LONDON — “The country is finished. It can’t be rescued and nobody wants to rescue it,” Peter Hitchens, renowned journalist, author and broadcaster, tells me.
“The country is dead. All attempts to rescue it are like doctors gathering around a corpse and injecting it with vitamins and antibiotics. It won’t make a difference. It’s still a corpse — just a corpse with vitamins in it.”
Last week I sat down with Hitchens, to hear his reflections on what most people agree has been one of the most turbulent years of British political history.
Hitchens, now 65, has for decades been the standard-bearer for social conservatism in this country. The Mail on Sunday columnist and brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, holds passionate disdain for the Conservative Party, which he believes abandoned true social conservatism long ago, and holds both the Tory and Labour establishment in contempt.
He, in the aftermath of last year’s EU referendum, said the two parties “ought to collapse” and make way for replacements that better reflected what he regarded as the true dividing lines in British politics: Remainers vs Leavers, and social liberals vs social conservatives. Since then, a general election has taken place, in which the difference between what the Tories and Labour offered to the public was arguably the starkest it had been since the early eighties.
Does Hitchens still believe the two beasts of British party politics ought to die?
“I no longer care. I have given up. I strove to the utter most limit of whatever influence a national newspaper columnist possesses to urge my readers in 2010 to help me destroy the Conservative Party — and nobody paid any attention or a blind bit of notice to my advice,” Hitchens tells me.
“I have realised I have no influence over events, so I may as well look on and laugh.
“So that’s what I do: I look on and laugh,” Peter Hitchens tells me, sipping his tea.
I can understand Corbyn’s appeal
Despite Hitchens’ right-wing views, he says he can understand the appeal of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“He [Corbyn] recognises something in a way that neither the Tory party not its twin in New Labour do not. For millions of people living in Britain, life isn’t much fun. By simply observing that people were working on zero-hour contracts; couldn’t afford their rents; were making ends meet by loans; that a university degree doesn’t get you a job; Corbyn observed that life for large numbers of people is pretty thin. By noticing that the economic recovery just hadn’t happened outside London and the southeast, he got the sympathy of an awful lot of people and that’s how he did so well [in the election].
“He didn’t do what he should have done — and what the radical party of the left in this country used to do — and that was to identify clearly and openly with the cultural, moral and social revolution which is taking place.
“The Conservative Party doesn’t want anything to do with the large numbers of people who are part of this revolution and would like to reverse it. The interesting thing was at the referendum — which I didn’t support, take part in and generally deplored — was that the division which ought to be reflected by political parties emerged briefly and then vanished again. We went back to party politics with two parties that don’t represent the divisions in this country.”
‘I never thought May was any good’
Hitchens admits that he didn’t foresee a Brexit vote until the final weeks of the referendum campaign but says he knew the snap general election “would go wrong” for the Tories the minute Theresa May announced it on the steps of 10 Downing Street on April 18. He was so confident that he bet on May to lose her majority.
“I never thought she [May] was any good,” Hitchens explains, taking a bite from a slice of lemon drizzle cake.
“I thought from the first time I encountered her that she was a dull and uninteresting politician who moves with the times. I remember looking into her the week where she suddenly moved from being an opponent of all women shortlists to a supporter of them. This is a huge revolution of the mind. Yet she offered no explanation on it.
“She isn’t a good public speaker. I thought her performances versus Jeremy Corbyn in Prime Minister’s Questions were woeful. I could not understand why people were seriously touting her as a prime minister.”
The Conservative Party’s attacks on Corbyn were so relentless, Hitchens tells me, that he “got quite a lot of pleasure” out of witnessing the Labour leader outperform the forecasts, despite the many differences in opinion between himself and the MP for Islington North.
A lot of the things which you can level against Corbyn could equally be levelled against the Tories and often in a worse way.
“One of the reasons from the beginning I’ve said stop this nonsense of attacking Corbyn over and over again is because it’s neither civilised nor sensible. I did get quite a lot of pleasure out of his pretty successful election campaign and his far better performance than that of May.
“I’ve been saying for so long ‘stop this!’ He represents a current in British politics and he is entitled to be heard. A lot of the things which you can level against Corbyn could equally be levelled against the Tories and often in a worse way.”
What does he mean by this?
“Well, Corbyn — disgracefully in my view — has been a sympathiser of Sinn Fein and that isn’t very nice. But who put Irish republicanism into government? The Tories and New Labour. It was Blair who surrendered a large NATO power and one of the world’s greatest military forces to a bunch of criminal gangsters in the IRA. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn. So how can they lecture Corbyn about the IRA? The reason the streets are swamped with released IRA prisoners is not that Corbyn wanted them released but Labour and the Tories wanted them released.”
He adds: “Most of the glee I get is laughing at the discomfort of my opponents.”
So, obviously, a Corbyn premiership would be a discomfort for the Labour Blairites who I despise and the Tory Blairites who I despise, so I would probably find it quite funny. I’ve found the Corbyn thing quite funny from the start.”
A serious Christian cannot lead the Liberal Democrats
Hitchens, a former atheist who is now a practising Christian, tells me he wasn’t at all surprised by what Tim Farron endured during the general election campaign, claiming “all parties have relegated Christianity to a marginalised and to some extent despised position.” Farron faced questions throughout the campaign about his views on homosexuality after he refused to say whether he believed that gay sex was a sin. He resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats a week after the election, citing his personal struggle to both hold Christian views and be the leader of the party.
