Peter Hitchens is a writer of books that “nobody will read”, a follower of Orwellian writings, and a critic of the state of modern politics.
He is controversial. His column criticizes Left, Right and the contested centre ground from a base of Christian morals, political and social conservatism and a severe distaste of the scheming ‘Establishment’. Hitchens took no prompting – before the first question had been fired he was off, the well-versed script in full flow.
“When they asked me to come they said it had all been a bit politically correct in the past and they wanted to change. But then the whole of the post-1968 world has been politically correct. It’s an Establishment that doesn’t recognise it’s an Establishment. They all think they’re terribly radical and cutting edge whereas in fact they are the stuffy settled conformist view.”
Hitchens is a contrarian but certainly no controversialist. He says himself his column is “very measured and is very carefully argued” on topics as far-reaching as the ‘national war against traditional family life’, the Conservatives’ abandonment of their traditional base, and Britain’s ‘absurd’ policy in Syria. This is all taken on from the aforementioned base. You can disagree with almost everything Hitchens says, but you cannot deny his logical consistency.
Oh they’re allowed an opinion, but it’s not worth as much as mine.
He tells me his critics are “silly” and “semi-literate”. And perhaps he’s right. So many of The Guardian waving left don’t read the Mail on Sunday. One tweeter yesterday accused Hitchens of writing for the Daily Mail. When faced with Hitchens on Newsnight, Russell could do little more than call him ‘a peculiar child’ and his debating style ‘serious and posh’.
When Hitchens was young he “needed to grow up”. “I was a child at university,” he spits, the Trotskyism he espoused so thoroughly rejected since. According to Hitchens it took a serious motorbike accident and the death of his parents for him to ‘grow up’ – a necessary step to earn a position in the public debate in this slightly curious binary. And if you haven’t had these sorts of life experiences? “Oh, you’re still welcome to an opinion, but it’s not worth as much as mine.”
Hitchens says time and again that we are mostly taught what to think and not how to think, but universities are not the answer – they just “raise the school leaving age” and “mop up youth unemployment”.
Back at his old University would Hitchens go through it all again? “I don’t have any regrets about university. I’d do it all over again.” Would he pay £27,000 for it? “Err… I dunno… I don’t know. I’m not confronted with it. My main concern for the last several years has been paying school fees for my own children. It’s the parents who are generally expected to pay for education”. A statement many students would certainly repute.
Young people are not included in Peter Hitchens’ ‘society’, where mutual respect for your fellow man or woman is founded upon the active membership engendered by hard work, the paying of tax and adherence to the law. Us students haven’t “contributed [the] huge amounts of money over their life in tax and national insurance” that deserving pensioners have, and our lack of appreciation of this fact means we need to ‘grow up’.
“I had a good time here [at York] at the expense of school dinner ladies, coal miners and postmen who were paying taxes for me to do it. I would be more guilty about that if I hadn’t since paid so much tax.” Until we contribute we remain in the green room of society.
Did he get anything out of it? “I read a lot and I learnt a lot. I read a lot of Marxist learnings and I learnt a lot about it… That’s one of the reasons I reject it so thoroughly.” He might as well have said he learnt what the enemy was up to.
And yet despite all this Hitchens remains likeable throughout. He is polite, kind, and chatty, encouraging and engaging. He relishes debate, shown if nothing else by his willingness to engage on Twitter, despite his distaste for the medium. When met by a troll, he employs a kind of lazy dismissal: ‘you’re too easy to brush off at the moment, not even interesting to argue with. Must go’ read a recent tweet.
His worldview is absolute, entrenched in a historical narrative that picks its way between realism and idealism. “In a way I’m an English Whig. I believe in the English Revolution and an adversarial parliament. There is no golden age. The past is dead and none of us could survive in it if we tried. I never spoke about a golden age, nor do I believe there was one, and certainly not the 1950s which I can remember… Gristle, drafts, chilblains and spam. You know, what’s not to like.”
His humour underpins much of what he says, but “deadly serious” is all he will admit. Politics is “no game” and those who consider it such are not taking their level of responsibility and their ability to realize change seriously. The only time he laughs is when he corrects me (‘Trotskyist’, not ‘Trotskyite’), and indeed spends much of the interview staring into the table where the dictaphone lies, only engaging with me when sufficiently challenged.
In politics “liberty under the law, limited government and the adversarial system” are this country’s greatest achievements. Hitchens has an extraordinary trust in the force of law: “Human beings are not perfect, conscience can’t entirely govern society” – we are “a society without an absolute morality”. Has he always held this view? “No. I used to be a Bolshevik. Bolsheviks have no morals. That’s the whole point about them.”
