Journalist and author Peter Hitchens, or—if you indulge his self-assigned prefix—“The Hated Peter Hitchens”, is one of the most recognisable voices of the British right. His views, in spite of, or perhaps due to, their divisiveness, continue to carry influence amongst his substantial readership.
In conversation he seems aware of this. He is precise with language, both that of the questions and his answers, suggesting a concern with how his answers are represented. As I wrap up the interview he offers to check the article, not for copy approval; rather, to check “for his sake and mine” that nothing is incorrect.
“I could see instantly if there were anything in there that I would not have said,” he tells me. This feels unlike the adversarial Peter Hitchens I expected—a Hitchens that his public appearances suggest.
Instead it is reminiscent of a figure who is aware of how easily manipulated his opinions can be. Hitchens presents himself as a man who wishes to be characterized by his words, with exacting detail.
While he puts across his safeguard against misrepresentation in a non-confrontational manner he speaks as his reputation would suggest throughout our conversation. Getting underway I ask him about his brief flirtation with the Left and what sparked his shift across the political spectrum.
“Brief? I don’t know why you call it brief,” he rejoins, before adding that his seismic shift came when he “grew up and had to make a living.
“I had to deal with the sort of people who my Marxist and Leninist class analysis would have told me were not worth dealing with. I learnt an important lesson about the unrealistic approach of Marxists and Leninists in society as it was.”
A sense of being influenced by environment pervades Hitchens’ answer, a suggestion made more apparent when he says that he learnt “that the things that were easy to believe in a university campus did not stand up to examination in real life”.
Hitchens attributes the shift to the inescapable impact of “having a bit more experience in life”. His shift to conservatism was a logical progression that came with age, he says, which raises an issue he feels requires more consideration: “The remarkable thing, and the question that people ought to be asking, is why is it that most people don’t have this experience, and retain the infantile left wing opinions into their 60s and 70s?”
He continues by extending the political metaphor to a cultural one: “And what is more, they continue to attend Rolling Stones concerts after they have begun collecting their pensions. Wearing jeans. What is wrong with these people? Why don’t they grow up? Why do we live in a country of Peter Pans?”
Rather than offering affirmative solutions, you cannot help but wonder if his rhetorical questions are the work of a provocateur.
A lot of our readership is fairly young, I start to say. He interjects: “Yes, but they will get old, with luck. The question is will they grow up?”
Drawing on this I raise with him the issue of no-platforming, a phenomenon I suggest is prevalent only among my generation.
“It’s not recent, I used to do it when I was a Trot. I think it is the most grotesquely wrong thing to do. It is one of the things that I did when I was a Trot about which I am most ashamed. What is new is the willingness of what you might call the mainstream of the student body to let it happen.”
Hitchens’ transparency about his left wing activities prompts me to ask what other elements of his history he is ashamed of.
“There are lots of things I am ashamed of, but I am not going to tell you what they are,” he shoots back. That is more the Hitchens I expected.
“Most people have never liked free speech. Most people claim to like free speech when in practice, they don’t. There used to be a fairly spirited group of people in our society who understood how important it was and were prepared to defend it. I think that, like many other fundamentally moral things, has died, so I think free speech is probably finished.”
Hitchens’ late brother, Christopher, is an example of a speaker who would probably have deemed Safe Space unsuitable. Shifting focus towards his brother, I ask whether he feels Christopher’s fans seek him out with more vitriol than his right wing contemporaries.
“No. Some of them are just very childish and I take some pleasure in telling them so. The thing that strikes me about a lot of them is that they aren’t very familiar with his work. They are fanboys rather than readers.”
Drawn on this distinction, he adds: “Some of what he wrote is quite tough. It requires a bit of application. I don’t think most people these days are particularly interested in that.”
Many of these “fanboys”, he says, were drawn to his brother’s work simply because “he was rude about religion”.
Prompted as to whether he feels any sense of pride towards his brother’s achievements, he is resolute: “No, I don’t see how I really could be, he is a different person from me. I disagree with him profoundly on almost everything he said and I take that seriously. I’m not his parent either so I can’t claim responsibility for his life.”
Religion—it is well documented—divided the brothers, so I raise the relationship between the left and Christianity.
“What happened to Christianity was Christianity undermined itself, most particularly by supporting the First World War. It never really recovered. The Left never had such a great stroke of luck as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was the beginning of their most successful era, heaven help us all.”
