For more time than he may care to remember, the journalist and author Peter Hitchens has been pretty much a lone voice in the wilderness crying down doom and despair on our shattered society and all its broken works.
But, like the original Cassandra, few have been listening to his incessant prophecies of dissolution and his denunciations of our terminal decadence. His various causes, crusades and campaigns – among others on the iniquities of cannabis; the need to destroy the Tory party and replace it with a real conservative force; opposing the de-Christianisation of Britain; and denouncing the takeover of our institutions by the neo-Marxist Left led by the man who Hitchens despises as “the creature Anthony Blair” – have largely fallen on deaf ears.
This has not stopped Hitchens from making a lucrative living out of his Private Fraser style “we’re all doomed” schtick. He is one of the very few frontline hacks – along with Rod Liddle, Toby Young, and Julie Burchill – with the balls to stand up against the all-engulfing forces of wokedom. A weekly column in the Mail on Sunday; regular slots on Talk Radio; occasional appearances on the BBC’s Question Time as the sole token non-Leftie; along with a steady stream of books and blogs have all kept him in the public’s eye and ear for more than two decades.
Hitchens’ background goes far to explain his attitudes and his anger at Britain’s increasingly precipitate decline. Born in Malta at the fag-end of Empire, he was brought up in Portsmouth as the son of a career Royal Naval officer when the grim grey warships of the fleet still clustered the harbour as a last fading sign of Britain’s lost worldwide power.
Educated at the Leys School in Cambridge and York University, and having failed at his original ambition to follow his father into the Navy, he took up journalism like his elder brother Christopher. At the same time, caught up in the prevailing rebellious zeitgeist of the late 1960s, he joined the Trotskyist International Socialists – later the Socialist Workers’ Party – an affiliation that lasted until 1975.
Peter Hitchens is the sceptics’ sceptic
Today, he is inclined to attribute much importance to this period, proudly claiming that his time with the IS/SWP gave him a thorough grounding in Marxist thought and methods. In reality, anyone who also experienced this shabby little groupuscule, with its unpleasant mix of chaos and authoritarianism, will smile at those who took these middle-class student “revolutionaries” and their infantile politics remotely seriously. Hitchens, however, perceives a red line directly linking the far Left of those heady days with the Blairite revolution of 1997, after the Trots had completed their long march through the institutions and taken over the media, the law, education, and the other venerable cultural pillars of the state.
Rising through the traditional journalistic path of provincial newspapers to Fleet Street, Hitchens joined the Daily Express as an industrial correspondent at a time when labour unrest was rife and trade unions were still a force to be reckoned with. At that time, honourably feeling that his membership of the Labour Party – (which he had joined after quitting IS/SWP) – conflicted with his duties as an impartial reporter, he left Labour too.
His own long march towards conservatism had begun.
One important element in Hitchens’ conversion from communism to conservatism was his fraternal rivalry with his brother Christopher. The elder Hitchens became a luminary of the international Left, his sparkling essays leading some to compare him to Orwell, especially after he moved to the US. A major difference between the brothers was that Christopher became (in)famous for his atheism, and his attacks on both Christianity and Islam, while Peter returned to the Anglican orthodoxy of his youth.
The moment that one of his causes begins to look popular or achievable, he abandons it
The Hitchens brothers publicly debated these issues at one point becoming estranged. But by the time of Christopher’s death from cancer in 2011, they had been reconciled. Before then, Christopher too had moved some way from his Leftist youth, enthusiastically backing the invasion of Iraq and other neocon American interventions in the Middle East. Peter, by contrast, is and was sceptical of such misadventures, and of all western meddling in the Muslim world. His doubts about the origin of poison gas attacks attributed to the Assad regime in Syria, for example, being just one of the many eccentric and unpopular causes he has pursued with tenacious, terrier-like obsessiveness. Another is his conviction that most Islamist terrorist killers are not really motivated by their murderous faith but by their use of cannabis or other drugs.
Peter Hitchens, in fact, is the sceptics’ sceptic. Contrarian that he is, the moment that one of his causes begins to look popular or achievable, he abandons it and even vigorously opposes it. Take Brexit, for instance. Hitchens was a long-time Eurosceptic, frequently inveighing against the corrupt and undemocratic EU. But he held disapprovingly aloof from the 2016 referendum campaign, and when, against all the odds, that battle was fought and won, he became an advocate of a Brino (Brexit in name only) that would see Britain still in the halfway house of the Single Market, and supinely obeying EU rules.
Or look at his long running battle to dismantle the modern Blairite Tory party and replace it with a real conservative movement. His disdain for the Tories only really took off after he failed to secure the Conservative candidacy for the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea against Michael Portillo. But when a serious and increasingly successful right-wing challenge to the Tories arose in the shape of UKIP, forcing David Cameron to call the Brexit referendum – once again Hitchens refused to join the very movement that he himself had long argued for. I am driven to the conclusion that Hitchens, the quintessential political animal, is only really happy (if such a notorious gloomster can ever be happy) in a party of one – himself – and that his contrarian motto should read: “Whatever you’re for I’m against”.
