Tim Harvey is Politics editor for Sonder and a second year English Literature student at The University of Manchester. He writes poetry and political analysis, with a focus on Western foreign policy and the Middle East.
An Interview with Peter Hitchens
Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Peter Hitchens, political commentator and columnist for The Mail on Sunday. Perhaps one of the most controversial and frequently misrepresented figures in British politics, he has referred to himself in the past as ‘the hated Peter Hitchens’. In a previous ‘war-like’ student interview, Mr Hitchens was described as overpowering and likened, rather bizarrely, to Katie Hopkins. He has, furthermore, been dubbed ‘a formidable interview subject, with a hostility simmering just beneath the surface’ by Ceri Radford, then writing for The Telegraph. It seemed, therefore, that I was in for a tricky time.
And, indeed, Mr Hitchens proved to be a powerful interviewee with an acute focus on precision – quick to dispute the wording of certain questions before they were completed. These are not the traits, however, of man determined to turn the conversation into a battleground. They are more likely symptomatic of a life spent being subject to misquotations and smears, which would foster in anyone’s mind an appreciation for the value of accuracy. When, for instance, I asked if he would consider himself a British nationalist, he was quick to dismiss the term ‘nationalist’ as a pejorative word, preferring instead to describe himself as a ‘patriot’. These are important refinements to make, and when all such issues were meted out, he was more than happy to provide detailed answers.
Due to a technical glitch, I was unfortunately unable to record the conversation. Direct quotations are thus scarce in the following write-up.
We began with a few general questions. I asked about the relationship between poetry and politics, and whether poetry was still important today. He was adamant that poetry retained an immense importance, yet he struggled to see much of a relationship between the two any longer, lamenting the absence of poetry from modern day political campaigns. When it came to the subject of the United States’ presidential race, Mr Hitchens was profoundly uninterested in the outcome, claiming that the importance of the result is greatly overstated. “The nature of the American constitution limits the power of the president, which is not itself such a bad thing” he said, pointing to Obama’s tenure in office as evidence of this. As such, his answer to the question of whom he would like to see win was much the same as whom he would prefer out of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn – he simply “doesn’t really care”.
Next, I asked his opinion of the recent controversy in which the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union denied platforms to radical feminist Julie Bindel and the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, at a debate concerning ‘feminism’ and ‘censorship’, hosted by the Free Speech and Secular Society. He stated that his opinion of this event was the same as all other such refusals of platforms, which he considered to be unfortunate denials of free speech, all the more regrettable at Universities where, in theory, one is supposed to be subjected to an array of different opinions and partake in wide-ranging debates. The exclusion of the two commentators was justified by the union on the grounds that they “could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students”, which led me to ask Mr Hitchens about the concept of ‘Transphobia’. This term he considered to be a misnomer, on the grounds that he “disagrees with the classification of an opinion as a phobia”, a concept that is emblematic of something he has previously described as “Liberal Bigotry”, by virtue of which conservative, Christian opinions are ceasing to be deemed acceptable in society.
It is often wrongly assumed that such conservative and Christian modes of thought can only be held by virtue of received, family opinion or their propensity for legitimising prejudices. Mr Hitchens proves to be an uncomfortable anomaly for such an assumption: having been a Trotskyist atheist in his youth, he came to religion based on his powers of reason and logic. He has previously argued that as no-one can know whether or not God exists, it is simply a matter of opinion based on the kind of universe in which one wishes to live: one based on the existence of eternal justice in which “God is the principal opposition… to lawless, ruthless power”; or one in which we are insignificant and our actions have no consequences beyond their immediate effect. Whether or not one agrees with this outlook, it is certainly a powerful dichotomy, and an interesting point from which to begin a thorough self-examination of one’s actions.
It is, thus, partly informed by a religious position that Mr Hitchens justifies the importance he places on the institution of marriage, which he describes as ‘the state’s old adversary’ in his book, The Cameron Delusion. When asked to clarify what he meant by this, he told me that the married family is “the fortress of private life”, in which members are free to speak and act (to a great extent) as they wish. Government actions over the past forty years or so, which he claims have weakened the institution, have succeeded largely in strengthening state power, by giving the state a significant measure of authority over, and an ability to intrude in, private family life. It seems, therefore, that his view of marriage (unconventional though it may be) is both utilitarian and libertarian, as opposed to being born of a nostalgic, patriarchal sentimentality.
One area in which he is sentimental, however, is with regards to British culture and tradition and our relationship with the European Union. He is a proud Briton, who laments the moribund status of the Cornish language, expressing to me a desire that Welsh does not suffer the same fate. When I asked him to comment on Benjamin Zephaniah’s suggestion that Welsh should be taught in English schools, he expressed affection for the concept, while conceding that in practice it was unlikely to work, claiming sorrowfully that “the teaching of languages in English schools is gradually disappearing outside of the private sector” and joking that most schools struggle to adequately teach English.
