Interview: Peter Hitchens

4 March 2013

Peter Hitchens talks to Harry Peto about why he stopped believing in international socialism, how Britain’s drugs policy isn’t working and how the British establishment needs to grow up…

All too often Hitchens is described from his appearances on BBC Question Time as angry – but I got no such impression after spending the best part of six hours with him.

He is immediately charming, telling me that my college (Clare) is the most beautiful in Cambridge: architecture is “the most powerful of all the arts because it’s constantly working on people without their being aware of it… Bad architecture makes people behave badly”. The architecture can obviously be blamed for an all-nighter then!

It’s well known that Hitchens was a Trotskyite when he was younger, but now refers to himself as a ‘Burkean conservative’. Why did such a different ideology attract him? “I am, in character, puritanical, and I was glad of a reason to be so”. He is, indeed, still puritanical, although as a practicing church-goer rather than a revolutionary. But “coming into contact with real life” (i.e. finding out that the average bobby on the street was not an enforcer of oppression) was what did it for Hitchens’ leftism.

But perhaps there is a more psychological reason for change- “almost all world reformers do have something slightly wrong with them… If you want a reformed world it’s almost certainly a result of a deflected need to reform yourself”, he chortles. He believes the real question is not why he has changed his mind but, “why hasn’t it happened to almost anyone else in my generation?”

The civil service, media and politics are all, according to Hitchens, “stuffed with sixties hangovers like me who are still fundamentally revolutionary in their hearts, and go to Rolling Stones concerts in jeans in their 60s when they’re bald… There’s something fantastically odd and still harbouring revolutionary desires. I think it’s because they haven’t grown up.”

So what does it take to ‘grow up’? “I’ve experienced real pain, I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve had to support myself on a fairly small amount of money in pretty spare circumstances.” More interestingly, though, he says that people who’ve not experienced this reality “have never really concentrated their minds.”

He tells me his political philosophy is based on his theology; “a conservative position flows directly and inevitably from a theist position. I’m not saying you can’t be a conservative without being a theist – it seems much more difficult, I’m not certain I can work out why you would want to be.”

I move on to some of the topics on which he has written articles and books. I ask him if his case for strong anti-drug strategies would be defunct if it were shown that people wouldn’t be put off taking them by harder prison sentences. “If you could convince me that fear was not a motive in human life then you could also convince me that certain… legal penalties for wrongdoing wouldn’t work.”

Hitchens is no typical member of the political right. He tells me that “at the moment we’re throwing away”, something which I don’t often hear as a big concern from at least big-C Conservatives, although Hitchens certainly is not one of them. His solution to our socially immobile economy? Grammar schools. And I’ll quote for you his anecdote on the 1964 removal of them at length:

“News was brought to Evelyn Waugh that Randolph Churchill was in hospital. And Evelyn Waugh said, ‘Well, why’s that?’ And they said that the doctors had found that he had a non-malignant tumour, and he was having an operation to take it out. And Evelyn Waugh said, ‘Well, how typical of the medical profession to rummage through the whole enormous body of Randolph Churchill and find the only part of it that was non-malignant and remove it!'” He says on grammar schools that “of all the causes I have taken up it seems to be the one that’s getting… some… slow… traction.”

I’ll leave you on a lighter note than Trotskyism, drugs and social mobility. What does Peter Hitchens do on his day off? “He gets on his bicycle and he rides through the English countryside. Or he goes and looks at pictures, or he goes and looks at cathedrals, and he intersperses that with various forms of refreshment. I can’t really give you any more details than that, I don’t want to have people following me round checking up on me!”

On the contrary, I advise anyone seeking for refreshingly independent political thought, regardless of your views, to check up on him. But perhaps by reading his works rather than chasing after polemicists on bikes.