Our chief leader writer compares today’s team with a golden period of leader writing in the run-up to the first world war
Last modified on Mon 29 Nov 2021 04.03 EST
A newspaper’s views evolve but its leader columns represent a palimpsest of its history, where layer upon layer of thought has been inscribed. So how does a publication such as the Guardian come to decide what it thinks about an issue? The newspaper’s leader column dates back 200 years, to its first edition, but it was a long time before it found its voice.
For David McKie, the Guardian’s former deputy editor who ran the leader column for more than 20 years, the most formative period coincided with the decades leading up to the first world war, which shaped paper’s outlook into a familiar form.
Through its leader column, the then editor, CP Scott, presented the paper’s view based on his liberal values and steered it towards the radical political left – backing home rule in Ireland, supporting organised labour and criticising British troops for war crimes in the Sudan. What the paper did between 1897 and 1902 nearly sank the Guardian. But it was rescued by what its London rivals failed to do.
The crucial year was 1899. The paper led strident opposition to the Boer war, attacking rival “jingo papers” in editorials for backing conflict as if it were “a well-known method of restoring confidence, invigorating industry and stimulating trade”. It exposed British-run concentration camps where starvation was rife. The stance was at odds with much of public opinion and drove away large numbers of readers.
But by 1902 Scott had been proved substantially right. McKie points out that his leader writers – Charles E Montague and Leonard T Hobhouse – became the paper’s driving force during the editor’s absences (he was also a Liberal MP). Montague, who married Scott’s daughter, was his chief leader writer and deputy. His guiding principle was to bring “all political action to the same tests as personal conduct”.
Hobhouse took up journalism as a financially rewarding escape from Oxford academia. A pioneer of sociology, he recognised liberalism would need the sinews of the emerging Labour movement to stay in power. He cheerfully backed measures in the Guardian leader column that were, in his own words, “undoubtedly socialistic in character in the sense that all socialists except those who are for immediate barricades would accept them as an instalment of what they want”.
Today, the Guardian is, of course, a very different paper. Its leader writers are no longer all white men and many have immigrant heritage. They are not all, as in Scott’s day, Oxford graduates in classics. A small group of leader writers meets and discusses the big issues of the day. Once a line is agreed on a subject, correspondents are consulted and once the article is written it is checked to ensure that the view expressed is one the paper would be comfortable with. Finally the editor-in-chief, or the deputy editor, gives the column the green light.
The subjects up for debate today are also very different to those of 100 years ago. After the Boer war, UK politics became concerned with how to alleviate poverty at home while sustaining a global empire. By 1906 the Tories lost in a landslide election, a defeat put down to two issues: moral outrage over the government’s use of Chinese slaves in the South African gold mines (blamed on rapacious business owners at the cost of white workers) and potential cost of Conservative tariff protectionism for the poor.
The Guardian leader column approved of the “free trade system” that the new Liberal government pursued as well as fresh restrictions on “slavish” labour. So began 10 years of Liberal dominance, supported by an emerging Labour parliamentary bloc. The Guardian sided with its political ally, the Liberal cabinet minister David Lloyd George, who was instrumental in the development of many of the reforms for which the paper’s leader column had advocated.
From 1903 until 1914, the paper “had the experience, foreign almost to its genius and not perhaps altogether to its taste, of being with the majority, and … was the object of a great personal affection from the Liberal party”, said William Haslam Mills, a biographer of the paper’s first 100 years.
But then came the war which split liberal opinion. These tensions played out in the Guardian between those advocating peace and those backing a fight with Germany. During the summer of 1914 Hobhouse, who by then had a seat on the Guardian board, wanted Britain to remain neutral. Scott lobbied Herbert Asquith’s Liberal cabinet for Britain to stay out. But the German invasion of Belgium shifted the mood – to the dismay of many drawn to the Guardian’s earlier pacifism.
For Montague the war provided a test of his own sincerity. He had written the leader of 24 August 1914 which said “Europe must either smash Prussian Junkerdom or be smashed by it”. Less than four months later he had enlisted in the army (aged 47, it was only when he dyed his hair that the Royal Fusiliers took him in). Scott could not understand why he had joined up. Montague’s sister had a frank explanation: “he wants to kill a German.”
The first world war changed Britain. There were great hopes that it would be altered in the Guardian’s favour. These were heightened when Scott became the only “unofficial” person to meet US president Woodrow Wilson when he came to Manchester in December 1918. But America withdrew from the world stage, leaving Britain to play for another 25 years the role of superpower that it could not ultimately sustain.
By 1924 the Guardian leader line was that the British empire remained a “great affair” but it differentiated between parts of the imperium which were built by “common stock” – a loose confederation of white Anglophone races – with those which were not. While the former could stand alone, for the latter, particularly its Indian possessions, the Guardian thought there would be “difficult and painful steps” to an unknown destination.
Montague had by then settled back into Guardian life and worried that he would not see a Liberal government again. He was right. The downfall of the party began in December 1916, when Asquith was outmanoeuvred in cabinet, forced to resign and succeeded as prime minister by Lloyd George as head of a Conservative-dominated government. Scott had backed Lloyd George when in 1918 he gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 and property-owning women over 30. But if voters were thankful, they did not show it, punishing a divided Liberal party and turning to the Conservatives and Labour. Lloyd George was Britain’s last Liberal prime minister.
Scott despaired of the suspicion and distrust between Liberal and Labour leaders that kept the Tories in power. Bridging that divide remains a cause very much alive today within the paper. Until recently, election leader articles were the preserve of the editor-in-chief, who would consult a few colleagues and then write the piece. Now there is a meeting where all editorial staff put their views forward. And the editor no longer writes the leader, although they still have the last word.
The other sensibilities from the time that endure today are Scott’s sympathy for the underdog, his scepticism of government propaganda and an understanding that it is “well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”. All these notions were forged, as McKie says, when “liberals and Labour first found a common home in the Guardian”.