Charles Prestwich Scott, the son of Russell Scott, a successful businessman, was born in Bath in 1846. His grandfather, also called Russell Scott, had worked closely with Joseph Priestley to establish the Unitarian movement in Britain.
Charles was educated at Hove House, a Unitarian school in Brighton and Clapham Grammar School. After the passing of the 1854 University Act, Nonconformists were allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge. Individual colleges could now devise their own entry rules. Scott was rejected by two colleges, Queen's and Christ Church, because he did not have a Church of England baptist certificate. However, he was accepted by Corpus Christi College and he started his studies in October 1865.
While at Oxford, Scott was approached by his cousin, John Taylor, to write for the Manchester Guardian. Taylor, the son of John Edward Taylor, the founder of the newspaper, ran the London office. In 1871 he decided that he needed an editor based in Manchester, and appointed the 25 year old C. P. Scott to the post. It was agreed that Scott should receive a salary of £400 a year and one-tenth of the profits.
In 1874 Scott married Rachel Cook, the daughter of the Professor of History at St Andrews University. Rachel was one of the first students to study at Girton College and was introduced to the Scott family by Barbara Bodichon. Over the next few years Rachel had four children: Madeline (1876), Laurence (1877), John Russell (1879) and Edward Taylor (1883).
Scott took a keen interest in further education and was a trustee of Owens College and a member of its council between 1890 and 1898. C. P. Scott was also an advocate of universal suffrage. His newspaper gave strong support to Jacob Bright's Bill for Women's Suffrage. Scott also joined Elizabeth Butler in her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act.
John Taylor did not share C. P. Scott's views on parliamentary reform and ordered him not to use the Manchester Guardian to support the campaign. On 29th April, 1892, Taylor wrote to Scott again on this issue: "Your article yesterday for the Female Suffrage Bill was adroitly done, and your display of the cloven foot most discreetly managed; still it was quite visible. I must ask you not to advocate this measure whilst I live."
Although Scott was now receiving 25% of the profits of the Manchester Guardian, Taylor still controlled 75% of the company and had the power to over-rule his editor. Scott no longer received a salary but he did well from this agreement as the profits during this period ranged from £12,000 to £24,000 a year.
In the 1895 General Election, Scott stood as the Liberal Party candidate for North-East Manchester. He won with a majority of 667 and once in the House of Commons identified himself with the left-wing of the party. In Parliament C. P. Scott advocated women's suffrage and reform of the House of Lords.
In 1899 Scott strongly opposed the Boer War. This created a great deal of public hostility and both Scott's house and the Manchester Guardian building had to be given police protection. Sales of the newspaper also dropped during this period. However, despite holding unpopular views on the war, Scott managed to regain his seat in the 1900 General Election. With the help of his able lieutenants, C. E. Montague and L. T. Hobhouse, Scott continued to edit the newspaper during the period he sat in the House of Commons.
When John Taylor died in October 1905, he left instructions in his will that C. P. Scott could buy the Manchester Guardian for £10,000. The trustees were unwilling to obey these demands and eventually Scott had to raise £242,000 to buy the newspaper. This was a high price considering the newspaper only made a profit of £1,200 in 1905.
Scott was now in a position to use the newspaper to advocate women's suffrage. However, he was opposed to the tactics of the Women's Social & Political Union. In 1911 Scott held a meeting with David Lloyd George. He recorded in his diary: "We talked almost entirely of the Women's Suffrage movement and the damage done to it by the militant outrages. I urged that the militants should be ignored and the Suffrage campaign pressed on as though they didn't exist."
Scott initially opposed Britain's involvement in the First World War. Scott supported his friends, John Burns, John Morley and Charles Trevelyan, when they resigned from the government over this issue. However, he refused to join anti-war organizations such as the Union of Democratic Control (UDC). As he wrote at the time: "I am strongly of the opinion that the war ought not to have taken place and that we ought not to have become parties to it, but once in it the whole future of our nation is at stake and we have no choice but do the utmost we can to secure success."
Scott did oppose conscription introduced in 1916 and favoured the attempts made by Arthur Henderson to secure a negotiated peace in 1917. He recorded what David Lloyd George said about a meeting he had with the journalist, Philip Gibbs on the return from the Western Front: "I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description from him of what the war (on the Western Front) really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship wouldn't pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can't go on with this bloody business."
Scott thought it unwise to impose harsh conditions on Germany after the war had come to an end in 1918. Although Scott was critical of the way David Lloyd George handled the peace negotiations at Versailles he supported him in his struggle with Herbert Asquith. After the Conservative victory in the 1922 General Election, Scott worked hard to unite the Liberal Party. However, his loyal support of Lloyd George made this an impossible task.
Kingsley Martin went to work for the Manchester Guardian in 1927: "C. P. Scott was a remarkable figure. At the age of eighty he was bent nearly double, blind in one eye, but more fierce in expression than any other man I have known. He still rode his bicycle through the muddy and dangerous streets of Manchester, swaying between the tramlines, with white hair and whiskers floating in the breeze, equally oblivious of rain and traffic. Unconsciously, I am sure, he thought that no one in Manchester would hurt him."
C. E. Montague, who was married to C. P. Scott's only daughter, Madeline, died in June, 1929, after working for the Manchester Guardian for thirty-five years. The following month, Scott, after fifty-seven years as editor, decided to retire. Scott had initially expected his eldest son, Laurence Scott, to succeed him as editor. However, while involved in charity work in the Ancoats slums, he caught tuberculosis and died. It was therefore, Edward Scott, the youngest son, who took over from his father. Although officially retired, Charles Prestwich Scott kept a close watch over the newspaper until his death on 1st January, 1932.
It its editorial that week, The New Statesman compared Scott to Lord Northcliffe: "Every newspaper lives by appealing to a particular public. It can only go ahead of its times if it carries its public with it. Success in journalism depends on understanding the public. But success is of two kinds. Northcliffe had a genius for understanding his public and he used it for making money, not for winning permanent influence.... C. P. Scott succeeded in a different way. He had just as much flair, just as acute an understanding of his public as Northcliffe. But his relationship to it was a professional, not a commercial relation. He taught his public to trust his integrity, to rely on the facts he told them, to respect his judgment, and to listen to his criticism. He offered his undivided services. I remember his saying that there was a definite moment in his life, the equivalent of a religious conversion, when he dedicated his life wholly to his paper and the causes it served."