“To be a political leader — especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 — and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me,” Farron said upon announcing his resignation.
I don’t really understand how anybody who has any serious Christian moral views can become an activist, let alone the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
“He got into a predictable mess,” Hitchens tells me.
“I don’t really understand how anybody who has any serious Christian moral views can become an activist, let alone the leader of the Liberal Democrats, which is a secular party. But there it is.”
Do you think Christianity is being driven out of British political life?
“Christianity in this country has been removed from the public square some time ago. It no longer guides the law. Equality Act specifically made Christianity equal to all other religions in a country where it once formally the established church. That was a pretty considerable blow.
“It now has no claim of superiority to any other religion. In some cases, Islam isn’t quite as equal as the others because it stands up for itself rather more fiercely and the government and the establishment are afraid of it. Ultimately, Christianity in law and practice has been dethroned. If you want to be a Christian well that’s fine, but don’t expect in any sphere at all that people will respect you the more for it.”
“The EU is like Hotel California”
One of the general election’s biggest casualties was UKIP, a party which Hitchens once said Brits ought to vote for if the option of not voting at all wasn’t palatable. The party under Paul Nuttall’s leadership won just 1.8% of the national vote. This was 10.8% down on what it won in 2015. The battered and bruised party will attempt to pick itself back up again when it elects its third leader within the space of 12 months in September, but Hitchens believes the political force that was once dubbed a dangerous threat to the Conservative Party has no future left.
“I’ve for a long time advocated abstention from voting as the best way of undermining the fraudulent nature of our government,” he says. “I find that people have this ridiculous idea that voting is some sort of sacrament. That is was allegedly won for people who died for it on occasions which they can’t name. Nobody died for the right to vote.
“But I’ve said if you absolutely have to vote for someone then vote for UKIP. It has always been to me a Dads’ Army party. A party of exiled Thatcherites and cravat-wearing retired colonels with absolutely no hope at all. I never liked Farage for his attitude towards drugs. He’s never been a moral or social conservative. He’s just an exiled Thatcherite.”
I never liked Farage for his attitude towards drugs. He’s never been a moral or social conservative. He’s just an exiled Thatcherite.
What might come as a surprise to Hitchens’ more casual observers is that he neither supported the in-out referendum taking place nor believes in what has been dubbed as by commentators as a “hard” Brexit. He first became an advocate for leaving the European Union 14 years ago after a visit to Norway and tells me replicating the “sensible” Norwegian model — widely regarded as a possible version of “soft” Brexit — as the best way for Britain to leave without “needlessly punishing itself” in the process. Norway is not an EU member state but enjoys full access to the European single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). May has in the past ruled out copying existing models, saying the UK’s will be “unique” in design.”He’s never been a moral or social conservative. He’s just an exiled Thatcherite.”
“It seemed to me that the Norway option was a very sensible one to aim for. I still do,” he says.
“The EEA would strike me as the best way to do it without needlessly punishing ourselves. In the EEA you actually have a surprising amount of control over your borders if you wish to exercise it. You might get your fishing grounds and control over a lot of other things. I just hope that the people involved in negotiations have the sense to go for it.”
Do you think they will?
“Who knows? David Davis is an intelligent man. He’s an ambitious man and he doesn’t want to fail.
“The EU is like Hotel California: you can check out but you can never leave.”
“It seems to me that when you have a country whereby the political establishment, the legal profession and most of the media, particularly the BBC, is in favour of staying, it’d be very difficult to actually leave. That’s what’s now happening. The Leave vote is being frustrated. We will formally leave the EU but we go from being half-in the EU, which we are now, to half-out the EU.”
The coming economic crisis
Hitchen throughout our interview insists that he is “done” with politics. In decades gone by he has tried to bring about wholesale alterations to the British political system — not least the destruction of the Conservative Party.
He has now retired from activism, he tells me, and finds life much more “cheerful” observing from the sidelines rather than getting involved in the scrum. “I’m not vain enough anymore to believe that I can change anything,” he says.
“That was what 2010 cured me of. I’m much more cheerful now because I don’t get in states of total rage with people failing to see their own interests. OK, if that’s what you want, then that’s what you want. I spent sometimes weeks in email exchanges with readers in extreme detail why the Conservative Party would, if it came back to power, kick them in the teeth and all the ways in which it has. They’d say ‘yes yes Mr Hitchens but we’ve got to get Gordon Brown out.’ I would just have to go across the room and softly bang my head against the wall. Everything was reduced to tribalism.”
Are you not alarmed by the turbulence this country has found itself in?
“Well, I hope so. The problem is with national decline it can produce turbulence. The underlying problem in this country is that its economy doesn’t work anymore. People say ‘oh it’s alright we are sovereign we can have a huge national debt.’ Well, you can if you have a good, strong economy, but if you don’t and your current account deficit gets big and you combine that with the gigantic private debt, then it seems to me you’re asking for serious inflation.
“I don’t know quite how the next crisis is going to manifest itself. Will we wake up one morning to find the cash machines aren’t working? I don’t know.
Will we wake up one morning to find the cash machines aren’t working? I don’t know.
I just can’t see how we can avoid a major economic crisis pretty soon.”
So how will this crisis be averted? Is there not a single MP who impresses him? Does he not see even a sole glimmer of hope?
“No. Being an MP is not an activity as I’d class as being particularly important. It doesn’t matter. There are few more insignificant creatures than backbench MPs. The front bench is a desert.
“A range of extinct volcanoes would be a compliment because to be extinct they would once have to be active.”