“I actually don’t find much of this stuff terribly interesting”, Peter Hitchens interjects midway through a question I’m asking about the American election. This is the kind of social cue that even I can pick up on, and I try, jauntily, to steer the conversation into fresh waters. Thankfully, Hitchens isn’t frugal with his opinions, nor reluctant to dwell on the best ones, pronouncing them as unbroken stanzas of moral rhetoric, resounding with poetic flourish and provocation.
So what does Hitchens make of the political tumult of recent months: Brexit, and Trump’s shock-win? “Well they’re not the same” he sternly reminds me; “people love to find patterns, but they aren’t always there”. The rejection of Hillary Clinton was a “revulsion against the ‘bought’ nature of American politics, which is odd given that Donald Trump isn’t really breach from it.” Its hard to translate the antipathy felt for Mrs. Clinton, though. Imagine that “Cherie Blair was standing as leader of the labour party and about to become Prime Minister”, he suggests, and you might have a clue.
Regarding Brexit, it seems characteristic of Hitchens to appear wholly indifferent to, even dissatisfied with, the deliverance of an outcome he has spent “decades” advocating. “I never liked the idea of a referendum. The referendum was designed to save the Conservative Party, not to save the country…I didn’t vote in it, I didn’t campaign in it, and my only joy in it was seeing the discomfiture of my opponents, which is always quite fun.” Schadenfreude does seem a particular hobby of his. “Well I can’t pretend that gloating isn’t one of the great joys of life. It’s one of the few that I have!”.
I put it to him that both political movements have rewarded a striking, farcical level of insincerity – with a president who didn’t expect or want to win waiting to be installed into the White House, and in Britain, Brexiteers, and now a government, who didn’t actually want to leave the EU. “Sounds like some New York Review of Books headline: “a farcical level of insincerity””, he declaims derisively. “Yep, okay, maybe there is. But as it were, what of it?”
“I think the whole thing has been a complete shock to [Trump].” Hitchens agrees. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he just got bored with it…if he didn’t resign before his term was up, and become the first president voluntarily to do so. Mike Pence, after all, is a traditional politician – a lot of vice presidents turn out rather well”. Trump, after all, has already refused the presidential salary and entrained suggestions of living only part-time in the Whitehouse. “Bill Clinton, described [the Whitehouse] as the jewel in the crown of the United States’ penitentiary system.” Hitchens recalls. “That was, I think, because it constrained his private life a bit”, he adds, wickedly.
What of the statesmen on this side of the divide? Hitchens lambasted Cameron, or “Mr. Slippery”, as he pet-named him while in office, and it seems, hasn’t warmed much to him since. “He was an inconsequential person. I don’t think he really cared about what he was doing. I don’t think he believed in anything or had any particular purpose, and he ended up impaling himself on a promise he never intended to keep”. A graphic portrait. What of Theresa May? “Theresa May is an accident”, he pronounces cruelly from his armchair, like a Victorian patriarch casting his daughter from his will. “She arose out of a series of completely unpredictable and unfortunate events. I think she is politically a nullity. I don’t think she really has any opinions.” She’s proven herself quite calculating, though, I suggest. “She is calculating”, Hitchens continues undeterred, “that’s why she’s so successful at being a nullity, because she works out very quickly what the conventional wisdom of the time is and adopts it.” “I don’t have any particularly high regard for her”, he adds, somewhat unnecessarily.
While many today see British politics as approaching a crisis point, Hitchens has all but given up hope for the collapse of the “two zombie political parties” he once so vociferously craved. “I’ve always thought that there existed a viable coalition of socially conservative, patriotic people, from both the Labour and Conservative parties, who, if brought together, could create a parliamentary majority.” “A shadow, a phantom of the party was created during the referendum… the referendum proves that that body of voters exists.” It is the Conservative Party that feels the scorch of Hitchen’s blame here: the Tories are “the great obstacle” because they have long failed to properly represent socially conservative positions and “because most labour voters would rather tandoori their grandmother than vote Conservative.”
UKIP certainly aren’t the unifying force Hitchens seeks. To Hitchens it is nothing but a nasty, “Thatcherite, exile party with horrible libertarian bits and bobs on it, and full of people proving Kissinger’s law that the fights are bitterest when the stakes are smallest.” UKIP surely isn’t long for this world, I put it to him. “It continues on a life-support system”, he ripostes. “Every time you think it’s over, it gets another eight pint blood transfusion and rises in its bed. So don’t write it off yet. It performs, alas, a function” as “safety valve” and part-time “attack dog” for the Conservative party, by whom it has been “backward infiltrated”.
