The danger of Melanie Phillips

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

It is an unwritten rule of my trade that you do not attack a colleague: dog doesn?t eat dog. We?re meant to show our teeth only to those in power, not humble scribblers like ourselves. But it is a tribute to one of my colleagues that her conviction and energy have made her a figure of genuine influence, one who has ? as I shall reveal ? moved beyond commentating on public affairs to affecting them. She is now more than a journo, rather a player in the national and, crucially, international conversation.

I am speaking of my fellow resident of this slot, Melanie Phillips. Though I always enjoy her company, I confess that I disagree with Melanie on most things. That?s fine: disagreement is a Jewish sport and we enjoy it. But in recent months, I feel Melanie has crossed a few lines that should not be crossed ? and cannot go unchallenged.

First was a piece she wrote on her blog in which she condemned the Independent Jewish Voices group: it was headlined ?Jews for genocide?. Now, as it happens, I have multiple criticisms of IJV ? most of them amply aired already on these pages. But even their most trenchant opponents must surely blanch at the notion that these critics of Israel and of Anglo-Jewish officialdom are somehow in favour of genocide ? literally, eager to see the murder and eradication of the Jewish people. I understand Melanie?s apparent logic ? that by criticising Israel, IJV align themselves with a radical Islamism that wants Israel wiped off the map, ergo IJV are pro-genocide ? but it is an absurdity, one that drains the word ?genocide? of any meaning. For if Mike Leigh and Stephen Fry are for genocide, what word is left to describe, say, the Sudanese regime and their murderous assault on the people of Darfur?

But it was a sentence in Melanie?s January JC column that really got me going. ?Individual Palestinians may deserve compassion,? she wrote, ?but their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project.? Read that line again. I have, along with the entire piece that preceded it. Think about what it means: that the Palestinian urge for national self-determination ? their desire to have what we Jews yearned for so long, a homeland of our own where we might govern ourselves ? is nothing more than a collective plot to deny Jewish suffering. So those Palestinians living under curfew and hemmed in by checkpoints aren?t angry about this hardship or desperate to throw off a 40-year occupation. No. Their shared desire, their national project, is to join David Irving in pretending that Hitler did not murder six million Jews. Of course, it follows that such people ? a nation of neo-Nazis ? deserve nothing, let alone a state of their own.

Some will tell me there is no point getting agitated by such sentiments, that newspaper columns are merely tomorrow?s fish-and-chip wrap. That may be true of what most of us in the column business churn out. But Melanie Phillips is different. She has acquired a particularly devoted audience ? far beyond these shores.

In the United States, Melanie has a substantial following, with thousands logging on daily to her website or lining up to hear her lectures ? several of the leading lights of American Jewry among them. They snap up copies of her book Londonistan, in which Britain ? a rotting, decayed island awash with amorality ? is on the brink of an Islamist takeover. Above all, they swallow whole her insistence that Europe is back in the 1930s, and that Britain now seethes with Jew-hatred.

I hear this from several well-placed leaders of Britain?s Jewish organisations, who have had to hose down their American counterparts. ?I understand it?s not safe to walk down the street here as a Jew,? one US Jewish bigwig told a British colleague. ?From what I hear, you guys are experiencing the kind of pogroms my grandmother lived through,? said another. Both these remarks were offered during recent fact-finding missions to Britain by major American Jewish organisations, here as if visiting a besieged community of Jews in peril.

In response, no less than the Chief Rabbi has had to join other British communal leaders to tell these visiting donors ? associated with Aipac and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, among others ? that London is not the Warsaw ghetto, that Europe is not an inferno and that there is no need for the big US bodies to come to Anglo-Jewry?s rescue. They have also had to explain that the US method of doing business ? offering heavy financial help to pro-Israel MPs, for example ? would not play well here.

Of course, it is mad to blame one person for shaping this distorted world view. But when asked where they had picked up this apocalyptic impression of the state of British Jewry, the Americans apparently cited one name again and again. Melanie will doubtless be heartened by that ? but it might not be so good for the rest of us.

March of the Scots

Why the break up of the UK would be a mistake for London

Published in the Evening Standard

A political earthquake is still possible, but if it doesn't come, Britain is about to be ruled by a Scot. Gordon Brown is due to become prime minister, the first man representing a seat north of the border to do that since Alec Douglas-Home more than 40 years ago. At the same time, the ground is trembling in Edinburgh, with a new poll this week showing the Scottish National Party pushing ahead of Labour in May's elections to the parliament there. That party's signature promise, lest we forget, is a referendum on Scottish independence.

