Remembering the Unitarian roots of The Guardian
This radical religious sect had an outsized impact on British political culture
Yesterday we celebrated one great newspaper anniversary, today comes another – for it’s 200 years since a group of liberal Manchester businessmen got together to bring us The Guardian.
The paper’s origins lie with a small religious sect, during a period when, as Robert Tombs put it, English politics was “a branch of theology rather as twenty-first-century politics is a branch of economics”. On the one hand were the Whigs, with the support of low church Protestants, including nonconformists, and on the other the high church Anglican Tories. Britain’s political divisions — indeed even our political geography — dates from this original culture war within Protestantism.
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The Tories would become the Conservatives, while the nonconformist tradition would form the backbone of the British Left, bequeathing it “campaigning militancy, a self-image of anti-Establishment rebellion, a view of politics as moral struggle (as opposed to ‘the art of the possible’)… and sectarian suspicion of the motives of opponents.”
Among the most influential of these Protestant sects was perhaps the most radical of all, the Unitarians, a group so controversial (by Protestant standards) that that they did not even believe in the Trinity.
Originally persecuted for their theological proximity to Judaism, Unitarians would become the most enthusiastic Christian Zionists in the 19th century, agitating for a Jewish homeland before it was fashionable (no one would accuse the paper of being vehemently Zionist today). They also “formed the intellectual core of religious and political radicalism,” according to Tombs, having a lasting influence even after the churches had emptied.
Like the Quakers, the Unitarians tended to have liberal social views, and many sympathised with the French revolution; Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, had his Birmingham laboratory burned down by a “king and country” (ie Right-wing) mob.
Also like the Quakers, they were good at making money, largely because they prized literacy, and in particular promoted knowledge societies where people discussed ideas. Joseph Henrich looked at data from 18th and 19th century Britain and found that “regions infused with Unitarian congregations were nearly four times more likely to develop a knowledge society than were other regions.”
But it wasn’t until the end of the Napoleonic War, aggravated by a volcanic eruption, that the Unitarians began to organise politically. By the end of 1816, there were mass petitions calling for cheaper food, the centre of agitation being in Manchester. Increasing numbers of mass meetings were arranged until a “great assembly” was organised in 1819 in the city’s St Peter’s Field’s – which ended with the infamous Peterloo massacre.
Although the idiotic Prince Regent congratulated the magistrate responsible, Peterloo provoked outrage, especially after the authorities arrested The Times correspondent, John Tyas. (My great-great-great-grandfather. Yes, Gregory Clark was really onto something.)
Instead the Times published an account by a local journalist, John Edward Taylor, a Unitarian who was part of a network of liberal nonconformists in the city. This group, “the Little Circle”, were agitated by a number of issues, including not just poverty but voting reform. Manchester, with over 100,000 people, had no MPs at the time while the rotten borough of Old Sarum — population: seven — had its own representative. These whinging Lefties for some reason thought this was unfair and, on 5 May, 1821, a new paper came out to reflect their agenda — The Manchester Guardian.
Anyway, happy birthday to a great British institution!
Sad that these days ‘The Guardian’ ignores news that contradicts its view of the world. Also, its online comments (CIF) are restricted to just a few articles, are poorly moderated and are often in breach of its own guidelines, featuring abuse and ad hominem attacks.
It would be a much greater British institution had it remained in Manchester rather than moving to London. I still read the Guardian to get some varied perspectives, and it still has some columnists who are worth reading – Nick Cohen, Jonathan Freedland, John Harris, the incomparable Ian Jack (actually Cohen and Jack write for the Observer, so perhaps the list is a bit short). Its coverage of the CCP’s slow-motion genocide against the Uyghurs has been excellent. But these days it really does put the ‘Metropolitan’ in ‘Metropolitan elite’ – many of its writers seem wholly cut off from the concerns of anyone living outside the M25. One of the reasons I like John Harris’s writing is that he spends most of his time in poorer parts of the country and has some understanding of why so many people there voted for Brexit – but he is really the exception that proves the rule. If the Guardian wants to become a truly national newspaper again it should return to its roots in the north, but these days it seems more interested in becoming the liberal mouthpiece of the Anglophone world as a whole, with an increasing proportion of its readership in the US and Australia. That will keep the professional activists happy, but it is a recipe for irrelevance at the national level.
