The Guardian newspaper was founded 200 years ago in a belated response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when cavalry charged protesters demanding democratic rights. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise to anyone who reads the newspaper today that it wasn’t set up to carry on the fight against the murderous oppressors. Rather, its aim was to counter the danger of “extremism”.
The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester was a result of the Tory government’s crackdown on a militant campaign demanding the vote that was growing in strength by the day. Over 60,000 people assembled on St Peter’s Field for a mass meeting on 16 August, a peaceful protest, attended by men, women and children, old and young.
On the orders of local magistrates, the meeting was attacked by the mounted Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars cavalry regiment. Some 18 people were killed and well over 400 were injured. Among the dead was a two year-old boy, William Fides, trampled to death after his mother was struck down with a sabre. The short-lived radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer, subsequently labelled the attack the “Peterloo massacre”.
The Guardian—or Manchester Guardian as it then known—had other ideas. It was established in 1821 by prosperous cotton merchant John Edward Taylor, with the support of a number of his friends and associates, all mill owners. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Taylor had made clear that the magistrates who had ordered the attack included some good men. He added that most of the Yeomanry were men “incapable of acting with deliberate cruelty”.
This mealy-mouthed even-handedness was to be written into the paper’s genes. It advocated moderate gradual reform, as a good thing in itself and a means of combating militancy, undermining the struggle for democratic change and demobilising radical movements. Safeguarding the capitalist social order was and still is the paper’s main priority.
A good demonstration of the Manchester Guardian’s politics is provided by its attitude to Tory anti-trade union laws, the Combination Acts, in the 1820s. It supported their repeal, but only because the fight against them was stirring up workers’ militancy and class conflict. If the unions were legalised, then the expectation was that they would become moderate—“legal and harmless” as the paper put it. But after the laws were repealed in 1824, the paper worried that that there was a danger of workers forgetting their subordinate position.
Even more revealing was its response to the renewed campaign by working class people to win the vote. At the time, voting rights were tied to property ownership. The paper advocated setting the property qualification low enough so the “labouring classes by careful, steady and persevering industry” might qualify. But it warned that it shouldn’t be “so low as to give anything like a preponderating influence to the mere populace”.
On another occasion, the paper warned against “hurried and extreme changes” to voting rights, which would be “dangerous to the maintenance of public order”. And it warned against the danger of a “revolutionary tendency”.
When it came to the Ten Hours Bill of 1832—that proposed limits on the hours children could work—the paper did not oppose it. But in best Guardian fashion, it recommended 11 and a half hours instead. Indeed, as Taylor sagely observed, “Though child labour is evil, it is better than starvation”. Higher wages for adult workers so that their children would not have to work were, of course, unthinkable.
What of the Great Famine that overwhelmed Ireland in the 1840s? The Manchester Guardian argued that the way forward was economic development, but that this required stability and so it supported the declaration of martial law. It was adamant though “that measures of coercion and repression must be accommodated by measures calculated to stimulate industry, and to give Irishmen some better employment than shooting landlords”. This provoked considerable anger among Irish people living in Manchester, many of them refugees fleeing hunger and eviction, and led to a protest against the paper. The Guardian was also relentless in its ridicule of Irish revolutionaries.
One other telling episode is the paper’s response to the Great Indian Revolt of the 1850s. This revolt unleashed one of the most brutal, murderous waves of repression in the history of the British Empire. For the Manchester Guardian, it was important to remember that “England has governed in India, well, tenderly and justly. As no nation of ancient or modern times ever yet governed a distant dependency”. It had “unfaltering confidence in our right to rule over the native population by virtue of our inherent superiority”.
And when it came to repression, “We have no motive for sparing the city of Lucknow, and have sufficient park of artillery to crush it into dust.” What marked the Manchester Guardian out as a liberal rather than a Tory newspaper was the next sentence—“Let us hope that none but the guilty will suffer.”
The paper did admit that when bombarding a city “into dust…it will be difficult to discriminate.” “Still we have great confidence in our troops and their leader,” it said. The paper piously hoped they would be “merciful”. Needless to say, mercy was not one of the components of British repression in 1857-1858 or at any other time for that matter.
Another good example of the Manchester Guardian’s politics is provided by its response to the American Civil War. This is certainly one of the most shameful episodes in the paper’s history. It was opposed to slavery, but at the same time supported the right of the Southern states to secede and condemned the North as an aggressor.
It was also ferociously hostile to US president Abraham Lincoln, apparently regarding him as a dangerous democratic extremist. On 10 October 1862, it bluntly stated that “it was an evil day both for America and the world, when he was chosen president of the United States”. When Lincoln won his second term in office, it accused him of only having won by “fraud, violence and intimidation”. And with regard to his assassination, it summed up his time in office “as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty”. Although it conceded that his murder was “doubtless to be regretted”.
