LONDON – Walking around the offices of The Guardian newspaper, journalist Melanie Phillips bumped into the lead editorial writer, Geoffrey Taylor. It was June 1982, and while Britain was preoccupied with its war in the Falkland Islands, Israel had invaded Lebanon.
“Well, now, Melanie,” said Taylor, an old-fashioned English gentleman and an Arabist. “What on earth are we going to say about your war?”
Phillips, a British Jew who had never written about Israel, was shocked to realize that by “her” war, he was referring to the Israeli one, turning her into an outsider.
“At that moment, the iron entered my soul,” she writes in “Guardian Angel,” her new memoir.
The book chronicles her evolution from the one-time darling of the British left to one of its most hated figures – “she-devil of the Western world,” as Phillips puts it.
From her platform in Britain’s second-largest newspaper, The Daily Mail, she has become famous for stinging attacks on the establishment, accusing it of deliberately destroying the fabric of British life by promoting multiculturalism and denying the religious nature of Muslim terrorism. She is Israel’s staunchest defender in the British press, a global warming “denier” and an opponent of gay marriage.
Her admirers consider her one of Britain’s bravest columnists, a reputation on which she is capitalizing by launching Melanie Phillips Electric Media, a digital publishing company (which also has its own merchandising line flogging mugs and tote bags).
She hopes this platform will allow her to expand the public conversation on the subjects she cares about, and reach further into the English-speaking world, particularly America. “Guardian Angel” is one of the first offerings of its eBook division, emBooks; there are also titles on subjects as diverse as Islamism, Prince William and bringing up teenage girls, by other writers.
But more than any other commentator on Britain’s right (a designation she does not actually accept), Phillips also seems to attract venom and contempt.
In columns in the Guardian and the Times, she has been called “routinely insane,” a “spoof columnist,” “one of the Daily Mail’s routine monsters,” an “authoritarian writer,” and accused of displaying “depths of ignorance and bigotry that can scarcely have been matched.” According to Nicholas Lezard in the Independent, she “eats broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.”
On one occasion, she overheard a left-wing acquaintance saying that the thing that most frightens him is “turning into Melanie”
Phillips says that such remarks hurt: “I’m a human being.”
What is it exactly that drives her opponents so crazy? Many of her views are politically incorrect, but she is not the only one to hold them. Perhaps it is her blunt style; she is routinely accused of hyperbole, hysteria and anger.
Phillips thinks she is hated because she is an “apostate.”
“I was considered to be a signed-up member of the liberal left. I departed and they won’t forgive me,” she says.
Her journey makes the left feel insecure about its own positions, she adds.
“The left is obsessed by me because it knows this right-wing label they’ve pinned on me isn’t true,” she says, settled into a large armchair in her central London apartment. “Where I stand is the true left. I remain where I was originally – standing for a better society, standing up for the vulnerable, fighting oppression and tyranny, standing up for truth against lies. The change was that I came to believe that the people who I thought were on my side in that great battle were on the other side, keeping the poor mired in disadvantage.”
‘Where I stand is the true left. I remain where I was originally – standing for a better society, standing up for the vulnerable, fighting oppression and tyranny, standing up for truth against lies’
She wrote “Guardian Angel” to show that she wasn’t the creature of caricature.
“It was important to set the record straight,” she says. “I was being so misunderstood and misrepresented, it was getting in the way of my ability to convey what I was trying to say.”
Normally intensely private, in the book Phillips writes for the first time about her difficult family background, which both shaped her basic attitudes and stifled her. Her struggle to break free paralleled her political journey to detach herself from her other “family,” the left.
Born in 1951, her father Alfred sold women’s dresses to shopkeepers from a van. While Phillips writes that she loved him, she portrays him as a weak figure, unable to stand up to his domineering mother, break out of poverty, properly take care of his wife – or protect his daughter from her control. Phillips’ mother had Multiple Sclerosis, and was emotionally fragile. Even as a child Phillips felt responsible for her, and until Mabel’s death in 2004, her life revolved around her to a significant extent.
Both parents were staunch socialists who instilled in Phillips the importance of helping those who were less well-off. But her mother also pushed her academically and culturally. Phillips did a degree in Oxford and then, newly married to journalist Joshua Rozenberg, completed an award-winning stint in a local newspaper.
In 1977, at the age of 26, she joined The Guardian, the left-wing paper of Britain’s establishment. It seemed like the perfect fit politically, and Phillips, who calls her younger self “Little Miss Guardianista,” happily shared her colleagues’ belief that they were more civilized than everyone else, “the embodiment of virtue itself.”
She blames the changing cultural landscape on a deliberate effort by the left to take over Britain’s institutions of power and subvert them
Considered a young star, she rose quickly through the ranks until she became news editor – which she admits was a disaster – and in 1987 was “demoted” to columnist, the position which was the making of her.
By then, the ideological cracks had begun to show. Her experience reporting in poor housing estates and schools, as well as the rise of Margaret Thatcher, made her question essential leftist dogmas about the “deserving poor” and the role of the state. She was also shocked by the double standards to which Israel was held.
By the time she departed the Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, for the Sunday Times in 1998 and moved on to the Mail in 2001, she had concluded that the policies of the left, which dominated Britain’s elites, were harmful to disadvantaged people. In the name of equality and tolerance, education standards were allowed to fall, the poor were kept on welfare, and the traditional family unit was undermined.
She blames this changing cultural landscape on a deliberate effort by the left to take over Britain’s institutions of power and subvert them. Many of its ideas – “this rubbish” – came from America, “but in Britain it found very fertile soil.”
