The lost magic of Manchester. The Guardian has always prided itself on good writing, but the paper of today is a shadow of its former self. Richard Gott on the decline of a great British institution

The Bedside Years: The best writing from the <em>Guardian</em>, 1951-2000

Edited by Matthew Engel

Every couple of months or so, the "old guard" of the Guardian - most of them aged between 60 and 80 - meet at the Gay Hussar in Greek Street, London, for a convivial lunch. The event is organised and orchestrated by Bill Webb, once a famous literary editor over nearly three decades, and a man so protective of his contributors that, when necessary, he would print their final paragraphs in an ever smaller typeface. He did so in order to publish their reviews intact, pleasing the writers but breaking every rule in the designer's rule book.

That would not happen in the Guardian of today - and indeed, the practice was frowned on in the Guardian of yesteryear. W L Webb, as he was known in print when he wrote elegant articles on the literary scene in eastern Europe, got away with it only because the books pages continued to be edited in Manchester long after the bulk of the paper's editorial and production departments had moved to London. When anyone noticed what Bill was up to, it was too late to complain. The foreign pages were also edited in Manchester until the mid-1970s, and when I first wrote despatches from South America in the 1960s, I addressed the envelopes to "Cross Street, Manchester". Telex was rather too expensive.

Among Webb's several tasks was the editing of an annual publication, The Bedside Guardian, a collection of the best writing from the paper during the previous year. There now appears a celebratory compendium, The Bedside Years, edited by Matthew Engel, a former cricket correspondent of the paper, which selects some of the best pieces from the past half-century, and includes articles by some of those who attend the old-guard lunches: Terry Coleman, Ian Aitken, Derek Malcolm, Richard Boston and Hella Pick. Other bylines from the past included in the book, though not often glimpsed at the Gay Hussar, are Alistair Cooke, Geoffrey Taylor, Simon Winchester, Martin Walker and Geoffrey Moorhouse. Still others, sadly, have moved on to the great composing room in the sky: W J Weatherby, Peter Jenkins, Jill Tweedie, John Arlott, James Cameron and Neville Cardus. Some contributors, thankfully, survive in the living pages of the paper today: Frank Keating and John Vidal, Jonathan Steele and Martin Woollacott, David McKie and Simon Hoggart, Nancy Banks-Smith and Peter Lennon, Michael White and Matthew Engel himself, now imaginatively translated from Wisden to Washington. However, many other Guardian names, both of yesterday and today, do not appear, because this is only an anthology culled from a series of anthologies. Engel laments that sport was rarely mentioned in Webb's selections, and that "some of the paper's most valued correspondents" never made it into the Bedside at all. "During the Webb years," he notes ruefully, "some of them had to face the extra hurdle of Bill's disdain."

The Guardian has always prided itself on its tradition of good writing, sometimes to the despair of successive news editors, who would have preferred a decent news reporter to the effete recruits who longed for a job in the features department. Happily, the writing tradition lives on, coupled nowadays with a less leisurely attitude towards the news. When I first read my father's Manchester Guardian in the 1950s, it arrived in London with much of its news from the day before yesterday. Correspondents in Washington, notably Alistair Cooke, would not have dreamt of filing by lunchtime. Monday's news did not appear until Wednesday. Doubtless the writing was so good that you did not worry that the story was rather ancient. Today, the Guardian prides itself on its "exclusives" and the speed of its coverage. The first few pages are frequently changed before dawn. Far-flung correspondents are expected to be on duty at all hours of the day and night.

Over many years, the Guardian has capitalised on the memory of the magic of Manchester, the main source of its difference from metropolitan newspapers, and the origin of its political radicalism. That romantic gene has now all but gone, yet Alan Rusbridger, the present editor, a man with an eye open to a marketing opportunity, is ever anxious to emphasise the continuities. He is about to celebrate seven years in the job, although a long haul may still lie ahead. Guardian editors, unlike those of other papers, are chosen for their potential longevity; there have been only eight in the past century, and most stay in the job for two decades.

The Bedside Years is a typical Rusbridger initiative, exploiting a long history that the Independent, the Guardian's main rival, does not possess. Another is the creation of a Guardian (and Observer) archive, a repository for ancient artefacts and memories, in a building on Farringdon Road. The paper threw away its past in the 1960s, when it moved physically to London. The old volumes and the files were handed over to Manchester University, which did not much care for them, and the wonderful old library was destroyed along with the Cross Street building. Rusbridger, in true postmodern fashion, is trying to recreate a Guardian history from the ashes, seeking taped interviews with the old guard for his new archive.

