BOOK REVIEW / The feuding fiefdom of the left: Changing Faces: A History of The Guardian, 1956-88 - Geoffrey Taylor: 4th Estate, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
'ITS once important letters column had become a play pen for paranoiacs, nihilists and hard-left freaks who were a caricature of the paper's following and with whom the more serious readers clearly did not wish to be identified.' Geoffrey Taylor, former deputy editor and foreign editor of the Guardian, is describing the state of the paper in the mid-1980s. It is the only point in this official history in which a gentle, discreet man lets raw anger show. In truth, the freaks had colonised more than the letters column.

Here it is necessary to inject a personal note. I was a journalist on the Guardian between 1967 and 1986 and had at least a walk-on part in many of the later events Taylor describes. I remain proud to have been associated with the Guardian, but I did not wish to continue working in the embittered atmosphere prevailing there in the early 1980s. It reflected all too depressingly the conflict for the soul of the Labour Party that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

During my later years on the paper I shared an office with the author, at that time chief leader writer. He personified all that was best about the paper. His quiet professionalism, his integrity and above all his modesty, were exceptional - and essential to the delicate task of producing an official history discussing controversial issues in which he was a central player. This meticulous volume covers the Guardian's protracted and often painful shift from old-fashioned provincial radicalism through an often bitter period of adjustment to its present self-confidence.

In spite of his distress about the rise of the hard left, Taylor adopts the conventional view that the Guardian became, at the policy-making level, the voice of the SDP in the early 1980s. He notes that three members of the small team of leader writers - Malcolm Dean, Christopher Huhne and myself - stood for Parliament in 1983 on behalf of the Social Democrats, as did Polly Toynbee, a commentator on social policy. She was married to Peter Jenkins, then the Guardian's political columnist and an SDP fellow-traveller.

The revisionists felt beleaguered rather than triumphal. As Taylor records, many senior colleagues were committed to the Labour establishment and to Neil Kinnock in particular. (Those who raise eyebrows at the closeness of the Daily Mirror's historically overclose relationship with Labour might look at the Guardian). Others followed openly Trotskyist agendas. Amazing as it might seem in retrospect, I had to fight with both groups to commit the paper to such 'anti-union' ideas as secret strike ballots and the democratic election of union bosses.

It is legitimate to ask why Peter Preston, editor since 1975, did not slap down his Social Democrats or his Labour activists, nor purge his paper of Trots. Taylor does not speculate about why the letters column (and other parts of the paper) were allowed to degenerate - or why two-thirds of the leader-writing team was allowed to take time off to fight the election of 1983 for a party which the paper did not endorse.

The most convincing answer is that the Guardian had always been run as a feuding fiefdom. Taylor's description of the battle for the editorship in 1975 is a delight. The features department was firm for Preston. But John Cole's troops were massing. The Amazons of the Mainly for Women pages were restive. Then the gallant men from Manchester rode forth. Only on the Grauniad . . . The trouble is that this laid-back, Oxford Common Room style of management works best when the shared assumptions dilute conflicts that are either personal or academic. It is at its least effective when ideological issues are being fought out on the left, as they were in the 1980s.