Religion and Politics: The UK’s Culture Wars.Comments on Melanie Philips’ new book, Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain, London, mpem, 2013.

Melanie Philips, according to the BBC, is “one of the British media’s leading right-wing voices”. The lady was brought up in London’s East End in a Jewish family that had immigrated from Russia and Poland in the early years of the twentieth century. From her parents, she inherited a strong sense of family obligation, a fierce sense of right and wrong, and an “unquestionable assumption” that the more fortunate have an obligation to help the less fortunate. Her parents were life-long Labour supporters.

She studied English literature at Oxford, won the Young Journalist of the Year Award in 1976, and a year later joined The Guardian newspaper, where she began to write on social affairs. In her account, she shared the views which were standard on the left at the time: poverty, bad; prison, bad; Tories, bad; state, good; poor, good; minorities, good; sexual freedom, good. That was then. Her book describes her voyage of discovery that the UK’s metropolitan liberal left was not what it seemed to me. Hers is a cry of anguish that we are in the midst of a major culture war aimed at destroying western values, founded ultimately on the Judeo- Christian tradition, as expounded in the Biblical texts and traditions.

While the BBC labels her as a voice of the far right, Melanie Philips argues to the contrary, that she remains firmly rooted on the centre ground of politics. What has changed, she maintains, is that the far left has hijacked the centre ground of politics, enabling its denizens to label her as extreme, and their position as reasonable, centrist and good.   Her trajectory from a budding star in the Guardian firmament to writing in the Daily Mail is clearly taken as incontrovertible evidence that she has flipped to join the ranks of reaction.

The left, she writes, has learnt to substitute insult and abuse for argument. In illustration, she cites some random attacks from the ranks of the metropolitan liberal left: “The routinely insane Melanie Philips’ (Caitlin Moran, The Times); ‘Spoof columnist’ (Martin Robbins, The Guardian); ‘One of the Mail’s routine monsters’,(Marina Hyde, The Independent); “depths of ignorance and bigotry that can scarcely have been matched, even in the Mail”, (Greg Wood, Guardian).  Though not mentioned in this book, she was chosen as “Bigot of the Year” award by the tax funded homosexual “charity”, Stonewall.

Melanie Philips is no shrinking violet and gives as good as she gets.  The liberal left, she writes, demonizes anyone who dares to question its assertions. Embracing moral relativism, it has lost the moral plot. Dissent is suppressed in favour of unquestioning endorsement of often hidden assumptions-hidden because the objective of the left is no longer to create a better society so much as to destroy existing society and to replace it by another, beyond family, and nation. Melanie Philips, by contrast, argues that judgment is inevitable. it is not possible not to take a position,right or wrong, without a moral compass.

Guardian Angel may be read as the author’s book of discovery about the rot at the heart of what is taken for left liberalism in the UK. The rot crept up on her incident by incident: she remarked that the poor used to cope better: “”Ah,” came the unsolicited reply,” but then you had the Torah”.  The sometime foreign editor, Richard Gott, who would exonerate Pol Pot, turned out to be a KGB agent; Seamus Milne, former Communist Party militant, ran the Guardian op-ed section; on Israel and the Arabs, she was told that Israel had to be severely judged as a western country and by western standards, but it would be racialist to judge Arab behavior by the same code-a racialist position if ever there was one.

On the 1982 Lebanon war, again unsolicited, chief leader writer, Geoffrey Taylor asked her, “Well now Melanie, what on earth are we going to write about your war (my italics)”(MP was British, and had never gone to Israel). In the late 1980s, she rightly discerned “the deeply obnoxious strands of thinking both left and right” that fed the environmental movement. Worse was to come in the form of the hostile response in the Guardian to her support, backed by black Mums in London, for schools to teach standard English, and to what she describes as the “great fight” over the family, where marriage on the libertarian left came to be considered no more than a contract, to be broken at will, regardless of the impact on children. In 1993, she left the Guardian, saying that her relationship with the paper and its readers had become “like a horrific family argument”.

By this time, Melanie Philips’s book reads as if she were at the charge at Balaclava, during the Crimean war of 1854-55: cannons to the right, cannons to the left, and cannon in front. Maastricht, creating the Euro, was dubbed “progressive”, and no reasoned argument against was permitted. Opponents were “swivel-eyed”. When Will Hutton took over as editor of The Observer, where Melanie Philips was working at the time, the paper’s banner headline after the Labour victory in 1997 was “Goodbye Xenophobia”(those of us who considered the Euro an error were clearly racist-a good example of branding rather than arguing-see some of my analyses dating back, on this blog, to the early 1990s ). “Progressives” danced with Islamic extremists at the auto da fé consuming Salman Rushdie’s books; the feminist onslaught on the institution of the family became ever bolder; we were told that British society was racist, a half truth; British history had to be deconstructed and a new multicultural “narrative” placed in its stead (as if there was not enough debate among historians in the UK for  people to make up their own minds); after  the terror attacks on New York, then on London, the UK caved in to Muslim demands to criminalize religious hatred, thereby infringing a four hundred year tradition on religious toleration and freedom of speech. Not least, in a BBC Question Time to which MP was invited, the audience literally hissed hostility to Israel. The cultural war, MP states in Guardian Angel, is ongoing and the enemy is relentless.

