200 Years of The Guardian

The Guardian, which marks its bicentennial today, positions itself as an outsider – but in reality, it has spent the past two centuries playing an insider role as the conscience of British capitalism.

The Guardian was officially launched on 5 May 1821 but, according to its current editor, Katharine Viner, the ‘history of the Guardian begins on 16 August 1819’ following the Peterloo massacre. This is one of the central events in British working-class history, in which 50,000 people attended a mass rally in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to press for electoral reform and trade union rights, and were met with a brutal assault by local yeomanry, leading to the deaths of 18 people and widespread outrage against the authorities.

In the crowd that day was John Edward Taylor, a cotton merchant and part-time journalist who wrote up his account of the massacre for the Times, helping to make what might have been contained as a local event into a national sensation. As Viner puts it, ‘Taylor exposed the facts, without hysteria. By reporting what he had witnessed, he told the stories of the powerless, and held the powerful to account.’ Peterloo, in the official Guardian telling, motivated Taylor to start the Manchester Guardian two years later. 200 years on, whose truth does the Guardian tell, and in what ways does it hold power to account?

I want to offer a counter-narrative to the official Guardian history of its emergence, and to argue instead that Edwards used Peterloo to promote a constitutionalist alternative to the left, attaching blame both to the authorities and to the radical organisers. Indeed, the newspaper arrived not at the heights of a political upturn, but at the start of a short period of social stability which it fiercely sought to maintain. The Manchester Guardian sought alliances not with a nascent working-class movement but with liberal business interests concentrated in the cotton industry, and pursued an editorial agenda that reflected precisely these interests.

In 1821, as in 2021, the Guardian epitomised the fundamental contradictions of a form of liberalism with which it is now intimately associated.

Peterloo in Context

The second decade of the nineteenth century was an insurrectionary period in England as in many other parts of the world. With the French Revolution a recent memory and with basic democratic rights to vote and to organise denied to the vast majority of the population, there was a rebellious mood amongst a growing working class movement characterised by the smashing up of machinery, huge radical meetings, hunger marches, and food riots. Up to 1819, as E. P. Thompson has argued, ‘middle-class reformers were not yet strong enough to offer a moderate line of advance.’ The horrific events at Peterloo changed this and transformed the balance of forces amongst proponents of reform.

Taylor was outraged by the violence meted out against ordinary protestors, but equally enraged by the rhetoric of what he called ‘the plebeian aristocracy’. He refused to lay responsibility for Peterloo at the door of the state, insisting that the ‘yeomanry are incapable of acting with deliberate cruelty’ and blamed instead a handful of wayward individuals ‘whose political rancour approaches to absolute insanity.’ The key lesson of Peterloo for Taylor was not the need for thoroughgoing political change and the extension of democracy to the poor, but the need to build social harmony and to restore faith in the law – a law that had just permitted the slaughter of more than a dozen citizens. There will be no peace, he argued, ‘until the poor have regained that perfect confidence in the impartiality of the law.’

Peterloo exposed the barbarism of the authorities to a national audience and opened the door to liberal reformers to make a case for piecemeal change, and thus to pre-empt the need to cave in to radical demands for universal suffrage. Indeed, while the ‘constitutionalist’ wing of the movement gained confidence following Peterloo, the ‘revolutionary’ wing, facing sustained repression and internal division, temporarily lost its momentum.

In Manchester, this paved the way for liberal-minded business leaders to agitate for parliamentary reform, religious freedom and, above all, free trade. People like Taylor, his good friend and fellow journalist Archibald Prentice, and others were part of what was known as the ‘Little Circle’, a group of Manchester merchants that opposed both the rule of the ‘old order’ and the extension of the franchise to all working people.

Peterloo played a key role in the development of the Circle, convincing its members of the need for a new, constitutionally-focused political strategy distinct from that of the radicals. One historian, David Knott, argues that while Circle members were outraged by the violence they witnessed at Peterloo, ‘they were also wanted to distance themselves from the event’ and to channel radical political dissent into acceptable forms of political activity. What they lacked at the time was a vehicle that could articulate their values and promote these assemblies—such as a regular newspaper—but the fallout from Peterloo provided precisely this opportunity.

The Founding of the Manchester Guardian

The first instinct of the members of the ‘Little Circle’ wasn’t to set up their own newspaper but to buy out the liberal Manchester Gazette. When this proved impossible, Taylor secured the necessary capital from his friends in the Manchester business community to launch the newspaper and immediately produced a prospectus designed to publicise its imminent arrival and, more significantly, to secure advertising.

Viner describes the prospectus as a ‘powerful document, and one whose ideals still shape the Guardian – a celebration of more people getting educated, of more people engaging in politics, from different walks of life, from poorer communities.’ Yet the prospectus is actually quite cautious in its political orientation, noticeably failing to mention Peterloo nor the government’s ongoing repression. Instead, it promised that the newspaper will be committed to ‘the promotion of public happiness and the security of popular rights’ and that ‘it will warmly advocate the cause of reform’ without being tied to any particular political party.

