Kingsley Martin, the second of four children of Basil Martin and Margaret Turberville, was born in Ingestre Street, Hereford, on 28 July 1897. Kingsley father had initially been a Congregational minister but later he became a Unitarian. The Rev. Martin was a pacifist and in 1899 campaigned against the Boer War. He was also a socialist and a active member of the Labour Party.
Martin later wrote: "I was proud of holding my father's opinions. I was a pacifist and socialist among conservatives without knowing what these labels meant. This was bad for me. All boys in adolescence must break with their parents. My trouble was that my father gave me no chance at all to quarrel with him. If he had been a dogmatic Christian, I should have reached my later humanism long before I did. If he had been an atheist I might have relapsed into some form of Christian faith. But he was ready to discuss everything and to yield when he was wrong. I could not quarrel. On the contrary, I fought side by side with him, and was a dissenter, not against his dissent, but with him against the Establishment. His causes became my causes, his revolt was mine."
Martin's biographer, Adrian Smith, has argued: "His father was known locally as a man of the highest integrity who stuck fast to his Christian socialist principles, not least his belief in absolute pacifism. He attracted grudging respect but often harsh criticism, not just from the respectable burghers of Hereford but also from the elders in his own church. His was a stormy and demanding ministry, borne with good grace and fortitude, and setting an example the adult Kingsley endeavoured to match, albeit with only partial success."
Basil Martin was also involved in the campaign against the 1902 Education Act introduced by Arthur Balfour. The previous Education Act had been popular with radicals as school boards were elected by ratepayers in each district. This enabled nonconformists and socialists to obtain control over local schools. The Balfour legislation abolished all 2,568 school boards and handed over their duties to local borough or county councils. These new Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were given powers to establish new secondary and technical schools as well as developing the existing system of elementary schools.
Nonconformists and supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties campaigned against this legislation. John Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee and by 1906 over 170 men had gone to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes. This included 60 Primitive Methodists, 48 Baptists, 40 Congregationalists and 15 Wesleyan Methodists.
Martin later explained in Father Figures (1966): "My father was involved in the passive resisters' fight against Balfour's Education Act of 1902. Each year father and the other resisters all over the country refused to pay their rates for the upkeep of Church Schools. The passive resistors thought the issue of principle paramount and annually surrendered their goods instead of paying their rates. I well remember how each year one or two of our chairs and a silver teapot and jug were put out on the hall table for the local officers to take away. They were auctioned in the Market Place and brought back to us. Mother and I were taken for our first motor ride to one of these village auctions where father would explain the nature of passive resistance before the sale began. We drove to a village some fifteen miles away, sometimes travelling at the frightening speed of twenty miles an hour. In those days roads were deep in dust, and you could tell if a car had passed because the hedges were white. I remember three small boys running behind each other pretending to be a motor. The first said he was the driver, the second a car, and the third the smell."
Kingsley won a scholarship to Mill Hill, a nonconformist public school. He was still at school when he was called up to the British Army in 1916. As a pacifist he was totally opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War. A conscientious objector, he refused to serve in the armed forces but was willing to carry out non-military duties. After a few months working as a medical orderly in a British hospital treating wounded soldiers, Martin joined the Society of Friends' Ambulance Unit (FAU) and later that year was working on the Western Front.
He later wrote: "In my ward, there were twenty-five men who were literally half dead. They were very much alive in their top halves, but dead below the waist. The connection between their brain and their natural functions were broken. They could feel nothing in their hips or legs, and in spite of being constantly rubbed with methylated spirit, they had bedsores you could put your hands in."
In 1919 Martin took up his place at Magdalene College that he had won at Cambridge before the war. While studying at university he joined the Union of Democratic Control and the Fabian Society where he met George Bernard Shaw, Graham Wallas, John Maynard Keynes, Douglas Cole and Sidney Webb and Harold Laski. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary: "Kingsley Martin was unkempt and with the appearance of being unwashed, with jerky, ugly manners, but tall and dark - with a certain picturesque impressiveness of the Maxton type. He is a fluent and striking conversationalist - intellectually ambitious - with a certain religious fervour for social reconstruction. One of the promising younger members of the Fabian Society."
After obtaining a first-class degree at Cambridge University, Martin taught at Princeton University (1922-23) in the United States. When Martin returned to England, Maynard Keynes employed him as a book reviewer for his journal, The Nation. Keynes also persuaded William Beveridge, to give Martin a teaching post at the London School of Economics (1924-27). During this period he published The Triumph of Lord Palmerston (1924) and French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1929).
