Do you consider yourself an open minded person? Then, says Peter Hitchens, you’ll have to prove it. Because Hitchens’ views blend into the pantheon of public opinion like a bagpiper blends into a library. He deliberately sets up conventional thinking as his adversary, calling instead for original and independent thought, making the pursuit and dissemination of unfashionable truths as his personal brass ring. Or at least, that’s his version of things. To the vast majority of his interlocutors in the public square of ideas, everything that Hitchens stands for should be met with execrations and disgust. Indeed, he gave himself the moniker “The Hated Peter Hitchens” on Twitter in reaction to his own understanding of his public perception. When he studied at York in the early 1970s, he was a hard-line Trotskyist to the point of being, as he told me, “a homicidal utopian”.
But his views have undergone a Damascene conversion since then. Just about the only thing remaining from his undergraduate days is the fire and brimstone demeanour with which he defends his own opinions. Hitchens is a now a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, writing his column with a brand of intractable conservatism to a dedicated audience amassed over years of taking his opponents to task.
He has authored books on a range of topics as disparate as the UK’s war on drugs, cultural decay, and the rage against God. The unifying strand through all of his works and public debates is a trademark fidelity to witty and reasoned dialogue with those who shout him down.
Get out while you can – this is a country at the very end of its life
The most curious thing about Hitchens, though, is that he bothers at all. He openly acknowledges that he’s been completely ignored by almost everyone of influence, and those that do engage reply with furious contempt. His antediluvian beliefs, once common- place, have been blasted by the ascendancy of cultural progressivism into the marijuana befogged mists of time: bring back the death penalty; illegalise abortion; introduce much stricter drug law; God is the only absolute truth. He promulgates policies which have been gathering dust for decades and puts them in the spotlight across modern political media. But he knows his project is doomed: he now calls himself the “unappointed obituarist of Great Britain”. His advice to young people is “emigrate before it’s too late.” Britain is finished. Plod to the grave, the Queen. So the question which I started with was the one I’ve wondered about for years – why does he bother?
“I’m a very privileged person,” Hitchens begins. “I have a national newspaper column which quite a lot of people read, particularly supporters of the Conservative Party.” He believes that had the Conservatives “spectacularly” lost the 2010 general election, “that would have been the end of it. That would have compelled millions of people to recognise the truth that they no longer had a friend in Westminster and it might have led to the formation of a new political movement of a conservative, patriotic kind.” But that’s not what happened. Instead, “people voted Tory in large enough numbers to save the Tory party. At that point I realised that reason was powerless against tribal instinct and that there was nothing I could do.”
Hitchens draws a sharp distinction between the Conservative Party and what he deems to be real patriotic conservatism. And he despairs at the party’s inexorable rise in recent years, which is not what you might expect to hear from someone who endorses right-wing political views. It seems, though, that Hitchens has been ahead of the game in feeling that we are entering a period of Tory dominance. Today, the nation anticipates a landslide victory for Theresa May’s Conservative Party on 8 June, with bookies offering odds at 1/25 for a Tory majority. So does he really think the situation is so dire that his only option is to “give up politics altogether”?
“Oh completely,” Hitchens says emphatically, “I have no political engagement. I don’t vote, I try not to take sides in party political questions, I jeer equally at all political parties. I have simply decided that the pursuit of the truth for its own sake is an activity worthy of a civilised human being and that’s what I do. And part of the truth is of course about the past. Part of it is about the nature of the change in this country which is still in many cases not acknowledged by people, when it merely involves putting two and two together.”
He cites his 2012 book, The War We Never Fought, in which he argues that the UK has undergone a de facto decriminalisation of illicit psychoactive substances, and that this relaxing of policy has been the cause of all manner of societal ills. “I published this book, and I’m not an unknown person, and it was published by a reputable publisher (Bloomsbury) and it’s on a serious and important subject and, for the most part, it did not even get reviewed. And the only reviews that it did get in major publications were abusive tirades by people who hadn’t read the book properly. It’s known in the publishing trade as The Book They Never Bought.”Whatever you think of Hitchens’ views, he insists on rigorous reason and thought-out argument. And yet, in addition to extensively researched books, he also spends a lot of time arguing with people on Twitter. Recently, Hitchens’ journalistic antithesis, Owen Jones, decried Twitter as an unviable vehicle for meaningful debate. Isn’t Jones right?
I presume intelligence until stupidity has been proved beyond reasonable doubt
“Yes, but he has plenty of other vehicles. The other day, for example, he was invited by the New York Times to write an article about railway privatisation in Britain. Well, congratulations to him, but it would seem to me to be more interesting for the New York Times to have asked me because I’m a conservative and I’m against railway privatisation and in favour of the nationalisation. But they asked Owen. Owen’s books get huge amounts of publicity, I think he broadcasts more than I do, he doesn’t need Twitter. For me Twitter is an important substitute for the broadcasting I don’t much do.”
He may not broadcast as much as he’d like, but you can find hours of footage on YouTube of him on mainstream BBC programming like The Daily Politics and Question Time, with each video accruing thousands of views. I suspect that people are drawn to these clips because his unapologetically abrasive delivery is undeniably arresting. He considers opponents “enemies”, and takes pleasure in rubbishing them. His infamous clash with Friends actor Matthew Perry on Newsnight about drugs policy, in which Hitchens denounced the “fantasy of addiction”, upset Perry to the point that the two had to be escorted out via separate exits after the show. As entertaining as his putdowns are, doesn’t stooping to this level go against the principle of civilised debate he claims to uphold?
