More probing was required, not least given his defence of foxhunting, long a rallying cry for the Tory establishment.

“I personally loathe fox hunting, I mean the people who do it are so boring, but I absolutely believe in their right to do it, if they want to do it.” Hastings’s defence of foxhunting is premised upon his belief in defending the rights of a minority, and he is “not prepared to equate the rights of animals to the rights of people.”

On the question of how far Hastings is prepared to extend his defence of the rights of minorities, he offers the example of female British Muslims who choose to wear a burkah. “I think it’s a great pity if women living in Britain want to wear burkahs, because they’re giving a signal that they don’t want to live in the way that we live. On the other hand, I will fight to the death to defend their right to wear burkahs if they want to.”

“I think the biggest mistake anybody can make is if you want to fit us all into boxes. The Tory right consider me a left-wing lunatic; the left consider me a right-wing lunatic, and I think on the whole that’s the way you want to be.

“One day Douglas Herndon (the then foreign secretary) said to me: ‘John Major doesn’t like you; he never knows what you’re going to do next’. That was the best compliment I was ever paid. I said it is my job that the Prime Minister shouldn’t know. If the Prime Minister knows what a newspaper editor is going to do next, then he’s not doing his job properly.”

During his talk to the Phoenix society, and throughout my interview with him, I came to believe that Hastings shares a number of traits with Sir Winston himself.

Sir Max would no doubt ridicule such a suggestion, but it is certainly clear that Hastings cannot be so lazily defined.

Ripping up the boxes seems like an odd suggestion for Hastings to make. Nonetheless, this is refreshing, and I quite suspect that he intends this as a challenge for “you lot”: the generation which will have to deal with this “hell of a fine mess.”

The future may not be so bleak after all.

Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940-45 is published by HarperCollins, 2009

Michael Fotis