It means the next few months are poised to see a renewed surge of angst over the state of the union that has bound these islands together for exactly 300 years. Brown's arrival will see a flaring of resentment, stoked up by a Conservative opposition that will question the government's very legitimacy. A foretaste was provided last year when one of Cameron's lieutenants, Alan Duncan, said it would be "almost impossible" for a Scot to serve as Britain's PM. Cameron himself has pushed the notion of 'English votes for English laws,' whereby only MPs for English seats would be able to vote on laws affecting England. That would turn Westminster into a de facto English assembly - except when, say, foreign affairs or defence were debated, at which time the excluded Scots and Welsh MPs would be quietly ushered back into the chamber, only to be turfed out again when domestic business resumed. That would be one giant step towards a UK break-up.

Yet the demand for it could get even more intense after the next election. I know more than one sage who's looked at the electoral map, seen that the mountain is too steep for David Cameron to climb, and concluded that the likeliest outcome is a Labour-Lib Dem coalition led by Gordon Brown and Menzies Campbell. Or, as one high-level Tory likes to put it, "two old men from Fife."

That would add to the sense of frailty of the United Kingdom that has been felt since Labour began its programme of devolution in 1997, establishing self-rule, in differing doses, for Scotland, Wales and of course London. Yet one voice has been almost silent in this existential debate about whether Britain should stay together or break apart, a debate which is due to intensify in the coming months - and that voice is London's.

Should the people of the capital care if the UK disintegrates? Many Londoners might give an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, even a little cheer. After all, on current form we get out of the UK much less than we put in. If the English don't like subsidising Scotland - a claim the SNP reject incidentally - then Londoners should be furious at subsidising England and everywhere else in the UK. According to London First, the business lobby group, this city sees a staggering

Ken apologises for slavery

Published in the Evening Standard

Well, at least we now know he can apologise. For a while, Ken Livingstone seemed to have inherited a speech impediment from the Fonz, the hero of the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, who was physically unable to utter the word ?sorry.? But yesterday we saw that our mayor has no such disability. On the pages of the Guardian, he issued a formal apology for London?s role in the ?monstrous crime? of the transatlantic slave trade, whose bicentenary will be marked on Sunday.

Writing that article can?t have been easy. We know from recent experience that it can take the mayor quite some time, Fonzie-style, to spit out the s-word. When many Jewish Londoners were offended by Livingstone?s branding of a Jewish reporter ? the Evening Standard?s Oliver Finegold ? as a concentration camp guard, Livingstone refused to say sorry. It took the best part of two years and a bitter legal process before he finally, and to his credit, apologised last December.

Perhaps, though, it?s easier to say sorry for those things you didn?t actually do ? and whatever gripes we may have with our mayor, not many of us hold him personally responsible for the murderous trade in Africa?s people. Tony Blair is no different, readily apologising for Britain?s role in the Irish famine of the 19th century ? though uttering not a word of regret for those decisions in which his involvement was rather more direct. As one comic has quipped, at the present rate we can expect the British government to apologise for the lethal invasion of Iraq around the year 2153.

The temptations to cynicism are obvious. Yet not all retrospective apologies are without value. If for example, the victims of a crime are still alive, it can be a great comfort to hear an apology, even if it comes from the descendants of the original perpetrators. The textbook example, cited by the mayor yesterday, is Germany?s apology for the Holocaust, something the remaining survivors of that catastrophe badly needed to hear. But there are others.

The same is true of an apology which entails a promise to change future behaviour or which implies a deep and soulful reckoning by the institution doing the apologising. Think of Pope John-Paul II?s semi-apology to the Jews for Christian anti-semitism on a visit to Jerusalem in 2000. He stopped short of saying sorry, declaring instead that the church was ?deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-semitism directed against the Jews by Christians.? It wasn?t enough; it didn?t mention the church?s complicity in the Holocaust. But still it had meaning, because the Pope was giving an implicit commitment that Catholicism would not return to the anti-Jewish teachings of its past.

But the mayor?s statement on slavery is not in the same category. He was not, like Germany, addressing the direct victims of the crime: those people are long dead. Nor was he, like the Pope, promising a new course of behaviour by the body he heads. Nor was there the sense that the mayor?s statement emerged from a long, serious process of grappling with an uncomfortable history. As it happens, many British institutions are looking hard at the calamity of slavery, with exhibits and lecture series going on across the land: the current Peoples, Portraits and Abolition season at the National Portrait Gallery is an admirable example. Ken Livingstone?s intervention yesterday might be part of that process, but it would be a stretch to see it as the culmination of a period of collective soul-searching.