And so the lens that Peter Hitchens views the world emerges. It is refreshing that he is outside of party politics, despite a brief foray into the political arena in 1999 (“That was a laugh. Boris Johnson put me up to it”): “You mustn’t think in terms of parties. Parties at a high level are largely interchangeable. I would certainly be in favour of a realignment of political parties so that they did actually represent political division.” But pragmatic as ever he won’t be seeking a the Conservative nomination again, “I would like to get into parliamentary politics but the conditions would have to be right. They’ve probably passed now because UKIP has gained a critical mass.”
That was a laugh. I was walking along a street in Cambridge and Boris said why don’t you put yourself up against Portillo in the contest for the candidacy. What a good idea… I knew perfectly well there wasn’t a hope in hell
His latest book, ‘Drugs: The War We Never Fought’, slots elegantly into these viewpoints. He contends that the government, in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, put in place “a covert decriminalization of cannabis” (as you can take it with impunity). “In some ways it [cannabis] is worse [than class A drugs] as it’s been marketed as soft, therefore it’s more pernicious. People are more likely to take it. People would recoil from heroin with horror because it’s got this image as a killer.”
Hitchens says that the debate surrounding drug taking is a moral one. In previous interviews he has said that the taking of drugs is a means of gaining immediate pleasure as opposed to the deferred gratification of hard work, and societal contribution. But he refuses to apply the same arguments to alcohol, the over-consumption of which is most likely more damaging in British society. “I am not happy at all [with the current state of alcohol and tobacco consumption]. I believe that alcohol should be heavily restricted… [but] I don’t think it’s possible to make something illegal that’s been legal for centuries.” Alongside an aside about the “sensible” licensing laws of his university days he is content to speak in generalisations.
This illuminates a central facet of Hitchens’ public face. He (sensibly) only picks fights he can win based on his moral framework. In his column he doesn’t tackle women’s issues, nor the economy – evading my questions on economic structure, with a hand wafted towards an ideal world in which we have a manufacturing industry as strong as Germany (“50% of the containers which go out of the Port of Felixstowe, go out empty. And an awful lot of what does go out is garbage for recycling. We are not a productive economy”). What does productive mean? “I regard myself as the recorder of a catastrophe rather than the purveyor of a solution. I’m fairly sure there is no solution.” Sometimes one has to ask the value of his criticism.
His work on drug taking continues to be contrarian. Hitchens denies the existence of addiction. He dives straight in challenging me to prove it.
For most it is through the fact that addiction is ‘observable’, if not measurable, that it can be proved. It is harder to withdraw from, say, heroine than cannabis proving that there must be some variable, beyond the ‘enjoyment’ derived which draws you to the drug. “But the nature of what you’re claiming is that when people take this drug they become its slave. This is the problem with addiction – it’s a shape-shifter. At one point it means one thing, and then when you point out it means that, he says no it doesn’t mean that it means something else. Well it either means one thing or it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that thing then it has no value.”
Hitchens refuses to argue on scientific grounds, instead offering this semantic argument. “The problem with addiction is that it’s a moral concept dressed up as a scientific one. It’s a belief that people don’t have control.”
We’re interrupted, “We’re not finished,” he drawls at the intruder. The thought of leaving a debate hanging too much for a man whose glee, as the debate opened up, was tangible.
Have you observed addiction? “No, it doesn’t exist.” Have you seen someone trying to come off a hard drug? “No.” So you haven’t tried to observe addiction. “No”.
His assumption that addiction must mean absolute addiction leads to this logical conclusion, but he won’t accept the flaw in the assumption. “Addiction is absolute. It’s because that’s what it means in public discourse. It’s only when you challenge them that they start being conditional about it”. But this is simply not the case. It is all very well pointing to Russell Brand as the voice of ‘public discourse’ but drug addiction charities have consistently distanced themselves from him.
“If addiction existed nobody would be able to come off drugs. It’s hard to do all kinds of things. It’s hard to get up in the morning. But it’s not impossible. The use of the word addiction by those who believe in it is quite clear. That the people involved have no power over themselves to stop using the drug. The fact that something’s hard doesn’t mean you’re incapable of doing it.”
Round and round in circles we went: him positing addiction as absolute in the public image – I arguing it biologically conditional. Neither of us scientists. Hitchens is an infuriating debater. He is sure of himself, unbendable. He’s the one who’s researched this topic, and written a book, but really his debate comes down to a shortfall in scientific evidence about what drives pleasure or ‘powerful desire’ (the term used in the online debate that the Citizen Sane blogger had with Hitchens) and so we are left with a term defined by public discourse. Hitchens argues logically, but ultimately his position is just as inconsistent, subjective and contradictory as everyone else’s.
Most interesting though is that like so many of his views, it fits in perfectly with his worldview. I walked in thinking that Hitchens was a man that sought a conservative Utopia where human instinct is suppressed by law defined by a uniform morality. Now, I think he’s somewhere in the vicinity of a pragmatic conservative with utilitarian tendencies.
What’s certainly true is that he will rile you up, and you probably won’t agree with what he says. But his contribution is so often valuable, and if anyone says otherwise then they’re simply not relishing the debate.