Hitchens must abandon the hopeless swamp of pessimism that is swallowing up his message
Because I agree with Hitchens on so many things and admire his courage and penetrating intelligence as well as his often brilliant and incisive writing, it comes very hard to utter a word of mild criticism of this passionate advocate of unfashionable but frequently correct truths. This is especially so as I share his background to an uncanny degree. An exact contemporary, I repeatedly visited his native Portsmouth with its proud Naval heritage on my way to and from my prep school on the Isle of Wight. I too have lived in Cambridge and Yorkshire. I too flirted with the SWP in my foolish Marxist youth, and passed through both the Labour and Tory parties. I too rose through provincial journalism en route to Fleet Street; and I too share his nostalgic love of traditional rural England with its timeless beauty and customs, and of English history and literature, that we both mourn as it disappears before our very eyes.
Thanks to this shared background, I hope to be forgiven if I do utter such a word of reproof and advice. If Hitchens wishes to attract an audience to actually achieve some progress in convincing people of the need to preserve and conserve the things he clearly cares for so deeply, he must abandon the literally hopeless and miserable swamp of pessimism that is swallowing up the message he wants to preach.
His doom and gloom have reached an apogee of despair during the current Covid crisis. Quite rightly he has been one of the leading voices denouncing the fake “Conservative” government’s panicky and irrational programme of dictatorial clampdowns and unscientific compulsory masking (Hitchens calls them “muzzles”); and possibly illegal restrictions that has incarcerated Britain behind prison bars of fear. Understandably, they remind Hitchens of the totalitarian communist regimes of Eastern Europe whose fall he witnessed as a journalist in the 1980s. But the point about these regimes that he misses when he compares today’s Britain with East Germany, Russia or Romania is that they did indeed finally collapse. In short – and contrary to his professed Christian convictions – our very own Guru of gloom is missing the essential element of hope.
Hitchens’ gospel of despair finally hit the wall at the end of the blind alley he is following in the past few days during a revealing interview he gave to the conservative publicist Peter Whittle on the New Culture Forum. The encounter so outraged the wokeists who run YouTube, that they briefly banned it from their screens until a storm of protest forced them to restore it. I have no idea which particular part of Hitchens’ robust presentation of his familiar views so annoyed YouTube, but for me the most shocking part came towards the end of the interview when he told Whittle that Britain was “finished” and irretrievably lost, and that if he was in his thirties today, he would emigrate.
This begged a number of questions, not least which country Hitchens would recommend young Britons migrating to, since virtually the whole world is following the draconian muzzling and isolating measures he so deplores. The only nations he praised during the interview for their response to Covid were Japan and South Korea, but it is doubtful if he meant them. And why, if he really means what he said, has Hitchens not convinced even his own offspring to follow his advice? (His eldest son, Dan Hitchens, became editor of The Catholic Herald in March, and when I last looked, the paper was not produced in Tokyo or Seoul.)
Hitchens should remember that the darkest hour is often just before dawn
No, I fear that Hitchens in this instance was talking exaggerated nonsense and was certainly not giving advice that we should expect from the patriotic conservative Christian that he claims to be. Running up the white flag, giving up, and scuttling away – however bleak the prospect before us – is never an attractive look. Besides, what does he mean when he says Britain is “finished”? Will our island sink into the sea? Will it change so unrecognisably? Will it become the new Soviet Union? Of course not. Or, if it does, should we not, rather than succumb to Hitchens’ miserable defeatism, echo Churchill’s defiant words in May 1940 when he told his Cabinet, “If this long story of our island is to end at last, let it end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground”?
Not that Hitchens has ever been a great admirer of our wartime leader. He has even written a book exploding the myth that Britain won World War Two, without apparently realising that such myths are an essential part and parcel of what makes our nation. If – as Churchill knew – you only offer people a diet of defeat and despair and deprive them of hope, you should not be surprised if they give up the ghost and fail to rouse themselves to necessary action. For, as the great man himself also observed in 1940: “Nations that go down fighting rise again, but those that tamely surrender are finished”.
As a historically aware writer, Hitchens should remember that the darkest hour is often just before dawn, and that outstanding leaders can pull their countries from the deepest of pits. He himself witnessed the endless strikes, the power cuts and three-day weeks of the 1970s, a period just as dark as our present travails, from which we were saved by the advent of Margaret Thatcher.
Sadly, Hitchens’ unredeemed pessimism and spluttering outrage has now made him an object of ridicule. The current issue of Private Eye devotes a page to a parody of his anger on visiting a festive pantomime by the satirist Craig Brown which ends with Peter Finch’s line from the movie ‘Network’: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take any more!” As if to confirm Brown’s view, Hitchens’ own genuine latest column in the Mail on Sunday was headlined: “Merry? No, this year we need an angry Christmas!”
Peter Hitchens is a fine, brave and outstanding English journalist in the great tradition of Daniel Defoe, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and George Orwell. And although his diet of rage and despair are what keeps him in gainful employment, my own festive message to him this dark and dismal Christmas would be to offer his many admirers a glimmer of hope amidst the gathering gloom. And – given his passionate past devotion to the wrongheaded cause of Marxism – to remember the words of another great Englishman, Oliver Cromwell, addressed to the stern Fathers of the Scottish Kirk in 1650: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to think it possible that you may be mistaken”.
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