Without those elements, the mayor?s apology is well-intentioned, even welcome ? and he is surely right that it is squalid for the prime minister to avoid saying sorry simply to deflect legal claims from slaves? descendants ? but it lacks emotional gravity. It feels too much like a political move to have real heft. What are the politics behind it? A clue is provided in the passage where Ken suggests the man currently lauded as the great liberator of the slaves ? witness the new film Amazing Grace ? is over-rated. ?No one denigrates William Wilberforce,? the mayor writes generously, ?but it was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.?

Livingstone is right to recall the heroism of those slaves who staged revolts, from the first in 1570 right through to the 1831 rebellion in Jamaica. But most historians agree that these uprisings could not, alone, have eradicated slavery: the British Empire was simply too strong to fold in the face of a few pockets of resistance here and there.

Instead the key factor was the stirring of British civil society, as Christian evangelicals galvanized public opinion to reject this hateful trade on religious and moral grounds. London can claim a particular role, since Wilberforce and the other prime movers operated from here, earning the name the Clapham Sect. You?d think that Livingstone, a progressive, would celebrate this movement of enlightened social reform. Yet he dismisses it. Historian Tristram Hunt suspects he knows why: ?Because Christian evangelicals don?t quite fit the Ken world view.? The heroes of black resistance are a more comfortable object of praise.

Still, none of that would have mattered if Ken had made the John-Paul II move ? using his apology to promise action in the future. For slavery is not entirely eradicated; nor is it confined to our history. It lives on, in this very city.

In the London of 2007, there are perhaps thousands of women, mainly from eastern Europe, tricked and trafficked into this city and now locked in windowless rooms, where they are forced to have sex with up to 40 men a day in 20-hour shifts. The meager money they make they have to give to their captors, under threat that if they don?t their families back home will be killed.

Tomorrow Britain will sign the European Convention against people trafficking. That?s good, but action from the mayor to eradicate it in this city would be even better. An apology for the slavery of the past is all very well ? but abolition of the slavery we live with right now would mean so much more.

Watch out for the new poll tax

Published in the Evening Standard

When Americans speak of an issue that’s too hot to handle, they call it “the third rail”: like the power cable on a train line, you only have to touch it to die. In Britain we have a third rail of our own – and it’s called local tax.

We’ll see it’s destructive power again next week, when Sir Michael Lyons publishes his review of local finance. Leaks suggest he’s going to add a couple of new council tax bands at the top end, so that someone living in a #1m home could see their annual bill double to #4,400.

It’s no coincidence that it’s an unelected official who’s been saddled with delivering this bit of bad news. No politician wants to go anywhere near the issue. Look, they tell you, their voices a-tremble, what the poll tax did to Margaret Thatcher. Call it the rates, the community charge or council tax, it makes no difference. It’s a political killer.

That’s partly because it may be the only tax many people actually feel. For most PAYE earners, income tax is lopped off at source, before they ever know about it: it’s tax under anaesthetic. VAT is included in the price of most goods and services, so we hardly notice that either. But council tax is different. Either you write a cheque, or you watch the direct debit flow out of your account. You feel the paying – and it hurts.

Which is why the government has run a mile from the issue, even though the system is in dire need of reform. The current set-up is based on property valuations that were carried out when the Soviet Union was still standing, back in 1991. Yet ministers have found reason after reason to delay, even postponing re-valuation till after the next election. No one wants to repeat Thatcher’s error.

But they won’t be able to put it off forever. If the government endorses the Lyons proposal, effectively raising the maximum those in the biggest houses can pay, they will face serious heat from two groups whose votes they badly need.

First in the queue will be homeowners in London and the South East, who have seen the value of their properties sky-rocket since 1991. Plenty of middle class families, who would never consider themselves at the top of the heap, are nevertheless living in houses that have entered the top bracket. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of houses in this city and beyond are now worth the magic seven figures. Nor is this just the obvious mansions of Chelsea and luxury apartments of Kensington. One expert I spoke to yesterday said that when you see a substantial family house in Kentish Town or Camden Town, you’re looking at a million-pound home.

Most irate will be those people whose properties may be big, but whose earnings are small: think of the elderly widow, rattling around in a roomy house, but with no way of finding #4,400 a year. If Gordon Brown were to endorse Lyons, he would either have to ensure a battery of extra benefits, to cushion the impact on the poorest – or prepare to face the wrath of those two vital elements in the famed New Labour coalition, the London middle class and the elderly.

