Melanie Phillips, columnist with Britain’s Daily Mail and panelist on BBC Radio 4’s combative discussion show The Moral Maze, is described on the website of her new memoir, Guardian Angel, as “the leading conservative commentator in the United Kingdom today.” We lack the empirical means to test this claim, of course, but based solely on the amount of invective she attracts, it may very well be correct.
As a commentator, Phillips is preoccupied with the decline of civil society through (in her opinion) the erosion of communal values, the decline in educational standards and the scourge of Islamization, among other things. Her articles provoke predictable outrage in liberal circles; the unpleasant epithet of choice for Phillips is “mad Mel.” There’s no reason to doubt the authenticity of her passion, but at times it seems that she sets out deliberately to rile the left-wing commentariat as much as to put the world to rights. Might it be that Phillips has lost sight of the issues that matter to her, so busy has she been training her sights on enemies, real and imaginary?
Like many books of this type, Guardian Angel perhaps gives away more about its subject than intended. It is a curious yet compelling read, intertwining the personal and the political; Phillips states that her “personal and political lives have flowed in and out of each other as if they were tributaries of one great tempestuous river.” But her account feels somewhat abbreviated, the mere 160 pages unable to do justice to the ebbs and flows of 40-odd years as a journalist and commentator. Still, one gets a sense of its tone and tenor from the very start: Chapters entitled The Shaping of a Culture Warrior, Onwards Into the Fire and the apocalyptic The Battle for Britain’s Soul are an unambiguous statement of intent. Tempting as it may be to hypothesize about what has been left out, it might actually be more useful in this case to consider how Phillips makes use of her self-imposed brevity.
Born in London in 1951, Phillips grew up in a family “typical of the post-Second World War British Jewish community.” Her parents maintained a kosher household but worked on Saturdays; they kept their heads and their ethnic profile down. Phillips pointedly notes the social differences between her parents – while her father’s parents had emigrated from Poland, her maternal grandparents were both born in England. This, she says, placed her mother half a social class above her father: a minute demarcation to observe, one might argue, but very much in keeping with Britain’s class-obsessed social structure.
And it is an important distinction for Phillips, one that recurs directly and indirectly throughout the book. Phillips clearly adored her mother, who ran a shop: “She was witty, elegant, capable, intelligent, sensitive and beautiful.” Her relationship with her father was more complicated. She cringed when he wore a bowler hat, a clumsy attempt at assimilation, “after all he was not a bourgeois or professional, but sold women’s dresses to shopkeepers from a van.” Elsewhere, she writes that he “possessed no resources, neither intellectual nor financial, no hinterland of aspiration fulfilled by any subsequent autodidactic determination to fill in the gaps.” It’s a harsh assessment, and perplexing given that her parents – as far as we can tell – seemed happy enough with one another.
Phillips describes herself as a solitary and serious-minded child. “I thought my family life was happy and normal,” she writes. But there is a wistfulness, the wish that her life had been more like those of the other children she “goggled in amazement hanging upside down from rope ladders or climbing trees in the garden.” A little older, she missed out on the mixed teenage parties that her mother forbade her from attending, fearing the “unbroken line from such pursuits to marrying outside the Jewish people.” She found her place in books and words, instead, and flourished at the (fee-paying, at her mother’s insistence) Putney High School for Girls before going up to Oxford, where she read English Literature at St. Anne’s College.
It wasn’t a complete escape from the constrictions of home, but it gave her the intellectual and personal freedom that she he had not enjoyed before: “Oxford... passed as in a dream.” But after the dream, reality: straight after finishing her finals, without even pausing to change out of her subfusc examination gown, she returned to London and her mother. “Physically, at Oxford, I mentally never left my mother. At best it felt as if I was on the end of a long leash.”
Phillips was politically active at Oxford, but 40 years on, she is dismissive about the period, writing that she “dabbled” in mildly left-wing politics, went on “self-important” demonstrations, sported a “hippie-ish” haircut. This denunciation feels a little awkward. Left-leaning sympathies would have been natural, given her social antecedents: “[My parents] stuck fiercely to the socialist political assumptions that had been an absolute given in their own political backgrounds,” Phillips observes. But memoirs are often after-the-fact rationalization of past actions and deeds. And the next step in Melanie Phillips’ political and social evolution has stood to define everything she has done since.