At first Kingsley Martin enjoyed life as an academic: "The London School of Economics... was then, as it always has been, a wonderful home of free discussion, happily mixed race, and genuine learning. It seemed my natural home. My socialist views were vague, but not my sympathies. Like my friend Harold Laski, I believed passionately that capitalism was evil and doomed, and that it was useless to talk of liberty unless it was based on a large measure of social equality. I came into contact with most of England's leading Socialists, who completed my conversion."
However, Martin clashed with William Beveridge, the director of the LSE but fell in love with Eileen Power: "I never hit it off with Beveridge, though I recognised from the beginning that he was a man of extraordinary ability. I once, and only once, pleased Beveridge. I said that he 'ruled over an empire on which the concrete never set'. He was so delighted with this remark that he constantly quoted it, always attributing it, however, to Eileen Power, with whom, like everyone else, I assume was more or less in love. Eileen, indeed, was one of the most attractive women I have ever known. She was good-looking, and carried her erudition as a medieval scholar with wit and grace. She wrote delightfully, her account of the domestic life of nunneries would never bore anyone, and her Medieval People showed that careful scholarship can be made popular and achieve large sales."
Harold Laski suggested to C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, that Martin would make a good replacement for C. E. Montague, the chief leader writer, who wanted to retire and write novels. He later wrote: "C. P. Scott wrote he had long been looking for a leader writer and would I take C. E. Montague's place on the Manchester Guardian at a salary commencing at £1,000 a year. This was an extraordinary offer from C. P. Scott, who usually thought anyone should pay for the privilege of writing for the Manchester Guardian." In the autumn of 1927 Martin accepted Scott's offer of £1,000 a year and ended his career as an academic.
Adrian Smith has pointed out: "Writing leaders for the legendary editor–proprietor C. P. Scott would have seemed the ideal appointment for someone so firmly rooted in the nonconformist tradition, but again Martin found himself at odds with his superior. He quickly encountered difficulties in reconciling an unbridled faith in democratic socialism with the Scott family's enthusiasm for the Liberal revivalism of a rejuvenated Lloyd George. Leaders were regularly rewritten in more temperate language, or simply spiked, and after three turbulent years in Manchester Martin learned that his contract would not be renewed. At the end of a decade of sharply contrasting fortunes he returned to London in 1930 desperate to revive a flagging career."
Martin left the Manchester Guardian in 1930. Soon afterwards, Arnold Bennett, one of the directors of the New Statesman, asked him to become editor of the journal. Under Martin's guidance the journal became Britain's leading political weekly. He admitted in his autobiography: "In general we supported the Left Wing of Labour. Our independence was infuriating to the leaders of the party. Politicians think in terms of votes, and do not understand that in the long run it is the climate of opinion that matters."
Adrian Smith points out: "Kingsley Martin set out to make the New Statesman and Nation the flagship weekly of the left, articulating a brand of democratic socialism compatible with mainstream Labour thinking, while at the same time reserving the right to question and provoke. Thus, the paper remained loyal to Labour, but at the same time constituted a valuable forum for dissent. Indeed Martin positively relished being a perpetual critic of the Labour leadership, in or out of office. This refusal to follow a narrow party line was in many respects the key to the New Statesman's success, witness its close association from the mid-fifties with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which Martin was a founding father."
Kingsley Martin later recalled: " I combined in myself many of the inconsistencies and conflicts of the period which long tried to reconcile pacifism with collective security, and a defence of individual liberty with the necessity of working with Communists against Fascists. I suppose my prime attitude was a dissenter's. A dissenter sees the world is bad and expresses his moral indignation.... I tended to be angry. War was always the ultimate horror, and I could not bear to be silent about the sufferings of minorities and cruelty inflicted on individuals, even when the aggressors were my friends. At times the paper became more than anything else the voice of the minorities and a vehicle of protest. It also had a constructive, Socialist side."
The author of New Statesman: Portrait of a Political Weekly (1996) has pointed out: "When, with reluctance, he (Kingsley Martin) handed over the editorial reins in December 1960, the paper's weekly sales had increased sixfold to 80,000, the circulation in January 1931 having stood at a mere 14,000. Advertising revenue in 1960 had grown to a remarkable £100,000 per year, ensuring a healthy return for those directors who a generation earlier had gambled on an unproven young journalist turning their paper round. As chairman until his death in 1946, Keynes applauded evidence of commercial enterprise while sensibly bowing to editorial integrity in matters of potential conflict. The Keynes–Martin partnership was not always harmonious, but it proved remarkably productive."
After leaving the New Statesman Kingsley Martin produced two autobiographical works, Father Figures (1966) and Editor (1968). A keen chess player, he also rediscovered a passion for oil painting. He also spent a great deal of time travelling and suffered a stroke while in Egypt. He was rushed to the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo, where he died of a heart attack on 16th February 1969. He donated his body for medical research.