At the heart of Melanie Philip’s position, paradoxically, is the Bible-paradoxically, because she writes that her parents observed Jewish rites, but were not particularly religious. It was when she realized that her liberal left colleagues at the Guardian saw her as a Jew that she came to realize, slowly and reluctantly, that what she was observing was in fact the great secularist onslaught on the West. Far from being liberal, in the sense of allowing a hundred arguments to flower, the left’s instincts, she writes, are totalitarian. Dissent is squashed, and diversity of opinion is slowly asphyxiated. Along with this is the racialism at the heart of multi-culturalism: one rule for Israelis, another for Arabs. Jew hatred, she writes, has become the prejudice that dares not speak its name. But it was in the battle over the family, and the refusal of the metropolitan left liberal élite to recognize the damage that divorce, step fathering and lone parenthood had on children that crystallized the cultural wars for her. She was dubbed an extremist, “an Old Testament fundamentalist”. As she writes, they-the liberal left realized, and this realization must have been more or less simultaneous for her-that she was marching under the banner of Biblical moral law.

What can be said of this thesis?  There can be no doubt that her enemies on the liberal left heap abuse on her. Nor that the secularist onslaught on this country’s inherited institutions and values has been building for a long time. In 1948, Stalin convened the leaders of the various western European communist party leaders to the Kremlin, told them they were on their own, and advised them to take the long march through the institutions of their various countries-the churches, the media, the parties, the schools and universities, and even the armies and police. Her book is about how she experienced the left’s long march through the country’s key institutions; how she saw them capture the citadels of power and influence, and how they proceeded to undermine core values in education, dismantle the family, and to deconstruct national identity.  She has a strong case that the long march has been very successful.

There can be little doubt either that she is right in identifying the closet racism of the liberal left. It is not just the view she records of one interlocutor who tells her of the relief he feels that he can now openly express his anti Jewish sentiments, after the decades following Auschwitz when it was better to keep mum. It is also the disregard she records for ordinary people, black or white, who want their children to receive the best education possible. What matters for the liberal left is to be seen to care about others, but their objective, she discerns, is not to make things better but to revolutionize society. One of their weapons is multi culturalism, according to which all cultures (note: not religions) are worthy of equal respect.  Interestingly enough, multiculturalism underpinned apartheid, and what Nehru with reason  railed against in British India. Both Mandela and Nehru in effect fought for Gladstonian liberalism, of  equality for all before the law, not unequal treatment before different laws for different groups. MP does us a great service in tracing how traditional liberal values have morphed on the liberal left into communitarianism.

She is undoubtedly right also that there is a moral vacuum at the heart of British liberalism.  This moral vacuum derives from  an ideology of secularism for which there is no “external authority”, in MP’s phrase-I take this to mean no Ten Commandments or no Sermon on the Mount. And she is definitely correct to identify the end road of secular liberalism as moral relativism. What, one may ask, is the standard against which judgments about right and wrong may be made? The secular liberal can come up with a variety of answers, but the prime answer must be logically to repress dissent, and to assert. It may not be to their liking, but secular liberals eventually end taking a leaf from the book of religious fundamentalists. Freedom is not their concern. As George Orwell wrote, (about the BBC it may be added), Big Brother was thoroughly egalitarian, with some being more equal than others.

MP also makes an interesting point in maintaining that in the UK, the right, in the form of Prime Minister Thatcher, is -I paraphrase- for free markets and the liberal left is for free sex. I would suggest that Thatcher’s famous statement that “there is no such thing as society” was in fact meant as a rejection of abstract categories as descriptive of human communities. She was arguing from her youth in a Methodist family that people had to look after each other and that service in the community was admirable. She was arguing the Burkean case for specifics, not for Rousseau-inspired  abstractions. Arguably, Rousseau’s totalitarian ideas of the general will, and of how particular wills have to be forced to be free, have only recently begun to penetrate the collective mindset of the Labour party.

