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A Manchester of the mind

The Guardian newspaper has its intellectual and moral roots in the northern English city of Manchester. The distance it has travelled - and the condition of the country it has left behind - is measured in the character of its online "Comment is Free" forum, says Christopher Harvie.
Christopher Harvie
13 January 2010

I Priestley’s People

JB Priestley wrote an essay about an Edwardian radical family living somewhere in the Pennine hills above Bradford in northern England, and connected with the Independent Labour Party (ILP). They kept liberty hall for hill-walkers and suffragettes, would-be poets and young people eager to get away from provincial bullies, the dark of the non-conformist Sabbath and the awful Birling bourgeoisie Priestley would present in An Inspector Calls. They weren’t wealthy, but what they offered was multiplied by the folk they attracted. You felt that Priestley had in mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s lines, written only a few years earlier:

“Home was home then, my dear,

Full of happy faces.

Home was home then, my dear,

Happy for the child.

Fire and the windows bright

Glittered on the moorland.

Some tuneful song

Built a palace in the wild.”

Guardian people, then? In my own experience, yes. The sort I encountered often in the early days of the Open University when I was put up (like some ILP speaker, a Keir Hardie or Bruce Glasier) as a travelling lecturer, or later when my daughter was educated by Quakers in York, or even the other week when sampling a “community railway” Christmas fest at Glossop and a touching memorial to a local environmentalist - a willow aslant a brook, where once there had been Slaithwaite Spa, a would-be West Riding Baden-Baden. It vanished in the 1940s. (A snatch from a local: “My other life is as a vampire. Mind you, ah were a part-time, online vampire …” Compulsive inconsequentiality, Michael Frayn wrote, marked the Guardian style.)

He wasn’t alone. CE Montague’s novel A Hind let Loose was a Goldoni-like comedy about two grand northern papers in Halland, a fictitious Manchester. The editorials of the (Tory) Warden and the (Liberal) Stalwart were written by a single crafty but acrobatic journalist, Colum Fay, whose own loyalties were to “old Ireland free”. This typified an intellectual generosity whose values went beyond northern England. JA Hobson’s Imperialism: a Study (1902) was pirated by Lenin in 1916 to argue that Russia was ripe for revolution. CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian from 1872 to 1929, exerted himself to get Lloyd George right on Ireland when his coalition was disgracing itself with Black-and-Tan violence in 1921, and eased the birth of the Free State that followed that vicious war.

Howard Spring, Scott's ace reporter – Cardiff-Irish in origin – went on to chronicle Manchester in a sequence of good-read novels that have worn well: Fame is the Spur should still haunt Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The usual disclaimer that fronted his first, Shabby Tiger (1934) ended “There is no such city as Manchester”; but, interviewed in Cornwall in the early 1960s, he said that he and his wife were “still Guardian people”.

Michael Frayn bridged the newspaper's last Manchester and first London years. His Towards the End of the Morning (1962) celebrates the twilight of hot-metal journalism as well as the perilous delights of permissiveness, like sharing a single bed with an energetic girlfriend; followed logically enough by a picture of young journalists slouching towards their deadlines, “yawning rebelliously”. Those who stuck around soon got caught up in another Manchester creative spasm: the efflorescence of Sidney Bernstein’s Granadaland, which from 1955 brought verve and confidence to television’s early years.

Frayn’s famous division of the British middle classes into “herbivores and carnivores” - the former of whom the Guardian served as house-journal - was elaborated in depth by Posy Simmonds’s acute portrayal of the Weber family in the more embattled 1980s; prolix polytechnic lecturer George was a more credible campus-man than Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury’s history stud. 2003 was the last hurrah on the Salford Quays; ITV grabbed Granada (and Carlton) and “headed south to effing London, because that’s where the effing media lawyers are.” Thank you, Tony Wilson, and goodbye.

