My desert island choice of top political columnists

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2015

So here’s a list. My current eight favourite political columnists (in alphabetical order):

1. David Aaronovitch – The very definition of passionate pragmatism, ‘muscular liberalism’ (a phrase associated with Mark Oaten) is how I think of his world-view. Though I always thought him wrong on Iraq, he has been a dogged champion of immigration and a free press, and a forensic sceptic of the conspiracy-theory junkies of both Left and Right.

2. Rafael Behr – you know when you’re reading a column by him. The elegance, sheer quality, of his writing is utterly compelling, with breathtakingly good one-liners (eg, ‘Corbynism is a festival on the beach of opposition’). He’s plugged into all the parties well enough to know their flaws and their strengths, and writes about each with empathetic objectivity.

3. Jeremy Cliffe – better known as the Economist’s incoming Bagehot columnist, he’s too much of a liberal-lefty for Gudio Fawkes’ tastes, itself recommendation enough. His column this week on how the Corbynites just don’t get modern Britain is a terrific example of his style. For more meaty policy discussion, do read his excellent papers on Britain’s ‘Cosmopolitan Future’, a liberal Blairite fusion.

4. Nick Cohen – if only the Leftists had been listening to him more over the past decade, remembering that being against America and corporations isn’t enough: that solidarity against fascism and in favour of liberty used to be what united the Left. This brilliant article railing against the iniquities of both New Labour and the Bennite-Corbynites perfectly distills his anger at his comrades’ abandonment of their own values.

5. Philip Collins – to his critics, he’s forever condemned as Tony Blair’s speech-writer. Which is what makes him such a fantastic writer, whether about politics (eg, condemning the Tory mindset) or about life (eg, his Times’ Notebooks are sublime).

6. Daniel Finkelstein – I’ve taken him to task in the past, but he remains one of the most eloquent advocates for moderate Toryism, a Cameroon before and after the label was popular. And his recent article – When does anti-zionism become antisemitic? – was a superb dissection of the blurred lines indulged by left, right and ‘liberal’ about Israel.

7. Isabel Hardman – what marks her out and distinguishes her writing, is her curiosity to understand what makes politicians (of all stripes) tick. The first article I read by her was all about the Lib Dems’ love of leaflets (no journalist who wants to understand the party can ignore it) and she brings that mission to explain to every subject.

8. Matthew Parris – quite simply there is no finer writer about politics in Britain today: not because he’s always right, but because he’s always thoughtful, and capable of intuiting where others of us over-analyse. He also benefits from being an ex-MP and a still-active Tory. He’s not just observing politics, as if it were a fun parlour game, but lives it, believes in it. That matters if your words are going to be worth reading week in, week out.

Inevitably lots of really good writers I like didn’t make the list. I’m thinking of folk like Tim Montgomerie, Janan Ganesh and Matthew d’Ancona from the right, Gaby Hinsliff, John Rentoul and Martin Kettle from the left. (The lack of out-and-out liberals tells its own story of our media’s diversity.)

But I stick by my choices (though I’m aware they’re Times/male-dominated). They’re all folk who avoid click-bait polemic but constantly provoke; acknowledge nuance but are unafraid to reach conclusions; who think hard and range widely. Not much to ask, eh?