History aside, the future of the Guardian now lies rather firmly in the hands of the present generation, and those at the Gay Hussar do not waste much time talking about the paper of today. "Private grief, dear boy," says one, who speaks for many. They prefer the simple pleasures of the elderly, "remembering with advantages/ What feats they did that day".

Rusbridger has been much criticised for the way the paper has been "dumbed down". The cudgel has been taken up most vigorously by Will Self, whose enthusiasm for illegal substances long predated Decca Aitkenhead's and Prince Harry's, and led to his summary dismissal from the Observer (of which Rusbridger is the editor-in-chief). In his new collection of essays, Feeding Frenzy (Viking, £16.99), Self writes with characteristically acerbic wit about the Guardian's degeneration into "little more than the lickspittle house journal of new Labour". The paper, he goes on, "is now a tabloid-broadsheet, a Daily Mail for the dumbed-down and deracinated, who'd rather read easy-to-swallow gobbets about Dolce e Gabbana than the kind of serious, campaigning articles that characterised the paper in its heyday".

Self holds Rusbridger personally responsible for what he perceives as the paper's decline. Rusbridger himself is a genial fellow, but Self is right to point out that he lacks the "high seriousness" of the traditional Guardian editor. A middlebrow public schoolboy at heart, he leaves a lurking suspicion that he might have preferred Boris Johnson's job at the Spectator, though he lacks Johnson's enthusiasm for Westminster politics. C P Scott used to travel down from Manchester to London to hold long meetings with Lloyd George. Alastair Hetherington would drop in several nights a week to see Harold Wilson at No 10. Peter Preston, Rusbridger's immediate predecessor, did not have the chance (or inclination) to hobnob with Margaret Thatcher, but he had a passionate interest in the theatre of politics. Rusbridger is cut from a different cloth, and is faintly bemused by politics - an endearing characteristic. Indeed, he is not a political animal at all. He certainly does not enjoy warm relations with Tony Blair, although his chief leader-writer, Martin Kettle, is one of the Prime Minister's personal friends.

The Guardian may have "dumbed down" in recent years, but then so have the Times and the BBC, and British culture in general. On the plus side, Rusbridger has taken more of an interest in contemporary culture than any of his recent predecessors, a development pioneered years ago by Martin Jacques in the pages of Marxism Today. The arts have been given space and encouragement, and have even spread into the news pages. The books pages have been given room to breathe.

Rather less welcome is the prevalence of the bland and the obsequious, characterised by the embedded presence of Mark Lawson. There is some good criticism in the Guardian, but too often it is overshadowed by a penchant for puffery, the besetting sin of the marketing era, as exemplified by the long, bland profiles that appear in the Saturday Review. Where once the Guardian might have sought out the avant-garde, it too frequently acclaims the latest fad and the ephemeral fancy. But it is not alone in this. There are sterner criticisms to be made. The foreign pages, Rusbridger's blind spot, remain uncherished. The editorials frequently suffer severe wobbles, a sign that disagreements within the editorial team are not being resolved by the editor.

One recent development, common to all newspapers, is the creation of the journalist as media star. A football system is in operation, with expensive transfers from one paper to another, regardless of culture or politics. The Guardian used to create its own writers, nurturing them tenderly over the years. Its staff were a loyal lot, and some of the best-known names of today were appointed by Hetherington as long ago as the 1960s. A journalist who wrote for the Guardian would not have dreamt of moving over to the Daily Telegraph, and vice versa. Now the writers are a promiscuous lot, flitting from paper to paper in search of different readers or larger salary cheques. In the old days, who could have imagined writers such as Melanie Phillips or Suzanne Moore ending up in the Mail stable?

Editors have to be permanently on the lookout. It was surely careless of Rusbridger to lose Will Self, especially as that meant losing Self's wife, the incomparable Deborah Orr, to the Independent. Indeed, he may have abandoned more good writers than he has recruited new ones. His protege, the overhyped Jocelyn Targett, proved to be an Icarus who flew too close to the sun. In recent years, the Guardian has lost Martin Walker, Terry Coleman, Simon Winchester, Deborah Orr and Suzanne Moore, while the only real star whom Rusbridger appears to have hired personally in the past seven years, a writer whose byline is an immediate indication that here is an article that deserves to be read, is Jonathan Glancey, formerly of the Independent.