II The Central Committee

But it's not all that's over. When I was asked to take part in the Guardian’sComment is Free” (CiF) project back in 2006, it seemed a hi-tech resistance movement against this dysfunctional system, worth trading any cash-return for. Online Guardian readers would get a view of the divergent politics that were evolving within the archipelago: centred in my case on Scotland’s nationalist-led political process (and after the elections of May 2007, in which I was elected a member of parliament, a Scottish National Party-led government).

The Guardian’s apparent openness, reinforcing its tradition, contrasted with regional editions of London papers which now had content quite different from the metropolitan one. And so it turned out, once you penetrated CiF’s self-editing system. Then in late 2008 something happened, around the time of the election campaign in the United States. The system vanished, and in due course so did most, and eventually all, of my own articles. I wasn’t alone. Scotland might become to Westminster the nemesis that Ireland was a century ago, but analysis of it has all but disappeared. The Guardian-owned Sunday paper the Observer – whose own comment pieces appear on CiF - once had articles by Neal Ascherson or Arnold Kemp; now the regular encounter is with Kevin McKenna, reading like an implant from Scotland's Daily Record tabloid. What Andrew Neil during his sojourn as publisher of the (Edinburgh) Scotsman always threatened to do to the “McChattering classes” north of the border, the trusted organ of “the dissidence of dissent” has achieved.

Then, after several submissions disappeared without trace and Matt Seaton, the responsible editor, proved lastingly elusive, I was set right by one Ros Taylor from the Central Committee that seemed to have taken over, in a mail to my secretary:

“I think, to be honest, we found that Christopher's articles didn't quite engage either us or our readership as much as we'd hoped they would. I think that's partly because the Scottish media is quite distinct from the rest of the UK's, and there isn't a huge appetite for Scotland-themed pieces. His pieces were also quite low-key and uncontroversial, and tended to pass under the radar.”

The last was what I had thought journalism ought to be about: making the previously unnoticed count and, when up against something nasty, pounce. But then, in the context of Obamamania (I remembered Camelot and held my enthusiasm in bounds) and the rise of “social networks”, a rationale seemed to materialise. Barack Obama signified, like John F Kennedy, the politics of glamour and a new elite; and - with half a glance at the Guardian’s complex financial situation - the importance of demography became clear.

The 1970s generation of Open University staff and students is ageing while the kid(ult)s are into twittering, gaming, and fashioning ignorance into the art-form of postmodern irony. They can function in London, where elites meet from a’ the airts, and where “servitor capitalism”, NGOs, think-tanks and Olympics cash give a big enough boost to keep juvenile careers and microbusinesses afloat. As one of my student interns put it, “the Guardian is required reading for anyone within a square mile of Kings Cross.”

And apparently it only sells 6,000 copies in Manchester. Certainly its website is a deterrent: a couple of news stories and it’s straight into footie and “Guardian Soulmates”. The quality press, at once hip and desperate, eagerly follows the new generation – almost certainly downmarket, as post-industrial youth hasn’t the long-term cash of us oldies. The possible destination of the Observer – once literate and ingenious, now looking like a Gutenberg version of the mausoleum that was the Borders chain – is another signal. This necrosis seems a British phenomenon; in Germany Der Spiegel and Die Zeit remain monuments to literacy and widget-making, fuddy-duddy concerns which have paid off, while Britain’s “living-on-thin-air” economy has crashed like the Hindenburg.

My service on the Scottish parliament’s economy, energy and tourism committee has convinced me that what the United Kingdom needs is heavy instructional stuff about disentangling its metropolitan fixation and enabling us - the various Arnoldian remnants - to reform it. For the press generation the Guardian belonged to was at root didactic. In 2005 it published a critique I wrote on Gordon Brown’s economics – and paid me for it – which became the core of Broonland, my autopsy on the Thatcher-to-Brown years (see Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown [Verso, 2010]). And if I feel at all optimistic about the future it’s because of the liveliness of those “Guardian people” south of the Cheviots: running small presses, cooperative pubs, and steam railways, and jabbing their elbows into the ribs of the local Labour Party. Because they (we) were right to oppose British deindustrialisation in the 1980s and 1990s and the flash new world of motorway, stadium and mega-mall that replaced it – which will be around for maybe twenty years before the oil (finally) runs out.

