is an award-winning journalist and polemicist. When his unexpected best-seller The Abolition of Britain came out in 1999, the Spectator hailed it as ‘a cri de coeur’ and the Guardian called it ‘mad, obnoxious … incoherent nonsense’.
Roy McCloughry met him at the offices of the Mail on Sunday on 17 September 2002.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What kind of upbringing did you have, and what were the cultural values that it instilled in you?
I suppose that the moral effect of the Second World War on Britain probably persisted longer in my life than it might have done in someone else of the same age. My father was a naval officer (he retired when I was about eight) and I was brought up in a world that was a lot more like the late Forties and early Fifties than the late Fifties and early Sixties, both at home and at school, I think. To some extent it was a pre-war world – fairly austere, and very British. I was brought up for a world which no longer existed, but I only became aware of that quite late on.
Something that comes across in your writing – and not least your book The Abolition of Britain1The Abolition of Britain: From Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair (Quartet Books, 1999) – is this intense nostalgia for a society long gone…
It’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is a futile thing, which wallows in the past. I know that world existed – I saw it, I smelt it, I felt it, I heard it, I lived in it – and I get annoyed when people tell me it didn’t, because they’re denying the possibility that anything like it could exist again.
And it was a better world?
Parts of it were better; parts of it were worse. The food was filthy, it was dirtier – I remember a lot about it that I wouldn’t want to bring back. But many of the things that have improved have been material things and the things that have deteriorated have been moral things, and it seems to me that you don’t necessarily have to pay a heavy moral price for material improvement. Indeed, if one had to swap a certain amount of material wellbeing for a morally better society, I think it would be a good exchange.
For me, not having an ideology is a bit like going around without clothes on. I’ve got to have some kind of system of thought
At some point you became a Trotskyist…
I belonged to a quirky organisation called the International Socialists,2He was a member from 1970 to ’75. which was trying to dream up a way of reconciling Marxism with the fact that it had failed utterly in the Soviet Union. It was a more intelligent effort than others, but when I went to work for my first newspaper, I rapidly found that it had very little contact with political reality.
I then tried to make what I would call ‘the Arthur Koestler shift’. Koestler was an ex-communist who became a social democrat and seemed to me to continue to hold to socialist principles while believing in democracy and liberty. So, I joined the Labour Party [in 1977] – but my experiences in the labour movement convinced me that, in the end, all socialism, whether it attempted to be democratic or not, tended in an undemocratic and anti-freedom way and I decided I couldn’t take it any longer.
It wasn’t an ideological conversion, then?
It was to do with being shouted down while making speeches. Say I defended the idea that Britain should have a nuclear deterrent, or if I attacked the IRA, I would not merely get shouted down but I would be called to order for provoking the heckling.
At the same time, I noticed the rather contemptible attitude of the British trades unions towards the Polish Solidarity strikes that were taking place in Gdansk, and their apparent sympathy with the government that would dearly have liked to suppress them. And then I travelled to Prague and had a number of experiences, being followed by the secret police, being told on a tram by an acquaintance to shut up because I couldn’t discuss politics in public and then seeing in a motorcade a leading British trade unionist who posed as a friend of democracy back home. That was fairly potent.
So, it wasn’t theoretical, no. It was personal.
Had you had enough of ideology?
No, I was looking for a new ideology, because once you’ve had one, not having an ideology is a bit like going around without clothes on. I’ve got to have some kind of system of thought.
But we’re meant to be at the end of ideology now.
I don’t believe that. I think there is a very powerful ideology in existence at the moment, which is a variant of socialism, another version of what likes to call itself ‘the Enlightenment’, but no one has really thought up a name for it. The rather feeble title of ‘political correctness’ badly needs to be replaced by one that people don’t take as a joke.
I see people now in power who I’m absolutely convinced should not have any access to power at all – and it makes a difference to my life and the lives of millions of others
There is a huge amount of ideology about and it needs to be opposed, I think, ideologically. One of the problems with Conservatism now is that it doesn’t understand or take on its opponents. My good fortune, having been of the left, is that I know my enemy better than most people.