Despite a seemingly bottomless store of invective for the political establishment, Hitchens tells me his political activism died in 2010. “I have no further interest in directive politics,” he declares solemnly. “I write the obituary of the country.” I laugh at this. “I’m not joking!” he insists. Is he a pessimist? I ask flippantly. “Of course I am”, he gives a well rehearsed line: “any intelligent person is a pessimist. It’s what keeps them so cheerful.” Part of his dislike of government seems explained by the shoddy caliber of politicians working today: ephemeral detritus passing through a world becoming ever more vulgar and ever more trivial. “Denis Healey was Beach-master at Anzio, for goodness sake, and had seen people die at his left hand and his right hand… Now you get children, emerging from university like baby koalas, going straight into jobs where they actually attain power. It’s shocking.”
There must be one current political figure whom he admires, I press him – no one can hold such immoderately bleak views. “I don’t admire anybody, as a matter of principle.” I cackle at this – what I think of as another dosage of classic Hitchens misanthropy. “Its not a Christian thing to do to admire people,” he continues gravely. Who does he vote for, then? “I don’t vote. I haven’t voted for years”, he says, as someone reminiscing. I am surprised. When was the last time he voted? “Can’t remember.” If he has scorn for elected figures, what does think of people at large, of his readers at the Mail on Sunday? “I am of…”. He is, I think, about to say ”of the people”, but stops. “I mean I’ve got a plummy voice and all the rest of it”, he continues, but “those are the kind of people that I know, and how can one not like them. I do feel concern for them and the way that they are treated.”
One of the major concerns in Hitchens’s writing is his perception of the creeping erosion of liberty and unifying values in Britain. What does he make of the anti-liberalism that dominates student politics today? “Well of course it is because religion has died. In the absence of religion, political belief becomes a test, in the holder’s mind, of goodness. And it is a particular problem of the utopian left and people who have utopian leftist ideas – and I used to do this myself so that’s why I understand it.”
“At the end of this, if such people actually obtained absolute power, is, of course, death-camps and prisons for people who don’t agree with you. But in the meantime they can instead go around universities stopping people from saying things they don’t like. It’s a moral motivation: they believe they’re doing good, and there’s nothing more terrifying than somebody who thinks they’re doing good.”
The whole practice of identity politics is one he finds “quite funny”. “I think most of it is a series of elephant traps for silly conservatives to fall into. When it comes to the transgender issue there is nothing you can say, however hard you try, which cannot at some point be impugned as a transphobic remark. You couldn’t have a conversation about it without at some stage committing a thought crime. So the simplest thing to do is not talk about it at all”, he smiles.
I wonder what he makes of his public image, particularly his vilification by liberals as something of an antiquated puritan? “It is to be expected”. What about his rather bizarre co-option as a meme by certain student sub-cultures? “Oh, do tell me about this. People keep mentioning it. I don’t know anything about it.” I confess that I don’t really understand it either. “People tell me. I don’t know really what it means. But I suppose its better than being a gay icon,” he reflects. “So I don’t know, whatever makes them happy really…leave them to immoral acts.” He trails off.
What does he make of the quite unusual pitch of popularity his brother, Christopher, achieved, particularly amongst the young, in the years shortly before his death? “For them he was their liberator”, despite the fact that he advocated the Iraq War, for example. This “tells you quite a lot about the modern left”. Their “posing about dislike of foreign wars is a thing they feel they have to do, but what they really, really care about is personal liberation“ and the doctrine of “absolute sovereignty over one’s own body” that Christopher preached. Did he play up to this public role? “Did he play up to it!” Peter scoffs. “Yes, he played up to it… He enjoyed the last few years of his life a great deal. I don’t think he ever had so much fun in his life, or made so much money. And when the blow fell it was particularly terrible.”
He tells me of his high regard for Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, among other of Christopher’s earlier writings. Does he have a similar affection for the later, anti-relgious polemic, which gave him his bestseller in God is not Great? “No. I think most of it’s schlock, actually – the anti-god stuff. I thought it was poor, thin stuff and it wasn’t particularly new. Novelists often win the Booker Prize for their worst book, and he, as it were, won the big prizes of life for what wasn’t his best work.” It is clear that in stark contrast to his brother, Peter feels the absence of Christian morality in public life as a distinct loss: “We seek constantly to reform the world, when our principle duty is to reform ourselves.”
I think it is probably not very fashionable to like Peter Hitchens. At most you can view him as something of a curiosity, enjoy him, and his moralizing vigor. But I do find him distinctly likable, generous with his time and his thoughts, and so much better company than scores of his detractors. He hosts a deep motive of personal duty and independence of thought. “Telling the truth is a virtue in itself, outside time. Therefore, that’s what I concentrate on doing, simply for its own sake.” There’s nothing trivial, or pandering, or calculating about him. Politics doesn’t seem to delight him: “in the end, its temporal and unsatisfactory and ultimately…trivial verging on the blasphemous.” If it doesn’t make him happy, I ask him, what does? “Well It’s none of your business,” he replies.