Underrated: Melanie Phillips

The most reviled personality in British journalism is a courageous writer whose independent thought has made her the target of boorish, misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse

Publishing UK Politics Underrated
©Ellie Foreman-Peck

At the launch party for Melanie Phillips’s new ebook venture last month you could be forgiven for thinking that the controversial columnist had finally arrived in the bosom of the establishment. It was hosted by Sir Rocco Forte at his flagship London hotel, Brown’s, in the heart of Mayfair, while among the guests were the Cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Patterson, the editors of The Times and Sunday Times, and many other movers and shakers from politics, business and the media.

But being embraced by the establishment is certainly not Phillips’s ambition, except as a further step in spreading her message: that Western civilisation is in terminal decline unless it restores its belief in its historic values, such as the primacy of the family, a rigorous and demanding education system and an end to multiculturalism. Her new business, Melanie Phillips Electric Media (EM), will, she hopes, extend her influence further afield than her main current platform, a weekly column in the Daily Mail, allows. In particular, she hopes to penetrate further into the American market. 

Among the five launch ebooks is her own memoir, Guardian Angel, in which she reveals much more about herself and her political journey than she has ever done before. It is both honest and moving: what will surprise many is that this apostle of the family is herself the product of a highly dysfunctional one: the only child of a lower-middle-class Jewish London couple, in which her mother was the dominant personality whom the young Melanie adored while her father was a distant, uninvolved figure.

The other dysfunctional relationship she explores is that with the Guardian, for which she worked for more than 20 years and whose writers — along with those from other papers — now queue up to insult and demonise her, apparently unable to come to terms with her gradual move away from the Left to a more conservative (or in their terms, extreme right-wing) viewpoint. Phillips herself details some recent press comments about her: “routinely insane” (Caitlin Moran, The Times); “the simplistic authoritarian commentator” (Dave Hill, Guardian); “depths of ignorance and bigotry that can scarcely have been matched, even in the Mail” (Greg Wood, Guardian).

Even the normally fair and amusing Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart, a former colleague of Phillips, having poked some gentle fun at the fact that you can buy all sorts of branded goods (T-shirts, mugs and so on) from EM’s website, concluded: “When people move from one extreme set of views to embrace another equally batty picture of the world, they expect us to applaud their choice, as if the fact that they have rejected one form of nuttiness somehow validates the screwball views they hold now.” 

What the secularist Guardianistas completely fail to understand is the influence of Phillips’s Jewish heritage on her political journey. In her memoir she describes her shock at the outbreak of anti-Israel feeling at the Guardian over the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which came as the Falklands war reached its climax. At the time she had never even visited Israel and had little interest in the country. Yet a senior colleague stunned her by asking her: “What on earth are we going to say about your war?” 

“At that moment,” she writes, “the iron entered my soul.” There has since been no stauncher defender of Israel and traditional Jewish values; she and her husband, Standpoint columnist Joshua Rozenberg, now have a flat in Jerusalem in addition to their London home.

There has also been no more courageous figure in British journalism over the past two decades and more, standing up with coolness and dignity to boorish extremists in the audience at BBC TV’s Question Time, the target of vicious, misogynistic and downright anti-Semitic online comments in the Guardian and the Independent, to their apparent indifference. Yet she remains vulnerable and emotional at heart: she records in Guardian Angel her distress at leaving the paper; when she was invited back last year to be interviewed for the latest history of the Guardian, she was surprised to be given a sympathetic hearing by the author, Ian Mayes. “When I left the Guardian building that day, I wept,” she writes.

Having dried her tears, where now for Melanie Phillips? She wants to “reclaim the middle ground”, a statement that would surprise her legion of enemies. But in Guardian Angel she may surprise plenty more who are used to her trenchant criticisms of the Left by her equally robust denunciation of the Thatcherite legacy. “My beef was with a society consumed by individualism — and that applied to both Left and Right,” she writes. “Far from saving Britain, the Thatcherites’ utilitarian reductionism had helped erode still further the basis for moral authority and cultural tradition.”

If her ebooks take off and reach the silent majority in the US and the UK, Melanie Phillips will have had the last laugh on those who have consistently underestimated her tenaciousness and self-belief.