“I presume intelligence until stupidity is proved beyond reasonable doubt. Once it is, then I feel I’m licensed to do a bit of ad hominem. Because ad hominem is fun for me and (if I do it right) it’s fun for the readers, and it might conceivably strike a part of my opponent’s mind which reason and fact have failed to reach,” he theorises. However, he emphasises that “I will always give people the chance to prove that they’re serious. If they’re Jew- phobes or bigoted in any other ways then I’ll just block them. But blocking is something which I use against people who are plainly unhinged.”
So when serious thinking breaks down, he feels permitted to resort to name-calling. But it’s the truth that he’s fundamentally interested in, and this commitment spreads to all levels of discourse. One thing I don’t believe I’ve ever seen is his acceptance of a general political narrative – he was loath even to use the word ‘Brexit’ in conjunction with the referendum because of its woolly buzzword fatuousness. Recently, he’s been speaking and writing a lot about Syria, and the dangers of the kind of narrative thinking that seems to crop up where familiar reductive tropes of good vs evil (like those which sullied the de- bate leading up to the invasion of Iraq) are used to spuriously justify military action.
I ask him about the recent comment made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer which compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. “Well,” Hitchens begins, “the Prince of Wales has done that, and so has Hillary Clinton. It’s all part of what I call the ‘Churchill Syndrome’, where every crisis is the preliminaries to the Second World War. Every conference is Munich. The person who’s speaking invariably thinks he’s Winston Churchill and his opponent is invariably Hitler, and anyone who wants to oppose this is invariably characterised as the appeaser, Neville Chamberlain. This model of history which is lacking – apart from anything else – in accuracy, is imposed on every single crisis. It doesn’t work.”
What’s the key, then, to seeing through bogus rhetoric? “You seem to need a certain type of character to be sceptical. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s age. I was brought up in an era when education was much more rigorous than it is now. Maybe I was fortunate enough to be trained in how to think, rather than what to think. That is the crucial difference. I just question things.” For Hitchens, that’s the crux. “I’m surrounded by people who profess to be journalists who believe everything they’re told. They go into government briefings and they believe what the government says! Why are they in journalism if they think that? It doesn’t matter if you’re left-wing or right-wing, you can’t go around thinking governments are truthful; it’s in their nature not to be truthful.”
Indeed, you might characterise a certain part of what Hitchens believes as being Or- wellian, in that he inherently mistrusts governments and their language. He often claims his opinions are rejected as “thought crimes”, after the 1984 dystopian concept of being persecuted simply for what you think. Once we make certain things unsayable, they become unthinkable. Would Hitchens characterise this as the “post-truth” politics that lurches towards a fever pitch of hysteria?
“If you don’t believe in absolutes, which in my view means that if you don’t fundamentally have a religious belief, then you will probably end up believing that there is no such thing as truth. In which case, you can do what you like. This relativism about truth, which flows from moral relativism, seems to me to be the ultimate cause of people’s carelessness with it, and their willingness to bend it and shape it to themselves.” He cites the abortion debate as an example: “The renaming of ‘abortions’ as ‘terminations’, the renaming of ‘babies’ as ‘foetuses’ is a very significant part of this. What you’re obviously doing is killing a human baby in the womb. But this has to be covered over by Latinate words so that it doesn’t sound like that. And then all kinds of stuff about ‘rights’ gets dredged up, which suggests that the mother first of all is the person who fundamentally wants to get rid of the baby – which tends not to be true in many abortions, she’s under pressure from somebody else – and also that the baby itself is not yet human and therefore has no rights. But this is all part of our amazing ability to fool ourselves. The most powerful deceiver you will ever meet in your life is yourself.”
Now I don’t believe that anyone who reads this is going to become a pro-lifer based on it, but what’s strange is that Hitchens doesn’t think that he’ll change your mind either. So what’s the point? Why engage with hostile audiences if they’re going to ignore everything you say? “I engage with them in that I’ll tell them that what they’re doing is stupid; that’s just telling the truth, and also is often quite fun. But I don’t think it’s going to make any difference. It’s never going to make any difference. Get out while you can – this is a country at the very end of its life.”
But where should people be going? “It’s none of my business!” he laughs. “Who says you’re going to have any choice? The later you leave it, the less choice you’ll get. I don’t care where you go. Go wherever suits you. I’m not a travel agency. The point is not to go somewhere else because you like somewhere else, the point is to get out of here because it is going to become an intolerable, bankrupt, chaotic mess, in which it will not be safe to bring up children.”
I’ve heard him say things like this before. But then he says something that I’ve never heard him say anywhere: “I have to assume I could be wrong all the time. It’s part of being a thoughtful, living person. Unless you have reason to know that you are absolutely right about something (which is rare) then you have to assume you could be wrong, that the other person might be right.”
I have to assume that I could be wrong all the time
This is the closest I’ve ever seen Hitchens to admission of personal doubt. I suspect that it’s as strong a doubt as he’s ever going to give. He will continue with his vocation, full of sound and fury, knowing it is soon to be heard no more. Isn’t this fate frustrating? “I used to get frustrated, but I found that there is no purpose in getting frustrated. The only thing to do in the end is to laugh.”
“I have done my duty, I believe. I have drawn attention to injustice and wrong, incompetence and folly, as loudly and as diligently as I can. I have written several very carefully argued and well-researched books, I’ve written a huge number of articles, and I’ve made a lot of public appearances. The collective response of my country has been to stick two fingers up at me. I could get upset, but what would be the point? If that’s what they want, then I shall laugh at them. I shall soon be dead, and they’ll discover after I’m dead how right I was. I won’t make myself miserable over it – what good would it do?” M