Now you are on the right wing –
Well, according to politicalcompass.org I come out almost smack in the centre.
You stood for Parliament [in 1999] as an independent…
No, that’s not quite true. I put myself forward as a candidate to try to warn the citizens of Kensington and Chelsea that they were being used by someone who wasn’t a Conservative, namely Michael Portillo.3Interviewed for High Profile in April 2009 I wasn’t trying to get into politics as such. Had I got in, it would have been a burden to me.
Would you have sat as a Conservative?
I would have sat as a conservative, which is much more important. I couldn’t not have taken the whip, but I hope very much that I would have been a pain to the whips. Any MP who isn’t isn’t doing his job.
How would you describe your position vis-à-vis the Conservative Party?
Hostile support, I suppose. If we are to continue to be an adversarial, parliamentary democracy, there has to be a conservative opposition party, and they are the best we have at the moment. If somebody asks me, ‘How should I vote?’, I’ll say: ‘Well, you’ve got to vote Conservative.’ Voting is not an act of principle but a practical act like going to the supermarket: you are choosing what you want, and there is no point coming away with nothing just because there’s nothing there that’s perfect.
The Trotskyist view was that, frankly, parliamentary democracy is a charade, but one of the things you notice once you start paying attention is the enormous difference it makes when different parties are in office, even if the differences between them are not particularly great. I see people now in power who I’m absolutely convinced should not have any access to power at all; and it makes a difference to my life and the lives of millions of others.
You are a Christian. Were you converted, or was it a matter of upbringing?
I was brought up in the standard Anglican way – mainly at school, actually (there wasn’t much religion at home). Like many adolescents, I then decided in my early teens that I was an atheist, and then, when I discovered that life was actually more complicated than that and that there were realities that couldn’t be avoided, I decided to return to what I’d been brought up to believe.
Did anything trigger that in particular?
Not that I would have noticed at the time. It was probably a number of cumulative things – probably the most powerful was having my first child, but I think the process began before then. Getting married was very important.
I have to act as if sooner or later there will be a moral revolution or regeneration, or the only possibility is despair
And your Christianity is not just a matter of ethical convictions but a personal commitment to God?
Do you think that the church in this country will ever recover its influence?
One of the things which remains with me from my Marxist days is a sort of slogan of Antonio Gramsci,4The Italian Marxist, who argued that any revolution that hoped to overthrow the state in a liberal democracy must first deal with the sources of its dominant values, such as the churches, the schools and the media who spoke of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Rationally, I can’t see any conceivable possibility of a revival in the church; but I can’t live my life on that basis. I have to act as if sooner or later someone might listen to my arguments, sooner or later things that have been in decline will cease to be in decline, sooner or later there will be a moral revolution or regeneration – or the only possibility is despair.
It’s interesting that when I was in Russia in the early Nineties religion was a minority activity, not just persecuted but also despised by the educated and restricted almost entirely to old ladies in a few crumbling churches. It’s now an enormous power in the land. The churches are full. They’ve made no compromises whatsoever, with the century or with anything. The Orthodox Church is notable for its conservatism, and yet people have flocked to it.
What you are offering people, if you’re serious, is something that is not of this world or of this century: what it’s about, ultimately, is what happens to you after you’re dead.
You seem to disapprove of Tony Blair’s public commitment to Christianity.
There’s a new form of hypocrisy, it seems to me, in which you portray yourself as a man of impeccable personal virtue, family propriety and religious faith while your government makes it very, very hard for anybody else to have a family comparable to your own. Is this preferable to the old form of hypocrisy, where people lived private lives of hideous impropriety but publicly clung to the formulas of conventional morality? I don’t know. But it seems to me to be a very odd thing to be very ostentatiously married and pious and preside over a government whose policies on education and welfare and taxation undermine the strongest pillar of the church, which is the married family, with almost every step it takes.
That also applies, I have to say, to the Conservative Party, and to the legal profession and an awful lot of other people who have been working like mad for the past 40 years to undermine marriage.
You write passionately about the oversexualisation of our society and the vulnerability of children. Are these things you feel deeply pessimistic about?
