A Magazine for Closed Minds

The Critic Needs A New Name

When I was covering NatCon 2023 earlier this month, I couldn’t help but notice the special place reserved for a certain publication above all others. The Critic was the only major UK magazine with a stall at the conference and speakers on stage.

The Critic's woke mob. BLM protest, London.

Editor Christopher Montgomery chaired the National Conservatism in Britain panel discussion. Sebastian Milbank, executive editor at The Critic, gave a speech entitled The Matter of Britain.

The publication even hosted an evening of cocktails and idle chatter at the end of day two. It was a networking session for budding journalists, super-wonks, cranks and establishment conservatives.

It wasn’t the only right-wing publication with a presence at National Conservatism. There were several contributors and editors of UnHerd at the conference, including Mary Harrington and Ed West.

But The Critic was given a special platform as part of the three-day programme. Many right-wingers from mainstream publications were at the event, but only ‘alternative establishment’ media.

Although National Conservatism claims Roger Scruton as its philosopher-king, The Salisbury Review (his old rag) was nowhere to be found. And The Salisbury Review has published anti-Soviet dissidents like Václav Havel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

While the review has long been marginal, The Critic has a larger base thanks to its usurpation of Standpoint’s place in the market. Still, why the UK needs a magazine of reactionary ideas when we already have The Spectator begs to be answered.

Occasionally The Critic runs something really interesting. In 2020, John McTernan wrote an article in the style of an email to Keir Starmer, laying out a five-point strategy for crushing the Labour left. This was particularly revealing.

Furthermore, Starmer appears to have adopted and implemented this strategy almost word for word. Few Tory magazines can claim to have pre-empted, or even informed, Labour factional struggles. This may turn out to be The Critic’s calling.

New Old Right

It’s fair to say that The Critic is not ground-breaking. However, that should be the point of every Tory newspaper or magazine under the sun. What makes The Critic relevant is how it has tracked a shift in mainstream conservative politics.

Just as The Critic emerged as a breakaway from Standpoint magazine, the publication may represent a turn away from the kind of Tory liberalism that the Cameron government claimed for itself.

Former Standpoint editor Michael Mosbacher founded The Critic in 2019, alongside Conservative strategist Christopher Montgomery. Conservative Party donor Jeremy Hosking funded its launch – just as he had financed Standpoint.

It’s almost as if The Critic is an outgrowth of that political magazine. In fact, it’s not just an impression you might be mistaken to have.

Not only was The Critic launched to compete with Standpoint, Mosbacher claims Hosking wanted more ‘culture war’ content from the latter but faced opposition from its editorial team.

Not that Standpoint was ever shy in the cultural battles of the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s. The magazine was pitched as a champion of ‘Western values’ in opposition to the left and its alleged support for radical Islam.

What changed with The Critic was not really a pivot to the culture wars, but a shift in focus. Perhaps Standpoint was too pro-American and pro-globalisation with too much time for right-wing liberals.

The Critic is the type of publication that commissions a feature on the work of German doomsayer Oswald Spengler and an article on whether Tories can learn a thing or two from Gaullism.

Of course, the magazine has a special place for all things anti-transgender – whether they be self-styled gender-critical feminists or anti-feminists. It’s no longer the ‘war on terror’, but the ‘war on woke’.

This makes for very predictable reading, by and large. If liberals are fretting over Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, The Critic runs articles welcoming the rise of Fratelli d’Italia and flirts with the outer-most limits of respectable nationalism.

Meanwhile, the magazine will publish articles in defence of such lost causes as nuclear weapons and drinking too much. These are definitely the issues most under threat by the left-wing consensus in British media.

By the end of 2020, Standpoint was declared dead and The Critic was set to replace it. Standpoint was always an outgrowth of the small world of British right-wing think tanks, but the same people have moved onto new projects.

Skip forward to 2023; The Critic has established a greater reach than Standpoint by forging ties with NatCon. Now the network of influence reaches beyond London to Washington, DC.

Clearly, the British right’s character has changed a lot since Standpoint was launched in 2008. The Critic may have been best placed to take its place because of its openness to more radical forms of populism and more communitarian forms of conservatism.

Not Tory Enough

You might wonder why the British right is so morose, given that it has had its way for 13 years. The Conservative Party has won every battle it has fought and got everything it wanted, but somehow it’s not enough.

Yet this is exactly the appeal of The Critic. Any Conservative who is aggrieved by the lack of social cohesion in the wake of austerity may pick up the mag and feel his (usually his) prejudices reaffirmed. It’s all the woke. All of it.

Many of the contributors are well-established in the wider media, from David Starkey and Simon Heffer to Peter Hitchens and Anne McElvoy. These are not marginal, rebellious voices of dissent.

Other writers – such as young Tory freelancer Henry George (who also spoke at NatCon) – are not big names with salaried columns at national newspapers. It may be that the publication is more open to unknown writers, but it still has a fetish for big names.

Cultural critic Jonathan Meades has a column at The Critic. It was the first column you encountered when you opened it for a while. Arguably, it was the only thing worth reading before putting the magazine back on the shelf in WHSmith.

Naturally, Meades treads familiar tracks for his fans. Even still, the Meades column was a better regular contribution than most other things published in the magazine.

This may be what separates The Critic from the Telegraph and The Spectator: neither would ever run articles calling Boris Johnson “the shit”. But it’s a bit much for any publication to call itself “the new magazine for open-minded readers”.

You can tell a lot about a publication by its tagline. This magazine arrogantly prods you in the chest and calls you ‘close-minded’ for not buying it and reading it cover to cover. Maybe you’re just too non-white to read it.

This tagline dares to imply that anyone who doesn’t read it fears being challenged by ‘different opinions’. Some readers might actually want high-quality news reportage rather than conservative commentary.

But, if you’re one of those readers, you wouldn’t be buying The Critic. It’s not even news analysis, it’s all commentary, a faux magazine of letters. Perhaps some of its audience mistake opinion for news.

The truth is that the kind of people reading The Critic are likely no more ‘open-minded’ than those who read Standpoint. We all like to think of ourselves as ‘open-minded’, especially to ideas we like.

Making the case for freethinking is a little bit like arguing for staying well-hydrated or just breathing oxygen. It may be necessary to make this case when you’re preaching the virtues of the status quo, just as it’s necessary for the right to pretend the problem is the Tories aren’t Tory enough.

Whether we like it or not, The Critic is here to speak to the disaffected right and its obsessions with an alphabet soup of cancel culture, diversity and trans rights.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.