With faith being the driving force behind his worldview, I wonder whether he would support a greater combination of religion and politics: “No, I think that every individual would benefit from a greater understanding of religious questions. Politics, especially modern politics, which is so often utopian, is actually atheistic in itself.
“Politics should be a lot more modest and would be a lot more modest if people took religion more seriously.”
Critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party oft quote the futility of utopianism to which Hitchens refers. I ask whether Corbyn is a product of a lack of hope in modern politics, rather than a saturation of idealism that Hitchens suggests exists.
“I think Jeremy Corbyn is a consequence of the Conservative adoption of Blairism, which means the Labour party doesn’t have any purpose anymore. There was a vacuum left by the collapse of Labour Blairism, and Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters thought: well, in that case, let’s take back control of our party.
“The Blairites have nothing to say, so they don’t. Why would anyone vote for the Blairite candidates in the Labour Party when they can vote for Blairite Tories? What is the point? What is the difference?”
Corbyn, for Hitchens, is leading the Labour Party in a non-revolutionary direction: “There was a very useful article by Peter Hyman in The Observer a few weeks ago in which he said, which I have known for some time to be true, that New Labour was actually far more radical and revolutionary than Jeremy Corbyn.
“Most people, I think—and it is quite pathetic watching them say it—think that New Labour is right wing. This double delusion gripped both the Kevins in the Working Men’s Clubs and the Nigels in the golf clubs. Both of them fell for it.”
While Hitchens’ depiction of the Labour Party seems wholly negative, he is equally unimpressed by the direction of the modern Conservative Party. Asked from where his disillusionment stems, he replies with characteristic linguistic precision: “I’m not disillusioned with it, I don’t think I have any illusions of it. I’ve just come to understand more fully that it is not a conservative party. I would have no objections to it at all if it called itself New Labour, because that is what it is.”
Perhaps the most complex issue facing the Conservative government is the increasingly large numbers of refugees arriving at Britain’s borders. “They are not refugees. They cease to be refugees when they left the country in which they were in danger. They are migrants as soon as they leave,” Hitchens clarifies.
“Once they move on from Turkey into the rest of Europe, they are economic migrants.”
In his writing he has described David Cameron as a having “guns, bombs, and a plane—and not one good idea,” a point he reasserts now: “By creating the disaster of the second Iraq war, and then by destabilising Libya and Syria, the Western powers have created a mess for which the people in those countries are now paying. I see no way out of it.”
Dwelling on his answer, he revises his written sentiment about David Cameron, but only to state that it was “probably paying him a compliment”.
“Britain’s foreign policy has been bought by Saudi Arabia. It is not so much that we are acting stupidly—although we are acting stupidly—it is that we are acting as somebody else’s agent in these ridiculous and disastrous wars.”
While war in the Middle East is an undeniably active force, Hitchens’ views on drugs are defiant and unequivocal: “There is no war on drugs. There is and has been no such thing. It is a myth and a fantasy.
“The law against possession is not enforced and hasn’t been for decades. There is no War on Drugs. Cannabis is a decriminalised drug. It is legal, except we can’t say that in public because we signed international treaties promising to keep it illegal. It is legal—it shouldn’t be—but it is.”
Those who point to Portugal’s successful decriminalisation of drugs are “whingers”, he says, and he attempts to explain away any correlation between this and Britain: “Portugal is tiny and recent by comparison with the vast experiment in drug liberalisation that this country has been going through since 1971.”
A question hitherto unanswered by Hitchens is why he is so dogmatic in his condemnation of drug use. “I think we have been given these tremendous senses with which to grasp the nature of the world, and any distortion of them is selfishly throwing back a gift in the face of God who gave it to you,” he states.
“I also think that most of these drugs have the effect of making people more passive and more easily governed and they therefore make tyranny more possible. They make it more possible for people to welcome and embrace their own serfdom with a smile.”
With our time coming to a close, I put to Hitchens one of his own statements: “You’ve said before that Britain is finished”, I ask. “Is that truly a definitive statement?”
“There are no levers to pull,” he says. “The country is so physically in debt; its inability to recover its economy so blatant. Its levels of education are pitiful; its school system is a disgrace to an advanced country. Its political system is bought and sold and it is almost impossible for any rational person to influence it. It’s a demoralised country in which the independent institutions have been eviscerated.
“Above all things, the family has been eviscerated. It is a country that doesn’t know its culture anymore; it doesn’t know its origins.”
Pausing for a second, he wraps up: “This is a living, breathing corpse of a country. I don’t see any way out of that.”