But there is another, more radical way. Instead of tinkering with the council tax, he could propose an entirely new way of funding our local services. The clue is in the word local. The answer could be a local income tax.

Under this approach, the Inland Revenue would simply make a note of your postcode, add three or four pennies in the pound to your annual tax bill and send the money to your local council. It may sound outlandish – after all it was part of the Lib Dem manifesto in 2005. But local income tax works well across the world, from Scandinavia to parts of the United States.

Indeed, when I lived in America that was how I paid for my bins to be emptied and my street to be cleaned. At the end of the financial year, I signed two tax returns: one for the federal government and another, much smaller, one for the local city hall. No one ever asked what kind of apartment I was living in.

The advantages of such a system are obvious. Income tax is progressive – with the rich paying more, the poor paying less – while a property charge asks the Duke of Westminster to pay the same as the penniless old lady in a big house. Surely its fairer for people to pay according to what they afford.

Income tax is also what the experts call ‘buoyant’, in that revenue does not stay static but goes up as incomes rise. That would give councils more money to spend on services often starved of cash.

It sounds like an obvious move. But there would be loud opposition. In London, where incomes are high, we’d suddenly be paying much more than we currently shell out in council tax for the same services – while those in poorer parts of the country, where incomes are low, would be paying much less. That would be the inevitable result of the Treasury gathering in all the money, then spreading it around according to need, seeking to equalise between rich and poor.

Alternatively, each area could be allowed to keep exactly what it raises in local income tax from its residents. Great for K & C or Westminster; not so great for Hackney or Brent. The solution then would be to do what I saw in the US: simply draw the municipal boundaries in such a way that no area was all-rich or all-poor, but contained a mix, as many London boroughs do already. That way redistribution would happen locally, without need for Treasury meddling.

If all that sounds too terrifying to our anxious politicians, they could always take it slowly. They could phase in a local income tax, so that it runs in parallel with a reduced property charge. Gradually the blend could change, so avoiding any sudden shock to the system. Then all they’d have to do is find someone else to announce it.

The arts are humming

Published in the Evening Standard

f the weather turns fine, expect Tony Blair to pop up at the Met Office, explaining how his ten years at Number Ten have created more sunshine than in the dark days before 1997. That would be in keeping with the tenor of the legacy tour, in which the outgoing prime minister travels the kingdom, claiming credit for the glorious achievements of what he hopes history will call the Blair decade.

This week he was at Tate Modern, hailing the ?golden age? for the arts over which he has presided, like a latter-day Medici, dispensing purses of generous patronage. ?Together,? he said, he and the directors, conductors, designers and writers assembled before him had transformed the culture of the country, making it ?more confident, more assertive, more creative and alive.?

For once, that was not a wholly vain boast. In the arts things did actually get better under Labour. Government funding has doubled since 1997, so that theatres or galleries that were skinny and starving in the 1980s are now in rosy-cheeked good health.

The proof is especially visible in London. Tate Modern was a smart location for Blair?s speech because it has, in the seven short years since it opened, become the most popular modern art gallery in the world, pulling in more visitors than either MOMA in New York or the Pompidou in Paris. London?s museums are humming, helped in part by Labour?s abolition of entry charges, while the National Theatre is playing to packed houses and bagging multiple awards with hits like the History Boys. Blair quoted the Tate?s Nicholas Serota as saying that today?s museums ??feel? different; they have a different atmosphere.? That?s vague ? but it?s also right.

Indeed, this cultural flowering is a large part of what makes living in London worthwhile, despite all the daily hassles. To see a great play, or a gorgeous exhibition, is an exhilarating experience, one that can lift you out of the grind, allowing you to look at life afresh. That kind of transcending experience is available every day in the London of 2007.

That has to be the first argument for the arts. But if that doesn?t persuade, there are other, more mechanical ones. Chief among them is the economic impact ?the cultural industries? have on this city and this country. They form some 7% of the economy, employing almost 2m people. They?re a big part of our exports and, as London knows better than anywhere, they do much to pull in tourists from overseas.

So what?s needed to ensure this golden age endures? Blair?s audience at Tate Modern were desperate to hear that their funding is not going to be cut back: they don?t want gobs more cash, just the same amount, adjusted for inflation. That sounds reasonable enough. After all, the arts can argue that just a small amount of public subsidy gives them the security they need to take risks and innovate; once they do that, they can win audiences and make a financial return. The recent revival of regional theatre supports that argument and it came pretty cheap ? requiring an increase of just