I want to make ‘liberal’ into a pejorative word, as it is in the United States. A lot of people still like the sound of it, and I want them to stop liking the sound of it
Yes. I think there can be revolts against it, and they can succeed. In the United States, there is quite a lot of resistance. There, it’s taken the form of the home-schooling movement: people have rejected the secularisation of the schools and the attempt to use them as vehicles for propaganda and have simply withdrawn their children and set up what you might almost call a ‘conservative counterculture’, which has been immensely successful. I’d like to see more of that here if the left continue to use the schools for the purposes they’re using them for at the moment.
And what are those?
I think the main purpose of our schools, particularly since the comprehensive revolution, has been for social engineering rather than for education (which is one of the reasons why the education has deteriorated so much). This is a project to make an egalitarian, classless and more or less socialist society that is hostile to the family and therefore has found it easy to preach the sort of sex education that is amoral and in some cases actively immoral: anti-family, anti-marriage, permissive, promiscuous. As far as I’m concerned, it is a deliberate project.
How can you say that the Government is trying to create a socialist society when to everyone else socialism seems to be dead in the water?
I’ve never bought this idea that an entire party devoted to social democracy should suddenly have decided that it wasn’t socialist any more. The fact that it doesn’t use the word is an electoral ploy. The impulse of the Government (as of most of our culture at the moment) is still egalitarian and socialistic. It can call itself what it likes; that’s what it’s doing.
This has been a fantastically radical government – you would only think it wasn’t if you hadn’t been paying any attention to what it was doing. All its alleged policies – transport, education, foreign policy – they’re all holograms. The real policy, of constitutional change and the gathering of power into the state, continues. You can ignore it if you like but it’s happening.
Is the church wrong to pursue social justice?
Yes, because it’s diverting people from the fact that what they ought to be doing is concern themselves with doing good (as William Blake said) in minute particulars. Anybody who talks of doing good on the large scale is almost invariably a humbug.
A major theme of yours is the intolerance of the so-called liberal left…
It’s evident to anybody who comes up against it. I think one just needs to carry on saying it over and over again and wherever it’s encountered to report the existence of liberal intolerance. I want to make ‘liberal’ into a pejorative word, as it is in the United States. A lot of people still like the sound of it, and I want them to stop liking the sound of it.
I don’t believe that I am extreme. I am pretty close to the mainstream of what an awful lot of people think
Political correctness is basically an import from the US. You have said that nobody is more pro-America than you are, but which America are you pro?
Well, I defend America against its ignorant critics. I define that as being not anti-American. I think that American society, for all its many faults – and no Christian idealises any temporal society – has been in general a force for good in foreign policy. And in terms of being a free society in which people can exercise their consciences fully, it’s also a considerable success. There are huge faults, of course…
Not least in its foreign policy.
The trouble with foreign policy is that it is fundamentally an immoral activity, sometimes conducted for a more or less moral purpose. That’s one of the difficulties of politics that is very hard to overcome. Ultimately, the purpose of foreign policy is to defend a place in which people can exercise their conscience and be free, and often in the course of doing that you will do terrible things. You won’t mean to do them, but you will. But I would ultimately say those things had to be done.
But I have my doubts about a lot of American – and British – foreign policy, and I say so.
You seem to be willing to take a lot of flak for your opinions. Is that because you believe that protest is vital in our society, or is it just that you believe these things so strongly that you have to speak out?
The flak isn’t really that hard to bear. In fact, to a great extent I enjoy it. This is still a society in which a reasonable amount of free speech exists. I’ve been in countries where you can get into serious trouble for speaking your mind, and that requires genuine courage – which is something you never know you have until you’re tested.
The thing which annoys me is the way in which you do get deliberately excluded from certain areas of the national debate, particularly in broadcasting.
But the media usually like people on the extremes.
Well, I don’t believe myself to be on the extreme. I believe myself to be pretty close to the mainstream of what an awful lot of people think.