The key was the collapse of public religion, she says, with no alternate ideology arising that could fight the left’s advance. Following World War II, the country had lost its empire and was in debt to its allies, and its administrative class believed their role was the orderly management of decline.
“They were powerless to resist what became the ‘march through the institutions,’” she says, using the phrase coined by Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. “They didn’t have any strong basis to defend Britain against it.”
Phillips once described herself, per American neo-con Irving Kristol, as ‘the liberal who has been mugged by reality’
Phillips once described herself, per American neo-con Irving Kristol, as “the liberal who has been mugged by reality.” If few others have followed her path, it is because “once [the left] got rid of the idea that there was any such thing as truth, ideology filled the vacuum. They start with ideas, then everything else has to be made to fit. They can’t follow the evidence.”
So why did she soldier on at the Guardian group of newspapers for 21 years, when she was isolated by colleagues and increasingly unhappy?
“It was like family to me,” she explains. “It was like a divorce. You can’t believe that your family members are so abusive because you are locked in with them. It takes a very long time to be able to stand back and say this is really over. I didn’t feel I had any home to go.”
The rift still hurts. In the book she describes going back to the Guardian in 2012, for the first time in 16 years, and weeping when she left the building.
Even today, she does not completely feel at home in the British right.
“At root, I felt that they weren’t animated by what animated me – a passion for tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, she says. “That’s what you get on the left. I have that. What people who are not on the left brought to the party was common sense, a very rational approach. It’s valuable because it’s tethered to earth. But what was lacking was the idealism that says, I really want to improve everything.”
What she does feel a connection to is “middle Britain,” the ordinary people whom, she says, understand that their political and cultural establishment is out of touch with reality, and feel disenfranchised. (In America as well, she says, many on the right feel that they are not represented by the Republicans, the Tea Party or Fox News, and it is these people she wishes to engage with emBooks.)
Exhibit A is the reaction to the Woolwich terror attack in May, when two Islamists beheaded a soldier on a London street, citing the Koran. Successive politicians, including Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, denied that their actions had anything to do with Islam.
According to Phillips, whose 2006 book “Londonistan” documented the rise of a terror hub in Britain, the political class insisted that the act was “senseless” because they don’t understand religion.
“Like the rest of the West, they are incapable of understanding how people can be irrational, how people can be not-Western,” she says. “The official class will not accept this is a religious war because they can’t accept that religious feeling really can make sentient adult human beings believe they can take over the world and that it’s a good thing to destroy millions of people.”
By contrast, she says, the British people understood that this was religiously-based terrorism, and want it tackled. Beneath the surface, this gap is “fueling a terribly dangerous rage.”
“If this was France, the slightest provocation and everybody takes to the streets,” she says. “The British don’t do extremes – they are stoical and fairly bovine. It’s one of the great strengths of Britain… But people have very strong feelings. It’s bottled up.”
‘The British don’t do extremes – they are stoical and fairly bovine. It’s one of the great strengths of Britain’
When it comes to Israel, “middle England” may very well disagree with Phillips, who is one of its fiercest defenders in the British media. Surprisingly, until about a decade ago, she did not feel particularly strongly about it.
“The way I was brought up, Israel was very important for other Jews, but not us,” she says. “We were British, living in the best possible place for Jews.”
All this changed during the second Intifada, when making Israel’s case seemed “a matter of truth and justice.”
The “extraordinarily vicious reaction” to her columns “made me realize more clearly that it was all over for British Jews. Never again could we have the illusion that this was the best possible world for us.”
Nevertheless, she adds, “It is very unwise to say that it’s all anti-Semitism. The vast majority of people who have hateful views on Israel are not animated by hateful views of Jews, although some are. They are motivated by the highest ideals of justice and standing up for the oppressed. The problem is they have it completely back to front as to who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor.”
The blame, she says, lies “almost entirely” with Israel itself, which has failed to offer an alternative narrative about the Middle East.
“It has vacated this ground over many years. It believes it is pointless to engage with Britain.”
Promoting its case, she says, must be seen as a “strategic weapon of war,” a form of psychological warfare, and given appropriate resources.
Nowadays, she spends significant time in Israel.
Britain could still reverse its decline, she says, if Christianity returns
“I am transfixed by the romance of it,” she says. “It is a place of such joy and hope among people who are living on the edge of a total nightmare. Here in Britain where everyone has everything and there is no existential threat, everyone’s so gloomy and cynical. Which is more life-enhancing?”
Despite everything, Britain could still reverse its decline, she says, if Christianity returns (“this is a very, very unfashionable thing to say,” she admits). While unlikely – the Church of England pews are famously empty – she cannot rule it out. She does see smaller hopeful signs, such as the popular feeling against the European Union, which she says is “an anti-democratic institution,” the people’s desire for a crackdown on Islamism, and the current government’s attempts to reform the education system and welfare.
So despite all its flaws, does she still like Britain?
“I am British,” she replies. “It made me and I was brought up to love what it once stood for. Britain gave the world a concept of liberty that is unmatched. It has had characteristics of tolerance, decency, fairness, fair play, stoicism and emotional restraint. These things are priceless to me. I’ve watched these things going down the pan and I can’t bear it, I will fight for these things to be restored.”
But her heart seems only half in it.
“I’m not sure what home is any more,” she adds. “Britain is increasingly leaving me, it’s leaving a lot of people, it’s becoming something quite different. I will continue to fight in my own way for it. One can’t say what the future will hold – the way it’s going doesn’t inspire much confidence. Wherever I end up, it will always be part of me.
“A bit like leaving The Guardian, I can never completely leave it.”