I have just read journalist Melanie Phillips’ autobiography, Guardian Angel: My Journey from Leftism to Sanity, published by Bombardier Books in the US. The title is typically robust and challenging, much as her views have always been; as a courageous, counter-cultural voice I have often agreed with Phillips’s viewpoint when I have heard her speak on The Moral Maze and elsewhere. Her book charts her move from a Left-wing ideological position on every social and political question to where she is now: neither on the Right nor the Left but “a Jew who believes in making the world a better place and a journalist who believes in speaking truth to power.”
The author joined the Guardian in 1977, aged 26. Her description of the standard Left-wing position will be familiar to those of a conservative outlook: she writes wryly that “We were the embodiment of virtue itself”, adhering zealously to “a set of dogmatic mantras”, such as that “Poverty was bad, cuts in public spending were bad, prison was bad, the Tory government was bad, the state was good, poor people were good, minorities were good, sexual freedom was good.”
When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, Phillips was suitably appalled. The Guardian’s view was that “she was a heartless, narrow-minded, suburban nightmare.” Nonetheless, the premier’s aspirational lower-middle class background was something that the author instinctively recognised as similar to her own roots. In her journalistic investigations, columns and articles she gradually became convinced of a “spiritual poverty” in society which could not be explained away simply as the result of material deprivation which public spending alone could solve.
A secular rather than an observant Jew, Phillips had never, by her own admission, been particularly interested in Israel or Zionism. Nonetheless, by 1982 she was concerned by the Guardian’s attitude towards Israel; it no longer viewed Israelis as “socialist pioneers” but as “colonial aggressors”; the Palestinians were always “victims” and the Israelis their “oppressors.” Recent revelations of deep-rooted anti-Semitism within the Labour Party are, in Phillips’s eyes, nothing new.
There were other causes: that the educational establishmenty left poor children “ignorant, illiterate and innumerate”; that the population control side of the environmental lobby thought “the planet would be fine if it wasn’t for the human race”; and that the breakdown of the traditional family unit has led to unhappy outcomes for children.
Given the way she has been attacked by the Left-wing press for many years, Phillips is remarkably free from bitterness. Her book is not about repaying old scores. She remains vocal in her championing of what she calls “Judaeo-Christian values” – the Biblical moral code that emphasises “family obligations, a fierce sense of right and wrong…and an absolute duty to help those who were worse off” – which she sees as the foundation of Western civilisation. Today’s moral and cultural relativism is, in her view, a disaster.
Christians will resonate with the values Melanie Phillips defends, especially her belief in personal responsibility for one’s behaviour, even if we also believe that there can be no effective moral regeneration of society without a profound spiritual renewal underpinning it.