A place where she could belong
When Phillips joined the Guardian in 1977, after a short stint on the now-defunct New Society magazine, it would have seemed the perfect fit. The Guardian had a reputation for thoughtful, progressive reportage and commentary; Phillips, just named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, had a particular interest in social policy and its impact on the general population. That aside, the Guardian excited a fierce tribal loyalty among readers and writers both; we understand that Phillips found within the Guardian a home and a family, a place where she could belong after being an outsider for so long.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can argue now that the warning signs should been have apparent to her from the start. With the benefit of hindsight and with a memoir to write, Phillips states baldly that she ignored the warning signs, in thrall as she was to the clannish conviviality and intellectualism of her new home. As a social services correspondent, she ruffled feathers by challenging the conventional left-wing wisdom about the causes and consequences of social disharmony, even as she rose within the internal hierarchy. Even though informed by empirical research and rigorous reporting, she began to run afoul – and she elaborates on this at length – of the Guardian’s progressive orthodoxy.
Credit should be given where credit is due: Phillips freely admits that she was the one that changed, not the newspaper. That said, she concedes the point rather grudgingly, grumbling about how she confused her liberalism (as she describes her newly articulated leanings) with the Guardian’s left-wing instincts. “Only much later did I realise that the left is fundamentally illiberal.” This is a matter of opinion, of course, one that the members of her (former) tribe would hotly dispute. In any case, the Thatcherist politics of the 1980s spoke louder to Phillips than the politics of the left. “[The Thatcherites] were promoting the values with which I had been brought up... all about opportunities for social betterment, hard work, taking responsibility for oneself.”
It was not just the politics, Phillips states, but the superciliousness, the hypocrisy and finally a latent but nonetheless potent anti-Semitism, that poisoned her time at the newspaper. Phillips freely acknowledges that she was not particularly concerned with the fate of Israel and the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics at the time. But snide observations from colleagues about her presumed loyalties grated, as they should. And the Guardian’s editorial line concerning Israel – critical at best, confrontational more often – pushed Phillips out on a limb. As an aside, it is worth noting that the brief cause-and-effect analysis of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that she includes in the book mirrors the unsophisticated approach that she criticizes in the Guardian. Shorn of context and complexity, Phillips’ abbreviated assessment of her relationship with Israel reads like a convenient building block for her world-view.
When she was kicked upstairs as a columnist after an indifferent stint as news editor, she considered it a failure. But in fact it was probably the making of Melanie Phillips Mark II. With the opportunity to extrapolate debatable trends from a mix of single events and personal interpretation, columnists often enjoy a flexibility with hard facts that reporters can only dream of. (Or should only be able to dream of, at least.) Free to expound on the issues that mattered to her – education, social integration, the deleterious effect of Britain’s welfare state on the national psyche – Phillips discovered her metier. Unfortunately, this did not suit her employers, and in 1993 she was shipped out to the Guardian’s newly acquired sister newspaper, the Observer. While more congenial, the Observer (purchased by the Guardian that year, the Sunday newspaper retained a separate editorial structure) was still of the left and Phillips, by now, most emphatically not. Her “self-imposed exile from the Garden of Eden” continued rightwards, first to the center-right Sunday Times, and then in 2001 the small-c conservative Daily Mail, Britain’s second largest selling daily newspaper.
Guardian Angel at times makes for a frustrating read. Not written with literary merit in mind, the tone is often didactic and the prose middling at best. Phillips does write with remarkable candor, especially when drawing the links between personal experience and political orientation. But ideally, the personal should inform – rather than become – the political. The two became hopelessly muddled during Phillips’ time at the Guardian, which explains – up to a point – the venom with which she attacks the newspaper and everything that she believes it stands for. Essentially, Guardian Angel can be summed up as Phillips explaining why she made the political journey from left to right, then berating those she left behind.
This is her right of course, so why should we object? Well, in the context of this book – and I think that we can describe Guardian Angel more accurately as manifesto rather than a memoir – I think it matters very much. Phillips is an important, sometimes astute social commentator, and warrants a place on the high table of social policy thinking on merit. But her task should be to play a part in shaping the conversation, rather than dominating it. Guardian Angel largely plays to the gallery of fans of right-wing punditry, and offers little to those who want to engage with her point of view rather than her unpleasant caricature. The trouble is that Melanie Phillips has convinced herself that once again she stands outside the consensus, the lone voice that will eventually be proven right, albeit at devastating cost to society at large. It is telling that Phillips has published Guardian Angel under her own own imprint, em Books, rather than with a conventional publishing house. She avers that her brand of polemic has become too discomfiting for the left-dominated mainstream publishing industry. But it might also be that Ms. Phillips has found an excellent opportunity to develop her own “brand,” a prized asset in today’s fragmented media landscape.
She might be correct about all these things, of course: but as we say in these parts, sometimes it is better to be smart than it is to be right. Melanie Phillips might think of herself as Britain’s leading conservative commentator; if she wants to be the country’s most influential commentator, she needs to work on being less right occasionally.
Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv.