Ian Aitken

  • Changing Faces: The History of the ‘Guardian’, 1956-88 by Geoffrey Taylor
    Fourth Estate, 352 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 85702 100 2

The best thing I ever did in my professional life was to move from the Daily Express to the Guardian just before the 1964 General Election, and then to stay there. It seemed a good idea at the time, and nearly thirty years later I have no reason to change that judgment. On the contrary, the more I reflect on it the more grateful I am to my own relatively youthful prescience, and even more so to the gambler’s instinct of Alastair Hetherington, the then editor of the Guardian, in taking me on. To put it mildly, hiring a political writer direct from a notoriously partisan popular newspaper like the Daily Express was both risky and a radical departure from the paper’s traditional methods of recruiting staff.

Whether I would have been quite so ebullient about it if I had known what I know now, after reading Geoffrey Taylor’s riveting book, is another matter entirely. To be sure, I knew that the dear old Grauniad was not exactly flush – my new salary would have told me that even if I hadn’t noticed that one of my future colleagues pinned his bus-tickets to his expenses sheets. But just how hard-up it was was mercifully unknown to me.

Above all, I did not know that the company chairman, Laurance Scott – a Scott of Scotts and therefore a man who could be assumed to be committed to the idea of C.P. Scott’s Manchester Guardian – had effectively lost faith in the paper’s ability to survive. Nor did I have more than a whiff of Mr Scott’s attempts to merge the Guardian with the Astor Times and later with the Thomson Times. It was long after the event that I learned how Richard Scott, Laurance’s cousin and the chairman of the Scott Trust, flew to London from Washington on what my old employers would have called a ‘mercy mission’ to save us from being sold into slavery by his kinsman.

This ignorance may have had something to do with the fact that I worked almost entirely at the House of Commons and rarely visited the office. With one exception, we members of the political staff were like stokers in a coal-fired ship, shovelling fuel into the furnaces in total ignorance of what was happening on deck, let alone on the bridge. The one exception was Francis Boyd, our revered boss, who was the representative of the editorial staff on the Scott Trust. He was rigidly and characteristically loyal to his duty of confidentiality. As a result, we in the Westminster stokehold could only judge the state of affairs by Francis’s facial expression on his return from his frequent visits to Manchester. As he was inclined to look gloomy even when happy, we tended to discount this evidence, and thus remained blissfully ignorant of the grim truth.

Nor was Francis the only one to hold his tongue. Hetherington was equally tight-lipped, even with quite close colleagues. One, who was close enough to go bounding up mountains with him, recalls that it was only at altitudes above three thousand feet that the editor would disgorge even the smallest nugget of information – presumably from lack of oxygen.

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