Melanie Phillips is among Britain’s leading political journalists and media commentators, notable for her trenchant opinions well to the right of what is now universally acknowledged as the political centre ground. And that is a situation which she both explains and attacks in her biographical memoir Guardian Angel: My journey from leftism to sanity.
Born in London to working class Anglo-Jewish parents, Phillips was psychologically damaged by the dynamics of her dysfunctional family. Her description of a young life overshadowed by a demanding mother, a weak and ineffective father, a frightening and domineering “Booba”, and a family tragedy, will strike familiar chords in some readers. She believes that her efforts to free herself from the constraints of her upbringing parallel her odyssey from the heart of the political left to the ground she now occupies.
Notably she characterizes journey’s end as “sanity” not “the right”. For she believes profoundly that, over half a century or more, the political left in both Britain and the US has been successfully hijacking the centre ground of politics. What was once generally accepted as moderate political opinion is now vilified as “right-wing”, a term of abuse flung at anyone deviating from what is currently regarded as politically correct.
She believes that the world-view promulgated by the left-wing intellectual élite in both countries grew increasingly out of step with the opinions of ordinary working and middle-class people. Progressive thinkers, perceiving the Western nation state as the source of colonialism and oppression, put their faith in transnational institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. They took no account of the pride that many ordinary people feel in their nation, their institutions and their independence. This, Phillips believes, largely explains the intense shock the US establishment felt at the election of Donald Trump as president, and that of the UK at the result of the referendum which revealed that a clear majority of the British public favoured leaving the EU.
Phillips is modest in her account of how she broke into the world of journalism, throwing in almost as an afterthought the fact that in her first professional post, as a trainee on a minor regional newspaper, she was named Young Journalist of the Year. That award opened the way to a job on Britain’s major left-wing newspaper, The Guardian, in 1977. She then charts her growing disillusionment with how left-wing political attitudes on the paper developed over the next fifteen years, and her increasing estrangement from them.
Phillips says she always thought of herself not as “left-wing” but as “liberal”. When she joined The Guardian she thought it a perfect match for her beliefs, for the paper started life as the Manchester Guardian, a bastion of liberal opinion under the 57-year long editorship of the legendary C P Scott. “Only much later,” she writes, “did I realize that the left is fundamentally illiberal.”
There was no sudden revelation, says Phillips. Her views evolved step by step, as she saw the citadels of western belief and identity slowly crumble around her. Her motive in writing at all, she tells us, was to uphold truth against lies, justice over injustice and to protect the weak against the strong. In doing so, she began to find that she was acquiring a set of convictions that put her at odds with her colleagues. In short, far from a place in heaven, the “Guardian Angel” found herself in a sort of purgatory. So she eased herself out of left-wing journalism, moving perhaps too far to the right with a spell on the UK’s Daily Mail, until she now finds herself entirely comfortable as a columnist on The Times.
Phillips has won a well-earned reputation as a stalwart opponent of the misrepresentations and downright lies about Israel that constantly fill the world’s media, and are peddled by people opposed either to its government’s policies or to the very existence of the state. Yet until the year 2000 she had never visited Israel or, indeed, felt the least desire to do so.
The events of 9/11 were a catalyst for her. Only two days before, she had written: “A society which professes neutrality between cultures would create a void which Islam, with its militant political creed, would attempt to fill.” After 9/11 she foresaw a rampant Muslim extremism intent on conquering the Western democracies, and a debilitated, disillusioned West unwilling to defend itself and opting for appeasement.
In that battle she saw Israel as the front line defender of Western civilization, and was appalled time and again by the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic prejudice she encountered in Britain. With Israeli citizens being blown up in buses and cafes, media comment continually abused Israel for defending itself. She encountered the public’s irrational hatred of Israel personally in December 2001.
The prestigious BBC television programme, Question Time, assembles a panel of well-known personalities to be questioned in front of an audience, who are given the opportunity of responding. To a question about Israel defending itself again terrorism, Phillips’s fellow panellists accused Israel of war crimes, including the bombing of innocent civilians, while members of the audience asserted that Israel was the source of terror in the Middle East, and was responsible for ethnic cleansing. Not a word was raised in Israel’s defence. Phillips found herself the only voice condemning the murder of innocent civilians by Palestinian extremists. As she tried to make the case, she was hissed by the audience.
Throughout the early 2000s, British politicians from the main political parties, fearful of being daubed with the tar-brush of racism, were mealy-mouthed about opposing Muslim extremism in the UK. As time went on Phillips became increasingly alarmed. “The country,” she writes, “seemed to be in denial of Islamic militants who hated Britain and wanted to destroy it and who constituted ‘the enemy within’.”
Determined to expose the truth, she wrote her best-seller Londonistan. Rejected by every mainstream UK publisher, it was rescued by a courageous though obscure publishing house that must have made a fortune from it.
So Phillips came to the realization that many people in Britain, in swallowing lies about Israel and prejudice against Jews, were also swallowing the propaganda of the enemies of Britain and the West. While Israel was defending the Western democratic values they believed in, they were treating Israel as the enemy. For this view she found scant support from Britain’s Jewish community, renowned at the time for keeping its head well below the parapet.
Since the BBC had begun turning to her to make Israel’s case, Phillips decided to educate herself much more fully about the issues. She began to read widely, visit Israel often, and write and speak frequently. She has dented the UK’s public perception of Israel only slightly, but at least rejection of anti-Semitism has become a mainstream issue in Britain ever since the election of the hard-left politician, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of Britain’s Labour party.
For Phillips, however, this is not enough. She sees hatred of Israel as a failure by the public to perceive where their true interests lie – to combat those who hate Western civilization and aim to destroy it. In that battle, Israel is the first line of defence.
“If Israel were ever to go down,” writes Phillips, “Britain and the West would be next in line, and with no defender in the Middle East.”
In everything she writes Melanie Phillips is never anything but incisive and honest. In “Guardian Angel” she provides us with a powerful account of her personal and professional voyage through stormy seas. We accompany her as she resolves for herself some of the political and moral inconsistencies that she sees all around her. She writes with passionate conviction of the dangers facing the West today, and points the way towards resolving them. This is a book for the times.