In the UK, it is not so much Rousseau whom we follow, as the utilitarians, Bentham and Mill. We are so bathed in the assumptions of Benthamite utilitarianism, whereby ethics amounts to maximizing happiness and minimizing pain, that we barely notice how drunk we are on its ideas. On the right, free markets is the road to happiness and reduced pain, in the longer run; on the liberal left, it is carefree sex, regardless of the consequences. Marxism -“substandard Marxism”, in MP’s words, as taught in teacher training colleges-comes into the picture in the UK from the 1960s onwards, and enters the national bloodstream in the 1970s and in the 1980s. What Bentham and Marx have in common is their predilection for abstraction: not real live people but “classes”; not people like Melanie Philips, who can think on their own, but “races”, alluded to by her Guardian colleagues as “Old Testament”; “your” (1982 Lebanon) war; “your” Torah. 

Angel Guardian leaves the reader in no doubt that MP is a supporter of Israel. As she recounts, she only came to read about the Mid East later in her career, after she had been proposed, and turned down, the offer of being the Guardian correspondent there, and as she came to realise the seriousness of anti-Israeli sentiment in the UK. Though Israel is not the subject of the book, it is a crucial component of the wars she wages. Israel, she writes, fights real wars in the name of western values, while in the UK, the liberal left has caved to Muslim fundamentalist demands. MP is regularly decried as a “Zionist”.

Are the wars justified? The mantra from the pages of  the liberal left media is that Israel has absorbed the lessons from the national socialists, and treated the Palestinians as the Nazis did the Jews. This type of language is simply outrageous, whatever position may be taken, or judgement formed, about the details of Israeli policy. The fact of the matter is that in 1948 Israel was admitted as a fully fledged member of the exclusive society of states. As a sovereign state, Israel has a duty to defend its citizens against attacks by non-state actors-maybe a difficult notion for people to comprehend where lobby groups in a globalised world are called “civic society”, though they are elected by no one. In the case of Hamas, or others of Israeli enemies, they may be elected, but in launching attacks on the citizens of a sovereign state, they incur very serious risks to their own people. The only way to end the conflict is either that Israel’s enemies recognise Israel’s right to existence without conditions attached, or the struggle goes on to the bitter end. Moral judgements hatched in London in abstraction of this bitter daily struggle are plain irresponsible.

This penchant of the left for abstraction has been applied in policy with devastating effect in the lives of tens of millions of people over the past century. Lenin, Stalin,Mao and the lesser monsters like Pol Pot may have thought their policies were instructed by “science”, but in effect they decided who was in what class, and woe betide you if you were in the wrong one. Racialists like Hitler did the same, and woe betide you if you were on the wrong side of their”race” divide. In our present debates, the same penchant for abstraction is immediately recognisable in catch-all phrases like “neo-liberalism”, “international finance”,  “the Anglo-Saxons”(in the early 1940s, the use of that epithet went along with “freemasons and Jews”). Language, as MP, is obviously aware, is a potent weapon.

Yet it is also the case that the broader radical agenda described in The Guardian Angel is very specific: education is about induction, not about learning to question; the maxim that truth is an illusion is, as MP rightly states, a green light to disseminate propaganda(I will be reviewing the debate about David Irving, the pro Hitler author of many books on the Third Reich); promoting the idea of marriage as a contract like others helps to dismantle the family, regardless of the impact on children; making the racist concept of multiculturalism a cornerstone of UK public policy amounts in effect to a direct attack on the inherited notion of community and mutual obligations in the UK. One of the great achievements across the centuries in the UK has been the development of the idea of equality before the law: multiculturalism, like apartheid, favours different laws for different peoples.

There is one area I would suggest that MP could address: climate change gets a brief mention here, and MP covers the subject in other writings, which have been rubbished by her opponents in the culture wars as illustrative of “climate denial”. The phrase of course derives from the phrase “Holocaust denial”. There is though a big difference: the extermination of the Jewish people, of Gypsies, of the sick and infirm, of communists, socialists, or Christians, under the Third Reich, is a terrible fact etched in libraries of detailed research, and tons of captured Third Reich documents and memoirs. By contrast, climate change is a hypothesis, with plenty of supporting evidence but also plenty of unsettled questions. After all, the scientific analysis of what drives the world’s climate is a crucial subject for research, but it is a subject to be approached with awe.

Awe is, though, a tool in political battles. We tend to suspend our reason when we stand in awe, and suspending our reason is what our left liberal utopians would love us to do. Making climate change a centre piece of public policy, I would suggest, is the equivalent of Lenin and Mao’s efforts to create a New Man. It is by definition unachievable, and because it is so, we can always be made anxious that the goal of stemming climate change has not yet been achieved. It is an abstraction, compared say to the sensible proposal that to avoid floodings in Somerset, it may be a good idea to dredge the rivers.

Cannons to the right, cannons to the left, and cannons to the front, our intrepid author rides on. Yes. But Tennyson’s poem ends with only few of the six hundred who started out on the charge of the Light Brigade returning from the jaws of death. MP fights her fights with all the energy at her disposal. My hope would be that she survives her battles to defend her centrist positions. Angel Guardian is an important and brave contribution in that cause.

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About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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