The Guardian, alongside new Labour, has become more warlike in the Rusbridger years. The old Manchester Guardian was Little Englander in tone and inspiration, largely because of its Mancunian enthusiasm for free trade; it showed a marked reluctance to support foreign or imperial wars. Its opposition to the Boer war became a famous (and unpopular) campaign, and C P Scott would probably have opposed the First World War had it not broken out before he got round to editorialising about it. (Something similar happened with the Falklands: the Guardian was opposed to Thatcher's war, with Peter Jenkins, the paper's chief commentator, in the lead, but Peter Preston had to write an editorial during the first weekend pointing out that, as the British task force was already at sea, not much could now be done, except to pursue negotiations for peace vigorously.) Opposition to Suez was another honourable moment for the Guardian, and, apart from the occasional wobble by Hetherington, so was Vietnam.

In the 1990s, however, the Guardian became vociferously bellicose from the sidelines, moving the staff to action stations at the mere hint of war. From the Gulf to the Balkans to Afghanistan, the paper dramatically abandoned its previous pacifistic position - although with some difficulty. The Guardian is not very good at wars. Unlike the Daily Telegraph, where every reporter and sub-editor knows instinctively what to do when the whistle blows, lining up in the parade ground with a lust for battle, Guardian writers and editors are an independent and bolshie lot. It is one thing to write a leader in favour of war, quite another to instil a warlike spirit into the reluctant troops under your editorial command. After a few days of military action, the familiar Guardian priorities of peacemaking and humanitarian concern inevitably resurface, as they have in the reporting of events since 11 September.

The Guardian's support for foreign wars developed during the post-cold war era, as the United States emerged as the world's only superpower. One characteristic of the paper's editorial line that outside observers sometimes miss is its unswerving enthusiasm for the US, and here it happily joins forces with Tony Blair. The Guardian has always been an explicitly pro-American paper, from long before the arrival of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. I first joined the paper in the 1960s to write foreign editorials for Alastair Hetherington, and I soon discovered that his favourite political tract was Union Now, a now forgotten bestseller from the 1930s by Clarence Streit, which advocated federal union between the US and Britain. Hetherington had been a tank commander in the Second World War, and liked nothing better than discussing military strategy and nuclear semantics with the defence correspondent Clare Hollingworth. He would have loved to support the Vietnam war, had his staff allowed him to. Hetherington's famous opposition to the Suez war in 1956 (perceived - like Hugh Gaitskell's - as "unpatriotic" by conservative readers) was made possible by his Washington correspondent, Max Freedman, tipping him off to the extent of American hostility.

Preston, who took over from Hetherington in 1975, was another American enthusiast. He belonged to that generation of Oxbridge graduates of the early 1960s (my own), hugely influential in the media, who became enamoured of all things American, from hamburgers to movies, from politics to law, from civil rights to anti-war protests. They loved the vigour and dynamism of US society, its classlessness, its openness and warmth. America was everything that the stuffy old Britain of the Macmillan era was not. Preston was a not-so-secret supporter of the idea that Britain should be the 51st state and, having failed, like Hetherington, to convince his staff, he eventually wrote a novel about it instead.

Rusbridger comes from the same stable. His only formative foreign experience was as Robert Maxwell's man in Washington, as a correspondent of the ill-fated Daily News, and he has done more than any of his predecessors to try to turn the Guardian into Ben Bradlee's Washington Post. The features pages treat US items as though they were home news. At Rusbridger's shoulder stands Jonathan Freedland, another unreconstructed pro-American, a talented writer who once wrote a book in praise of US democracy without mentioning blacks or Native Americans. The Guardian's present hostility to the monarchy, and its apparently radical campaign for a British republic, is principally fuelled by its warm appreciation of the US system of government.

Rusbridger has introduced the American custom of appointing a readers' editor, which is a harmless innovation, but he has also sought to castrate the political activities of his staff along American lines, a development wholly alien to the traditions of the Guardian, and indeed of the British press. Guardian journalists are to be discouraged from signing petitions, speaking at public meetings, joining marches or, heaven forbid, standing for parliament, a ukase that would have dramatically affected the political ambitions of C P Scott, Morgan Phillips Price, Lena Jeger, Martin Linton, Polly Toynbee, Malcolm Dean, Christopher Huhne and, indeed, the present writer. The Americans may like their reporters to be politically lobotomised, but the British (and European) tradition is to allow journalists a degree of latitude in the political sphere. So it should remain, not least in the liberal press.

Richard Gott, a Guardian writer and editor for many years, stood for parliament at a by-election at North Hull in 1966, in protest against the Labour government's support for the American war in Vietnam. His account of the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 appears in The Bedside Years