What particularly incensed the paper was Lincoln’s appeal to British cotton workers to boycott Southern cotton. The paper’s stance led to it being heartily condemned at a mass meeting of cotton workers in the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 31 December 1862. And the paper even warned of the danger that a Northern victory would lead to “one of the fairest regions of this earth” being given over “to rapine by whites and blacks transformed into fiends”.
Even more incredible, the Southern slave owners were described as the slaves’ best friend. They would have eventually freed them in a more humane manner when the time was ripe, if the South had won independence. The North was guilty of an “insatiable greed of power”. This embrace of reaction came at the same time as the paper was fearful of Britain becoming too democratic.
There is obviously not the space here to chronicle the whole history of the newspaper. It supported the 1882 invasion of Egypt, but was condemnatory of the brutal reconquest of neighbouring Sudan in 1892 and opposed parliament’s £30,000 award to commander General Kitchener.
It supported Irish Home Rule, but ferociously condemned the militancy of the Land War against British landowners. It supported votes for women but was inevitably opposed to the Suffragettes, to any militant fight to actually win women the vote. It condemned the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, supporting the execution of its leaders. But it also later condemned the activities of the British paramilitary Black and Tans during the Irish War of independence.
But let’s at least look at two other historic episodes in a bit more detail. The Manchester Guardian was a staunch supporter of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which saw the British state promise support for Zionist colonisation in Palestine. And more than that, the then editor, CP Scott, was in fact one of its architects, bringing prime minister Lloyd George and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann together. Scott was a former Liberal MP (1895-1906) and still president of the Manchester Liberal Federation.
On 1 November 1917, Scott wrote in the Manchester Guardian, “We speak of Palestine as a country, but it is not a country…but it will be a country; it will be the country of the Jews.” A week later the text of the Balfour Declaration was released to the press.
And then there was the General Strike of 1926. Scott actually wrote to the hardline Tory home secretary, William Joynson Hicks. “We both see that this strike, which is really an attack upon constitutional and parliamentary government, must be met and fought,” he said. They “had to be very firm in the protection of the rights of those who are willing to work”.
The paper still came out in bulletin form during the strike with NUJ union members helping print it, scabbing in fact. As for Scott himself, he was actively involved in setting in motion the process that led up to the TUC union federation leadership calling the strike off, abandoning the miners. The leader of the TGWU union—future right wing Labour foreign minister Ernest Bevin—praised him for his role in effecting the sell-out.
And, of course, the TUC did nothing to prevent the victimisation of thousands of those it had called out on strike, many of them TGWU members. The paper was not unduly concerned about this mass victimisation and the attack on workplace organisation. Indeed, the Manchester Guardian proceeded to impose a company union on its own printers. This scab outfit survived until the Nazi Blitz of London during the Second World War. The paper needed a contract with another printer in case its own works was bombed. But no other print workers would agree to produce the paper while the scab union was in place.
More recently, the Guardian—as it had become in 1959—came out in support of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election. They, of course, promptly went into coalition with the Tories and imposed their austerity regime, making the working class, both blue and white collar, pay for the bankers’ greed.
The paper supported Labour in 2015, was strongly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn in the subsequent leadership election, but in 2017 it still supported Labour. This was in the confident belief that a party led by Corbyn would be decisively defeated so that the Blairites could safely reclaim the party. When this did not happen in the 2017 election, the Guardian threw itself into opposition to Corbyn under the editorship of Katherine Viner.
It enthusiastically embraced the antisemitism smears against the left and Palestine solidarity movement. The assault was absolutely relentless. The paper’s support for Zionism was decisively reaffirmed. This will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the most shameful episodes in the paper’s history.
And in the 2019 general election, the Guardian refused to support Labour. To be blunt the Guardian preferred the election of a Boris Johnson government to the election of a Corbyn government. There is no other way to put it. But of course, to be fair, so did many Labour MPs. One dreadful consequence of this has been that the Covid-19 death toll in Britain has been much higher, by tens of thousands, than it would have been if a Corbyn government had been elected. This last point is seldom made, but is absolutely the case.
What then are we to make of the Guardian at 200? It is remarkable how its compromised politics have persisted over 200 years. Support for the capitalist social order, but along with the endorsement of gradual, moderate reform and a bitter opposition to radicalism and militancy. It has always had a place for a handful of tame radical commentators. And then there are the likes of Polly Toynbee who can one moment write a powerful indictment of poverty, injustice and exploitation and the next advocate Blairism as the solution. From this point of view, nothing has changed.
Pluto Press have recently published a collection of essays on the paper, edited by Des Freedman, Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian, that readers might find interesting
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