With regards to David Cameron’s renegotiation package, he described the whole process as a “pantomime”, sprung largely from the Conservative Party’s unexpected achievement of a majority at the latest general election. “He never intended to hold a referendum”, Mr Hitchens told me, “because he never expected to win a majority”; had Mr Cameron been in a coalition, Mr Hitchens argues, he would likely have used his coalition partners as a scapegoat – insisting that they prevented him from holding the referendum about which he was supposedly so enthusiastic. What is more, Mr Hitchens claims that we will never leave EU, despite the illusion of choice offered by a referendum. Any vote to leave, he said, would be used by Mr Cameron as an ostensible negotiating tool to secure ‘a better deal’ within Europe, which “we would then be expected to vote for”. The fact is, as Mr Hitchens said, ultimately “parliament is sovereign” concerning the outcome of a referendum, and currently there is a sizeable majority in Westminster that favours remaining in the Union.
Venturing into the realms of the hypothetical, I asked Mr Hitchens which ‘exit package’ he would favour if Britain were to leave the EU, whether it be the so-called ‘Norway option’ (whereby we would remain within the European Economic Area), the ‘Swiss option’ (which constitutes us negotiating a European Free Trade Agreement, but is unlikely to be granted if Britain opts out of the EU’s principle of free movement), or a different alternative altogether. On this matter, he was straightforwardly realistic. “We will get whatever arrangement we can” he told me, “we don’t have as much oil as Norway, nor do we have the banking strength of Switzerland. We are a relatively weak country, and would have to take whatever we could get.” When I then asked whether or not now would be a foolish time to leave, given global economic uncertainty, he said “it would be a difficult time, but for me the arguments have never been about economics.” The issue, as far as Mr Hitchens is concerned, is about culture and national sovereignty – a principled stance based on a belief that whatever economic damage may be cause by ‘Brexit’ would be outweighed by the cultural benefits and measure of sovereignty reclaimed by leaving.
I took the opportunity to next mention Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which he described as a “fantasy”. “The real special relationship is between the USA and Saudi Arabia” he told me. I then queried what would be an appropriate role for Britain in the world, especially in relation to humanitarian aid, to which he responded by saying “we have a responsibility to help poor countries, just as rich people have a responsibility to help poor people.” He insisted, however, that we “ought to be wary” of money going (via taxation) from the pockets of poor Britons into those of rich foreigners, whose causes “often have little to do with” humanitarian aid.
It is on the subject of foreign policy where Mr Hitchens often surprises those who have come to conflate the terms ‘social conservatism’ and ‘economic liberalism’. He has often been found to argue alongside the ‘left-wing’ with regard to military interventions in recent years, opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as our intervention in Libya and ongoing bombing campaigns against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In The Cameron Delusion, however, he states that he is ‘a Zionist’ despite acknowledging that it is the chief reason underlying Middle Eastern hostility towards the ‘West’. When I asked him whether this position was based on political or religious convictions, he insisted it was nothing to do with religion, but merely a recognition of the perennial existence of anti-Semitism in the world which necessitates the existence of a Jewish state. “If it [anti-Semitism] can rise to prominence in one of the most supposedly civilised countries in the world [Germany in the 30s and 40s]”, he said, “then it can happen anywhere”. Although Mr Hitchens believes foreign policy should be determined mostly by our national interest, and he concedes that support for Israel is “probably not” in accordance with such interests, he deems it to be a “moral obligation”. He has also previously stated that “Iran is our natural ally in the Middle East”, and told me that we should seek a relationship of “good friendship and economic relations” as a means by which to undermine the “fanatical ayatollahs of the country who thrive on western hostility.”
We talked briefly of issues relating to Scotland, during which time Mr Hitchens dismissed the supposed increase in popularity of the Scottish Conservatives, and the prospect of them becoming the second biggest party in Scotland under Ruth Davidson, as “just talk”. He claimed that the Conservative Party has “no reason to exist in Scotland” as it is no longer the ‘unionist party’ as its full official name implies. He believes that Scotland will not become independent, but will become “a province within the European Union” at some point in the near future.
Regardless of one’s opinion of Mr Hitchens, listening to him speak is always an eye-opening experience. He was very obliging when I contacted him to request the interview, and urged me not to hesitate to ask for clarification of his views concerning any of the questions I asked, given the failure of the recording technology. For my part, I would urge anyone, regardless of their political views, to listen to those with whom they may profoundly disagree. Peter Hitchens would, I imagine, be a great place to start for most of the self-described ‘left’, who would do well to realise that he is not the monster they may have thought him to be.