These oldies seem on the ball, even on the terms of prudent capitalism. The shrewder entrepreneurs have followed their affluent 1961-73 baby-boomer demography upward (like ClubMed, moving from straw-huts and compulsory sex to second-time-arounders, silver-surfing and politics). Think of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Mrs Scrooge” with drawings by Posy Simmonds. Duffy is one of those who has come home to the real Manchester, among other awkward folk like Sheila Rowbotham. If the British Council, a migrated BBC, the Council of the Islands, could cohabit there, Manchester could anticipate, and save, the UK. Second time around.

III Comment is Rigged

All of this begins to matter constitutionally in light of the decision of London’s TV oligarchy to run three ninety-minute leaders’ debates during the current UK election campaign – while excluding any representatives of the political parties who are actually in government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The London media (including the Guardian) has made little reference to something the Scottish government sees as an attempt to rig the campaign in favour of the Westminster establishment. In a fundamental constitutional contest, the elite has waived conventions that Benjamin Disraeli (to name but one) saw as essential to maintaining the foundations of British politics.

The material interests that lie behind this are obvious. Metromedia has structured its own rewards round the payoffs and bonuses of the City and the hi-tech world: the director-general of the BBC pulls in a salary four times that of the prime minister, the editor of the Guardian is on nearly half-a-million pounds. I have worked all of my life as an academic (and more recently politician) for an average professional salary, topped up by a couple of thousand a year from books, journalism and broadcasting: useful and at times essential. Many of the more fortunate "Guardian people" will be similarly placed. The editorial offices of the quality papers are going dark, freelance work is drying up, but celeb culture is the big deal, and presumably the Guardian has to get the ready to pay Russell Brand. (And a critic who operates on a well-planned bestseller without anaesthetic isn’t likely to get more books to review; “by far the rudest” was the Guardian's verdict in January 2000 on my notice of Norman Davies’s The Isles [see "The Isles: a history", Independent, 13 November 1999 - and that was the last I heard from the Independent for years]).

The shareholders of the papers in Montague’s fictive Manchester, Halland, could allow Colum Fay his liberty because they were secure about their industrial geography: “Britain’s bread hangs by Manchester’s thread!”, the Ship Canal, and all that. But there was no question whom Fay would have backed in Ireland’s rebellion of Easter 1916. An economy dependent on cultural capital is morally vulnerable since, if the arts are breadwinners, they cannot be allowed to be critical; profit takes precedence. The Guardian’s real problem is that dissecting the cadaver of the United Kingdom of London requires the forensic skills of a JA Hobson (if not a Karl Marx); and these are more likely to be found in the Financial Times (in the gimlet columns of Gillian Tett, for example) than in a CiF blogocracy typified by pliable Tory avocati like Simon Jenkins.

The accountants of a megamedia no longer based in Britain can even seek to remodel the provincial itself, as a few of its writers and artists get the rewards of the metropolitan zoo. The prominence in the 2000s of the London-approved Scottish “big four” of JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh, against the multi-voiced scene of previous decades, is part of a wider operation that entails the overlooking or underplaying of other worlds to north and west. Wales is a much tougher nut to crack, since Welsh language-politics has summoned up its English-language rival, with positive results. When the Welsh painter Kyffin Williams mocked the tat of the “young British artists” he was predictably ignored in London – but applauded in Wales.

While the British establishment remained suavely cultivated and tactically generous it was seductive. “As long as Noel doesn’t run out of glasses, we’re all right”, a University College London administrator remarked of Noel (Lord) Annan, handling the student revolutionaries in 1968. A century ago London needed Manchester as its “Glasstown”, like the Bronte children’s mythic, experimental, revolutionary city. “Comment is Free” might have given it a chance to regain that boldness in the digital age; perhaps even to reimagine a confederal, post-great-power Britain. But the Guardian now plays the mercenary and seems proud of it. “There is no such city as Manchester”, and we have all lost by it.

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