The prospectus makes it clear that the Manchester Guardian is aimed at ‘the classes to whom … advertisements are generally addressed.’ Noting that no other Manchester newspaper was fully committed to represent the ‘wealth and intelligence of this town’, the prospectus promised that the newspaper would provide comprehensive information about commerce – and about the cotton trade above all. It is an unavoidable reality for the Guardian that the capital required for its start-up came largely from an industry whose own wealth was intimately bound up with the profits accrued from the slave trade: that some of those involved in the paper’s founding were active abolitionists does little to change the historical structural dependence of the title on a source of wealth that directly contradicts its own liberal values or, perhaps more accurately, that reflects the fundamentally compromised history of liberalism itself.

Taylor himself was an unreliable progressive voice: one moment attacking police spies and government corruption, and then supporting Tory proposals soon after the paper’s launch to restrict poor relief, perhaps reflecting his own Malthusian beliefs on population control. Indeed one of the most immediate impacts of the Manchester Guardian was to squeeze the life out of the Manchester Observer, the top-selling title of the local left and an organiser of the Peterloo protest.

The Observer didn’t lack readers, but its support for the more militant wing of the reform movement together with its inability to attract advertising meant that it was politically and financially vulnerable. The appearance of the Guardian only intensified the pressure on the Observer, making it harder to attract advertisers and presenting competition that, in the end, it was unable to withstand and collapsed less than a month after the launch of the Guardian.

The Guardian enjoyed modest success at its outset, but with a weakened Gazette (and a non-existent Observer) on the reform side, the title started to pick up circulation and advertisements—attracting an average of 100 ads per edition by 1825—and Taylor was able to pay off his partners after only three years. Not only reformers but a significant part of the Manchester business community were avid readers. This success allowed him also to acquire in 1825 two Conservative Manchester papers, the Mercury and the British Volunteer, thus extending the impact of the Guardian amongst Tory readers. This was precisely what Taylor wanted as, according to Robert Poole, he moved ‘confidently among the Tory-dominated circles of the Chamber of Commerce and the Exchange and formed common political cause with the economic liberals among them’. Taylor even claimed credit for reforming the Manchester Tory party.

This shift to the right had already infuriated some of the original backers of the Guardian, leading a deeply frustrated Prentice to conclude that the newspaper was, by 1823, the ‘guardian of the commercial interests of the town and neighbourhood – a reputation much more valuable, in a pecuniary point of view, than the fame of being the advocate of popular rights.’ Rather than committing itself to pressing for working-class rights and universal suffrage, the Manchester Guardian adopted, from the outset, a hostile attitude to radical demands, siding instead with constitutionalist voices seeking what they called ‘moderate’ reform.

Capitalism’s Conscience

The story of the founding of the Manchester Guardian reveals a highly ambiguous commitment to democratic principles and a rejection of radical reform. Far from challenging the legitimacy of the institutions that were responsible for the Peterloo massacre, Taylor attributed the violence to a few ‘bad apples’ and campaigned for a public inquiry that might embarrass the government but not directly challenge its authority.

Instead of leading the campaign for universal suffrage and pressing for an extension of workers’ rights, the Guardian infused the reform movement with a constitutionalist politics that diluted the more militant demands of a labour movement that, up until 1819, had provided the dominant voice for social change. In doing this, it expressed the dynamics not of an incipient socialism, but of an emerging liberalism.

The Manchester Guardian railed against police spies and corrupt officials, but it pursued reform on the basis that it would head off the most immediate threats posed by working-class militants; it supported the repeal of the anti-trade union Combination Acts not so much because they were an affront to the democratic right to organise but because they risked inflaming workers; it opposed slavery but assessed its brutal and racist logic most often from a free trade perspective and failed to reflect critically on its own connections to the profits accrued from slave labour – something it has finally been forced to do in the last year. The Guardian was, above all, the voice of a ‘modernising’ wing of the Manchester business community that sought to establish dialogue with the powerful rather than to amplify the movements of the labouring poor.

Today, the Guardian’s brand of liberalism outrages voices to its right and, equally regularly, enrages its critics on the left. Just as Alexander Zevin has described the Economist as the ‘lodestar’ of a certain type of laissez-faire liberalism, the Guardian can be seen as the harbinger of a form of liberalism that can pursue equality, celebrate diversity, and extol emancipation, but simultaneously defend the institutions that give rise to inequality, discrimination, and militarism.

It is a liberalism that is intimately connected to the institutions and priorities of the liberal democratic capitalist state. That is why I have described it as ‘capitalism’s conscience’ – not because it is progressive, but because it is wedded to reproducing the value system of the status quo and opposed to the values and beliefs of a socialist alternative. The Left needs its own independent and committed storytellers – and the Guardian has never played this role.

‘Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian’ edited by Des Freedman is published by Pluto Press.

About the Author

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of several books including The Contradictions of Media Power and The Politics of Media Policy. He is a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition and editor of the recently published book, Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian (Pluto Press).