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Could the Guardian have resisted the magnetic pull of the metropolis?

·6 min read

In the week we celebrate the Guardian’s 200th anniversary, it is perhaps time to consider one of the biggest changes to take place over the two centuries of its existence. On 24 August 1959, the Manchester Guardian removed its home town from the masthead.

Readers had been warned of the changes two days earlier, in a brisk editorial that insisted “the omission of ‘Manchester’ implies neither a change of policy nor any disrespect to our home”. Instead, it said, the move was a simple reflection of the fact that almost two-thirds of the paper’s readers were not in Manchester.

Manchester, it said, “is a good centre from which to watch the world”. Being far away from Whitehall or the London Stock Exchange had advantages, it explained: “Hunting with the Fleet Street pack has its excitements, but it can lead to a similarity of approach.” But “the Guardian now is national in the distribution of its sales, as it long has been in its influence. We feel this ought to be recognised in its name.”

Printing simultaneously in Manchester and London would be the next step, said the column, “since on no account shall we abandon our northern home”.

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Despite the denial, the move undoubtedly signified a drift southwards that has echoes in other parts of British life. The editor, Alastair Hetherington, moved to London in 1964, after complaining that the previous year he had spent 68 nights on the InterCity sleeper. The London staff grew, as Manchester turned into an outpost.

Money, politics and influence were all being sucked into the capital, the City of London having replaced the coalfields and cotton factories as the nation’s powerhouse. London boomed in the latter decades of the 20th century as the north of England stagnated.

And so more than 60 years on, post-Brexit and in the middle of a pandemic that has exposed huge regional inequities, it seems fair to ask the question: has the centralising tendency been good for Britain – and could the Guardian have resisted it?

At the time of the move south, in 1964, one reader made what turned out to be a prescient point. “We of the older generation have watched the gradual trek to the south – of political power where once we were represented by a Balfour or a Churchill; of big business; of the theatre,” wrote the surgeon Harry Platt in a letter to the paper, reminding readers that those two prime ministers were first elected to parliament in Manchester and Oldham, respectively. The Guardian would never return to Manchester, Platt, a former president of the Royal College of Surgeons said. “The magnetic pull of the metropolis, with its corridors of power, is irresistible.”

The move was “an indication of the emergence of two Englands – one southern prosperous and growing, the other northern and declining”, wrote the Salford University academic Carole O’Reilly in a paper inspired by Platt’s letter. By 1963 a cultural divide had opened up. While espresso bars and cafes were popping up across London and the south, 15 million people were still living without baths, many of them in the north, according to a Guardian series called A New Britain, which ran that year.

O’Reilly has analysed the 251 letters readers sent when the Guardian changed its name, with objectors outnumbering supporters by four to one.

“Many questioned the hypocrisy of the name change, accused the paper of being ashamed of its address, of viewing Manchester as an ‘encumbrance’ and a ‘liability’, of snobbery about its uniqueness and of failure to take pride in the idea of being provincial,” wrote O’Reilly.

She quoted Elsie Entwistle, a Mancunian living in London, who emphasised the importance of the Manchester Guardian in uniting Mancunian exiles in the Big Smoke. “How are we now to establish a kinship in overcrowded trains of the metropolis? How are we to gain a smile of recognition from the deadpan faces in the congested underground?”

The meaning of “Manchester” was more than just the name of a city, argued O’Reilly. “It connoted the entire area of the north of England, it was ‘not London’ (very important for those living outside London), it was independent, liberal, radical, separate, different, alternative. At a time when London was on the way to becoming even more nationally powerful and when Manchester was losing its economic and cultural power, the loss of Manchester from the title was felt even more acutely by its readers.”

Related: The Guardian at 200: Announcing a digital festival from Guardian Live

Nowhere had better documented this power shift than the Guardian itself. In November 1962 the paper ran a series called North v South which noted the disadvantages of living in the north of England, from health to education, earnings and more.

One article began: “Unless a man seeks to live in the Lake District, or wants to play cricket for Yorkshire, the best advice he can take when embarking on married life is not to raise a family in the north. Not only will his children suffer poorer schooling than they would get in most places in the south but their chances of physical survival will be less and their hope of ever living in a decent house will be startlingly reduced.”

Our team in Manchester updated the series in 2019 in a project we called London versus everywhere else, reporting that the poorest people in the north had shorter, unhappier lives and yet were expected to pay three times more than Londoners for something as basic as a bus ticket. In one article, Andy Burnham, who swapped Westminster to be the mayor of Greater Manchester, argued that Brexit happened because of London-centric decision-making.

Did the Guardian’s departure from Manchester contribute to the north’s decline? We weren’t the only national newspaper founded outside London – both the Sunday Sport and Daily Star began life in Manchester; the former still has its headquarters there. But when almost all of the “serious” journalism is done from the capital, it inevitably gives the already-too-powerful city a disproportionate amount of attention at the expense of everywhere else.

Whether the Guardian could have survived had it stayed in Manchester is another question. Peter Preston, who was editor between 1975 and 1995, thought not. In The Other Fleet Street, a book about journalism in Manchester by the former Guardian reporter Robert Waterhouse, Preston said: “What I think you need to ask yourself is where we’d be if things, however painfully, hadn’t worked out as they did. Answer: deep trouble. Just look at provincial mornings from Leeds to Liverpool to Sheffield, gone or shrinking fast, and owned by big groups who put cost-cutting first.”

We will never know. But we will try our best to continue the traditions of the Manchester Guardian: independent, liberal, radical, separate, different and alternative, hunting away from the Fleet Street pack from wherever we call home.

  • Helen Pidd is the Guardian’s north of England editor