Yes, John Harris’ ‘Anywhere But Westminster’ series of videos has been the best thing about the Guardian for some years. He has an ability to pick up on electoral/societal trends in his own slightly perplexed way, along with a remarkable knack for stumbling upon the most useless and unemployable denizen of any town he visits.
There is a real divergence of political opinion taking place between London and points outside. On reflection I wouldn’t describe it as a division between liberal and illiberal – much of what appears in the Guardian these days is profoundly illiberal, in the classical sense of the term, in that it privileges group identities over the individual, and no longer believes in such fundamental liberal values as equality before the law.
And on the second point – the creation of virtual, transnational political communities which supplant those we actually live in is one of the most important changes the internet has brought over the last twenty years. I think on balance that it is a negative one, though I recognise that there can be legitimate disagreements on this point. But whether it is good or bad, the fact is that elections are still fought in physical, not virtual constituencies, and within national, not international communities – so the Guardian backing the wrong horse in my view.
It’s backing the horse which allows it to survive commercially. Digital advertising requires a global readership. It’s analogous to the move to London in the 60s. It wasn’t to join a metropolitan elite, but to capture advertising £££
Re your last sentence why is the Guardian one of the four most accessed news websites in the UK?
It’s been some time since the Gruniard was a newspaper rather than a compilation of opinion pieces thinly dressed up as news stories.
I thought the Guardian had been acquired by The Onion?
This is interesting but fails to address the intriguing development in the C of E whereby the ‘high’ end has morphed into the ‘progressive ‘ Guardian reading wing while the ‘low’ end is now the conservative wing.
There is a very revealing article on Spiked which blows apart their self righteous image and posturing.
It’s worth pointing out the Corn laws were supported by the settled science of Malthus.
Unitarians were in the Principality of Transylvania one of the established churches. The Transylvanian Antitrinitarianism was far more radical than the Polish, but the Polish version (Socinianism) was better known in Western Europe. This did not stop Unitarian landlords in the 16th century to be nasty pieces of work.
Old Sarum actually returned two members of parliament, and the few voters didn’t have to be (and invariably weren’t) resident.
The whigs were in power for much of the 19th century and morphed into the Liberals. Gladstone split the party, with the Liberal Unionists joining the Conservatives. The Liberals limped on but were eviscerated by the emerging Labour Party after WW1. I never had this down as being about religion.
The Liberals tended towards the educated wing of non-conformist protestantism like Unitarians, whereas the Labour party had more links to the more down market and populist non-conformism of Methodism.
The Tories represented land and werere Anglicans . The Quakers and NC were trademen who were not Anglicans and created the Industrial Revolution. The massive increase in urban un and semi skilled post 1850s were not represented by Liberals or Tories. Craftsmen tended to be Liberal. The Labour Party was founded by Methodist lay Preachers who came from un and semi skilled background – Keir Hardie.
Disraeli changed Tories from land to suburbs and recruited tough practical working class who loathed being lectured to by middle class Liberals. Post 1900, there was significant group of those with inherited money ( Webbs ) who pushed middle class socialism.
Gladstone actions resulted in many industrialists leaving The Liberals and joining the Tories.
The reason why the Labour Party has it’s problem is that the practical patriotic tough down to earth cheerful Methodist ( rugby league and cricket playing brass bandsman and lay preacher ) is extinct and the wokist heirs of the Webbs runs the organisation.
The paper’s continuing commitment to vacuous supernaturalism and its clerical bigots (Giles Fraser et al) explains nearly all of its negativity on lgbt rights and its intellectual fatuity.
I must say after stiff competition from the independent, they cornered the market in Anti semitism denial.
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