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Hedgerows or hedge funds? Hitchens and Hannan at the Sheldonian

Well, good—I was getting a bit worried there for a moment. That Liz, and her league of ideologues, setting everything alight with their strange economic ideas, which I didn’t understand as a humanities student, seemed pretty radical and scary. The media were reporting too many crises to bother reading about. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With a new leader proclaimed, a new era is promised. ‘Sensible’ Sunak will provide a balm for us decent folk for whom the “Kamikwasi” budget was a step too far. So it seems to some.

But what, beyond ‘common sense’, does Sunak stand for? Despite what his PR productions may lead us to believe, he’s not actually very ‘common’ at all. His personal wealth exceeds that of the King, making him, above all, a representative of the crushing defeat of aristocracy as the lucre-stained hands of the upwardly-mobile bourgeois. His avowed adherence to “Yorkshire values” is presumably an attempt to imply he’s just an average John; in fact, he is a Wykehamist and an Oxonian, and “Yorkshire values” are not real. Of course, his elite schooling should not be held against him—we in Britain have an odd prejudice against the best educated of us. But at least Boris had charisma along with his elitism. Rishi tries to hide the silver spoon.

With the evident absence of ideology at the helm of the Conservative party, then, it is perhaps unsurprising that hundreds flocked to the Sheldonian last Monday, the very day when Sunak’s victory was announced, for the public lecture titled After Conservatism. They were there first and foremost for Peter Hitchens, considered to be the nation’s premier soothsayer by Britain’s traditional right, who indeed has, in his later years, assumed the aspect of a prophet by virtue of his impressive grey beard. Hitchens was joined by Dan Hannan, Brexiteer extraordinaire, whose footing in the discussion that would ensue was admittedly weakened by the fact that his values broadly align with the collapsed Truss administration. Indeed, that both men identify as conservatives reveals the complete meaninglessness of the term: Hitchens is a King and Country patriot, a lover of fields and hedgerows, and deeply negative about the UK’s future. Hannan’s lifelong political goal has been Brexit and he prioritises hedge funds over their rustic cousins, so has more reason to be hopeful.

Hitchens is an Oxford towny. He talks about the urban fabric of the city with profound seriousness, verging on spirituality, as the endowment of our ancestors. But he argues that, for the tourists who flock through the sun-gilt streets, the city is little more than a Disneyland experience where modern fabrications are ignorantly treated as originals. This characterisation speaks to much of Hitchens’ view of Britain: a hollow façade of a nation, whose great monuments are of generations past and whose current inhabitants can, at their most benign, only preserve desperately, and at their most destructive, vandalise. One such vandal was Hitchens’ brother Christopher, whom he recalls graffitiing a builder’s hoarding near Trinity College in 1968. Peter too, as a student, was a radical: a Trotskyist, as he likes to remind us on every occasion he can—it was prominent on the Hitchens-bingo card a friend had put together for the talk. But, according to Hitchens, it is only having been among the thinkers of that leftist sect that one can understand the worldview of our politicians today.

One example is immigration. This issue was, as often the case among right-wing commentators left implicit in much of Hitchens’ address but came to the fore as he mused about his erstwhile socialism. “We [Trotskyists] supported immigration because we hated Britain,” he says. This attitude he links to Labour advisor Andrew Neather’s now-notorious comment that New Labour had pursued mass immigration to “rub the right’s nose in diversity.” Of course, speaking on the day Rishi Sunak had been confirmed as the next PM, it is evident that such polemic does not appeal to all conservatives. Hitchens’ idea of Britain is a deeply traditional one: he ended his speech with an emotional reading of the Second Collect for Peace from the Book of Common Prayer, which he cites alongside Shakespeare as the great national text. “Since 1968,” he contests, “the Left has been a moral, cultural and social project,” referring to Gramsci and arguing that immigration should be understood as one factor contributing to the kind of radical social change he had once pursued. 

Hannan tempered Hitchens’ despair with a call to hope. For him, Brexit really could represent a new dawn for Britain, a new international golden age. But the audience’s allegiance to the doomsayer was broadly unambiguous. It is indeed hard to be positive about British politics under current circumstances. But it is irresponsible, I believe, to slip from recognising the reality of our decline to preaching a disinterested millenarianism. For Hitchens, for the modern conservative in Britain, “the only honourable life for those of us who can stay and bear it is internal exile.” Like the predicament of Okonkwo, the tragic protagonist of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, social changes have destabilised his framework to such an extent that he lives in a world which he does not understand, a world that seems to operate according to values that are alien to him. But conservatism cannot simply die like Achebe’s character does; the weakness of Hitchens’ worldview is that it offers no way forward for those who agree with his premises but not with his pessimism.

Images: CC2:0//Billy Wilson via Flickr.

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