The reason the left loathe me so much is that my very existence is a challenge to their certainties. The fact that I used to be one of them and am now not must make them insecure
They only like people who they believe to be on the extremes because it gives a bit of entertainment and drama. They say, ‘Here is someone who’s way out on the right and here’s someone who’s way out on the left and here are two others who are also on the left, who we define as being in the middle.’ That is how the BBC defines what the correct view is.
You may doubt your courage but you are very robust.
Well, there’s no fun otherwise, is there? You have to defend a position with vigour, and you hope your opponents will do the same. Debate is about opening people’s minds to things they haven’t thought of before. But I’m quite fair to my opponents, too.
I have changed my mind – that’s the difference between me and most people I know. I know that feeling of the floor giving way under your feet which comes when you realise that you can no longer support a view that you used to hold. I aim to do that to other people. And once the floor has given way, you find there’s a much more solid floor underneath which you can then walk on. But you never, ever, for the rest of your life, believe that anything you hold to is safe. You know your mind can change.
Do you ever wish you could be a player rather than an observer?
No. I’ve seen players and I know what they have to do and the compromises they have to make.
People sometimes ask, ‘Well, what would you do?’ I could sit here for a day and enumerate all the legislation which would need to be put through about five emergency parliaments to do what I would like to do, and I know perfectly well that it’s wholly unrealistic. What I seek to do is to influence those who might conceivably one day create a new conservative majority in the Parliament of this country.
Doesn’t it undermine the stand you take, that the actual players have to compromise?
No, because I want to change the geography of the compromise so that the cross in the centre of the argument is moved to a different place. I don’t want people to think that the compromises that are being made at the moment are acceptable: I want them to feel that they are unacceptable.
The main thing that I hope to do is to give some heart and comfort to the unrepresented many. I’d like to articulate for them in a well-argued and factually sustained way the things that they feel in their hearts but can’t quite justify in their heads, which they now see denigrated and despised.
But the other thing I really hope to do is to sow doubts among those on the left who are on the left for the reasons that I thought I was there for, which was to secure a better world. If they really mean it, they must be beginning to suspect that the experiment has failed; and the reason I hope I’m disquieting to the left, and the reason why a lot of them loathe me so much, is that my very existence is a challenge to their certainties. The fact that I used to be one of them and am now not and can defend my position must make them insecure.
And I would like to make a lot of them insecure, because I think that most of their motives are good, though the outcomes are almost invariably bad. I’d like to bring a lot more of them some way down the path that I’ve gone down. That’s my main hope, because they are the ones who control our political discourse at the moment and if their minds can’t be changed, then I don’t see what we can do.
A longer version of this interview was originally published in the November 2002 issue of Third Way.
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|1.||⇑||The Abolition of Britain: From Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair (Quartet Books, 1999)|
|2.||⇑||He was a member from 1970 to ’75.|
|3.||⇑||Interviewed for High Profile in April 2009|
|4.||⇑||The Italian Marxist, who argued that any revolution that hoped to overthrow the state in a liberal democracy must first deal with the sources of its dominant values, such as the churches, the schools and the media|
Peter Hitchens was born in Malta in 1951 and educated at various private schools, including the Leys School in Cambridge, before going on to Oxford College of Further Education (now part of City of Oxford College). He studied philosophy and politics at York University, graduating in 1973.
After a brief stint working for the Socialist Worker, he became a trainee reporter on the Swindon Evening Advertiser. He moved to the Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1976.
The following year, he joined the Daily Express, where he reported successively on education, industrial and labour affairs, politics (from 1983 to ’87) and defence and diplomatic affairs.
In 1990, he became the paper’s resident correspondent in Moscow, where he reopened the bureau it had closed in the early Seventies.
In 1993, he moved to Washington as the paper’s resident correspondent there. Two years later, he was appointed assistant editor of the Express and soon afterwards became a regular columnist.
He left Express Newspapers in 2001, after it was bought by the pornographer Richard Desmond, and moved to the Mail on Sunday, to write a weekly column as well as occasional essays and foreign despatches.
He is the author of The Abolition of Britain (1999) and Monday Morning Blues (2000).
He has been married since 1983 and has three children.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2002