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Politics and publishing

Yesterday I published a couple of entries from the diary that Iain Dale started and then abandoned after a few months in 2002.

Iain is now a successful broadcaster and political commentator but at that time he was running a bookshop in Westminster – no mean feat but lacking the same public profile.

Politico’s was a short walk from Forest’s office in Palace Street near Victoria Station and I would pop in from time to time to browse and have a coffee in the tiny mezzanine cafe that overlooked the main bookshop.

As the name suggests, the shop specialised in books about politics. But it also had some more quirky items.

It was a niche market but I liked the quiet, unhurried atmosphere. It offered respite not only from London’s busy streets but the occasional madness of working for Forest.

Sadly the decision to close the cafe removed much of its appeal.

I can’t remember the first time I spoke to Iain. It must have been when I became editor of Freedom Today, the Freedom Association’s monthly magazine which was on sale in Politico’s alongside some equally curious periodicals.

Prior to becoming director of Forest I had edited a number of magazines over a 20-year period and I was keen to keep my hand in, so when the opportunity arose to edit and produce Freedom Today I grabbed it.

I’m not being immodest (OK, I am) when I say that my colleague Jo Gaffikin and I improved Freedom Today beyond all recognition. And Iain recognised that because he told me.

It encouraged me to approach him with a proposal for a new magazine that would help promote the books he was selling.

I was motivated too by the fact that Forest had previously ‘sponsored’ a monthly soirée of writers and journalists at the Academy Club in Soho where I had met a number of authors.

The Academy Club was the brainchild of Auberon Waugh who was then editor of the Literary Review.

Much as I liked Bron, who died in January 2001, I wasn’t a huge fan of the magazine which I found a bit dull, even in his hands.

The proposal I put to Iain was for a quarterly publication that combined book reviews with interviews, features and forthcoming events.

With his impressive list of contacts, and the natural desire of authors (if not their hopeless publishers) to promote their latest book, I was confident it would work.

Iain took a bit of persuading but eventually agreed. We called it The Politico and launched it in April 2002 with a drinks party attended by MPs, journalists and friends.

The first issue featured Labour’s Mo Mowlam. Subsequent editions included interviews with Jeremy Paxman, Gyles Brandreth, Tony Benn, David Davis, Adam Boulton (Sky News), Sandy Toksvic and several more.

Feedback from readers, including customers (who got a free copy), was very positive. There was only one problem. The Politico never lost money but it never made a profit either.

Printing costs were covered by a small amount of advertising but no-one (including the editor!) was paid a penny.

It was a lot of work for no reward apart from the satisfaction of meeting some interesting people and producing a magazine that people seemed to enjoy.

Unknown to me, however, Politico’s had more immediate problems, including the threat of a substantial rent increase, and Iain was looking to sell the business.

The reaction to The Politico had been sufficiently positive however that we actually discussed what in hindsight seems a ridiculously ambitious project - launching a rival to the Spectator (with the help of Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail).

As Iain wrote in his diary:

Monday 21 October
Had a meeting with Simon Clark this afternoon. The main thing to come out of it is an idea to put to Associated Newspapers about launching a rival to The Spectator. Could be interesting.

Friday 25 October
Had lunch yesterday with Jane Mays from the Mail. Ostensibly to sound her out about whether Associated might be interested in launching a rival to the Speccy. This arose out of a talk with Simon Clark on Monday about how we could take the Politico magazine to the next stage. She seemed quite keen, but not sure if anything will come of it.

Nothing did come of it, needless to say. (Life’s a pitch.) Instead, a few years later, Iain launched Total Politics with the support of Lord Ashcroft.

As for The Politico, it was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t very long. And Iain thought so too. Writing in 2007 he commented:

Earlier in the summer I was tidying some files at home and a copy of a magazine fell out of a file. It was called The Politico and I published three issues of it while I was running Politico's in 2003. I started re-reading it and began to remember what a brilliant reaction it provoked at the time. It only had three issues because I then closed the shop and the people who produced it moved on to other things.

See also ‘Life and times of The Politico’.

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