This interview was conducted in London on the 22nd of October 2015 for Spectator magazine. The original may be found here.
There is a certain contradiction to Peter Hitchens: on the one hand, he’s an author and journalist of immense energy and output; an authoritative public intellectual with his finger constantly on the pulse of Britain and beyond.
On the other hand, his speech is peppered with judgments that Britain is doomed and that all attempts to turn it around are futile. To Hitchens, it’s all hopelessly too late, no effort will yield much good, and yet, he maintains a dogged defence of his traditionalist worldview.
I arrive at the Royal Park Hotel just in time for our interview at half past three – something the notoriously pessimistic Hitchens doubted I would be able to do, given I was coming straight from the airport.
As we sit perched on two engulfing period-style sofas, I tell Hitchens of the somewhat alienating experience of arriving at Heathrow as an Australian citizen and being ushered into the ‘non-EU’ queue, remarking that the shift of emphasis from the United Kingdom to the European Union is remarkable. Immediately, Hitchens rebuffs: ‘It’s not an emphasis; it’s the law. We have no more right to enter this country than a retired KGB man from Lithuania’.
On a personal level, Hitchens is somewhat reserved, but talkative and unfailingly polite. Once sparked on a certain topic, his mind picks up threads going in several directions and carries them all to sharp conclusions. I ask him about the popularity of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) under Nigel Farage. Hitchens identifies the party with all the traits of Dad’s Army: ‘lovable, but fundamentally laughable as well’.
He wonders what happens when the two informal constituencies within Ukip’s base – ‘people who wear cravats and go to golf clubs’ and ‘working-class people in northern towns… cheesed off about mass immigration’ – come into contact at Ukip rallies, musing that ‘the incomprehension between them must be quite considerable’.
What is more important than seeking the power to control your country’s own destiny is the knowledge of what you will do with that power when you get it, says Hitchens – something he contends the ‘social and moral liberal’ Farage does not have.
On the question of immigration more broadly, Hitchens contends that the rate exceeds the country’s capacity for absorption and that migration should be evaluated on more than just economic axes.
‘If you’re the sort of person who employs cheap servants and likes going to restaurants and not paying very much then migration will be good for you, but if you’re somebody who [works] in a low-wage job and never goes to restaurants, it may look wholly different.’
When asked of former Prime Minister John Howard’s distinction that he is a multiracialist but not a multiculturalist, Hitchens responds, ‘A shared culture is the only way in which you can overcome the divisions which would otherwise be imposed by race. The only way to be multiracial is to be monocultural’.
Hitchens says that in the absence of a unifying culture, Western societies will play host to ‘people with their backs turned to each other, people who don’t speak to each other, and they don’t form a nation. It’s just a place where people happen to live – within the same physical boundaries – but it’s not a nation any more’.
Much of his beef is with neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, both of which are characterised by a support for open borders which stretches back to Thatcher’s time.
He offers those among the political establishment shocked by the rise of homegrown extremism the following advice:
‘If you have open borders and you invite a lot of Muslims to come live in your country, then don’t be surprised if they continue to act like Muslims – or blame them for it.’
On the West’s intervention in Syria and Iraq, Hitchens points out that ‘they’ve been doing it for so long and it’s had such little effect. If the world’s greatest superpower … decided to destroy at least the physical bases and the operating ability of something like Isis, they would have had a much bigger hole in it by now than they have done’.
I raise the issue of the Middle East, and Hitchens’ mind shoots to Turkey. ‘There’s also the huge problem of Turkey: the great undiscussed country at the heart of all this. I’m obsessed with Turkey.’ His instincts prove prescient given the country’s recent downing of a Russian military aircraft.
In regards to the allegation that Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern powers have lent support to ‘moderate’ militias such as the al-Nusra Front, Hitchens does not mince words. ‘We call these people moderates, [but] if they were trying to infiltrate schools in Birmingham, we would call them fanatics.’
Commenting on the criticism which followed Putin’s targeted airstrikes, Hitchens claims that our policy in the area is incoherent: ‘Anomalies are a way to find out what’s really going on. Incoherent, contradictory policies alert you, if to nothing else, to the fact that what you’re being told isn’t true’.
He believes the rise of movements such as Reclaim Australia are responses to a genuine question the West must address: how do you deal with a minority of citizens whose religion ‘is, by its nature, a rival claim on the loyalty of its adherents, at least as strong as patriotism’? The problem, in Hitchens’ eyes, is that the government prevailing over this influx of newcomers ‘mocked any attempt to suggest that British culture had any value’.
He contends that this administration ‘used multiculturalism as an excuse to dismantle British culture’.
This dismantling, says Hitchens, reflects the fact that ‘the whole front along which the Left advances changed. The Revolution no longer involves the seizure of the post office and the barracks and the railway station, it involves the seizure of the University and the school and the newspaper and the television studio’.
Hitchens should know about the tactics of the revolutionary Left. As a teenager and young adult, he was a revolutionary socialist until he ‘underwent a rapid education in real life’.
Hitchens has accused the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party coalitions of being ‘fake conservatives’: proponents of a modern brand of liberalism who pose as opponents of the left. ‘If you don’t understand the dogma of your opponents, then in the end you will end up implementing it, which is what allegedly conservative parties always do. They win elections against the parties of the left and then they carry on doing all the most important things that left-wing parties have implemented.’
‘How do you break that cycle?’ I ask.
‘I doubt whether you can. I think it’s gone too far… the one time I tried to use my supposed following to achieve something it was a total failure.’
He is referring to the last two general elections in which he begged his readers not to vote Conservative, in order that the cycle of indistinguishably liberal parties might be broken up and the space which the Tories occupy might be assumed by a ‘real’ conservative party.
When asked what motivates his writing and speaking, Hitchens gives a humble estimation of his impact. ‘I enjoy it. I learn from it. I’ve given up thinking that it will do any general good. I hope that on each occasion that I do it there might be one or two people listening who might have their minds opened to things.’
On Britons themselves, Hitchens sounds defeated. ‘We’re a very complacent, uninterested society, which is one of the reasons why we’re going down the plumbing. There’s no real spirit.’
Speaking of the human spirit itself, though, Hitchens’ reflections on the impact of living in Russia (‘the frontier’) and Moscow (‘the frontier city’) contradict this despair. He tells of going to [Russia] because he was fascinated by communism. But he ended up ‘completely gripped’ by the people of the nation itself, confiding that living there ‘changed my life’.
He speaks in genuinely inspired tones about Moscow, which he calls ‘wonderful, fascinating, lovely, full-of-character – which it reveals slowly’.
Of the significance of democracy and the free market to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, Hitchens says, ‘What marks out a civilisation before all things is the rule of laws and the liberty underneath them. And nobody ever offered them that’. As a result of what he considers misguided impositions, Russia ‘went from one ghastly, indefensible tyranny to a horrible Hobbesian chaos in three or four years’. Ultimately, Hitchens saw that ‘human societies can undergo catastrophe… and at the end, people are still standing there in a place recognisably the same and yet completely altered’.
What is the pertinence of such reflections to 21st century Britain or Australia?
‘It only takes a few turns of the screw in history and this could happen to this country… whenever anything happens to Russia, I think, “well, that could be me”.’
Perhaps, having seen the way in which the world can be turned upside down within human societies in tremendous upheaval, Hitchens is motivated by a duty to act as a watchman within his own country.
Despite his sense of futility, the same human spirit Hitchens witnessed on the streets of Moscow could yet make itself evident through any tumult awaiting Britain, Australia, and the broader West.