Peter Hitchens is a man of many beliefs: beliefs which consistently ruffle the feathers of ‘mainstream’ society. In recent weeks, Hitchens has said some fascinating things – the Conservative party is “socialist”, mass immigration is a “catastrophe”, and the UK is “finished” – so I’ve agreed to a phone call with the man himself, to find out what hope is left for modern Britain.
The answer? Not much.
Our thirty-minute conversation felt more like a war at times, with the Mail on Sunday columnist unleashing his whole range of rhetorical talents. He often likes to start his responses by picking apart the wording of the question. When I ask him what it’s like being a right-wing columnist in a world of political correctness, for example, he was quick to dismiss the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘political correctness’, emphasising that he didn’t think the latter phrase was “a particularly useful category”. Hitchens is well-known for rejecting so-called political correctness, arguing that we should ignore “fashionable opinions” and be truthful – but he’s “all in favour of being polite to people”. The problem arises when these societal norms restrict him from publicly saying, for example, “that lifelong monogamous marriage is superior to other forms of sexual relationship”.
I try to agree that he should definitely be free to express his opinion, but struggle to get a word in edgeways.
He also notes that using the N word is “outrageous”, leading me to wonder what his understanding of political correctness really is. Surely trying to avoid insulting people is political correctness?
Surprisingly, it isn’t the content of my conversation with Hitchens which I find most difficult; instead, it’s the way he overpowers the conversation – almost waiting for me to ask my next question before interrupting with more. At first, I thought he was merely being talkative, but by the end I’m certain it was tactical. To some extent, I’m not surprised. Hitchens has been arguing since childhood – his brother, Christopher, was a veteran orator and fierce combatant, and I can’t imagine either of them backing down in a fight. In many ways, their sense of humour is similar, too. When I suggest that we move onto a different subject, he says “it’s your interview. You’ve got control of the brake and the accelerator,” adding “I can jump out of the car.” It didn’t quite develop into a car crash interview, but I do wonder if it’s all just a game for him – at one point he admitted that going against the grain of society is “a lot of fun”.
Moving on, I ask why he urged people to vote for UKIP if he thinks they’re a “joke”. “I don’t think I ‘urged’ people to vote for UKIP. I reluctantly said – when I couldn’t persuade anyone to do the much more sensible thing, which is not to vote at all – I reluctantly went, ‘if you must vote, then vote for UKIP’. I wouldn’t call that ‘urging’. ‘Urging’ is a bit strong.” Annoyingly, this word was actually taken directly from a video interview, but he didn’t give me the chance to point this out. “I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of endorsing UKIP, or saying that I approved of it, or that I like Nigel Farage. I don’t endorse it, I don’t approve of it, I don’t like Nigel Farage.”
I don’t endorse it, I don’t approve of it, I don’t like Nigel Farage.
This quickly develops into a discussion about drugs, as Farage is in favour of drug decriminalisation. Why has Hitchens previously described drug addiction as a fantasy? “It is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist.” I point out that medical data would disagree, but I don’t have any evidence to hand. “Well in that case, don’t think that. Find out whether it’s true and then come back and tell me. What you think is one thing, what you know is another. Either there is an objective way of demonstrating its presence in the human body, or there ain’t, and there isn’t one. You may think there is, but that’s because you haven’t looked it up.”
Luckily I have since looked it up, and I’ve watched videos of Hitchens speaking on the subject. As is often the case, his argument is based on a truth of sorts: he notes, for example, that not all people who take drugs become addicted. However, there is documented proof of drug addiction and genetic predispositions to addiction, something Hitchens has refused to acknowledge.
I ask Hitchens if he’s ever embarrassed by his newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, or the Mail Online sidebar of shame. He rapidly says “no” seven times (which might hypothetically be seen as overly defensive). “It would be like working on Newsnight and being ashamed of Strictly Come Dancing,” he explains. I’m somewhat surprised by the self-aggrandizing comparison of his work to the higher end of TV output, but what’s more hard to stomach is his comparison of the Mail to harmless light entertainment like Strictly. Surely Dapper Laughs would be a better analogy?
He continues, “it’s always the moral problem anybody faces – you can stay out of the dirt… and be wholly saintly, or you can enter into life at some point or other and try and make what impact you can, while making a compromise with the world”. It’s a fair response – of course newspapers need to be commercially viable to justify themselves, and of course he’s entitled to find his own soapbox. However, at the back of my mind, I wonder if there are any companies that are so distasteful he wouldn’t work for them. He left the Daily Express for its links to the pornographic television channels, so there’s a slight hypocrisy here which confuses me.
Hitchens was very vocal in his predictions that the Conservatives would fail badly in the election, so I ask him what went wrong. “I reached a reasonable conclusion on the basis of the opinion polls – which I think were broadly right – that the Tories couldn’t win an overall majority. What I didn’t grasp was just how effective the extremely costly submerged campaign of the Conservative party was in targeted marginal constituencies.” Finally, he’s opening up, and it’s a pleasure to hear his opinions. He says the Conservative win was “a victory on points, but not really a moral victory”, noting the minimal swing in total votes towards the Tories –a 0.8% increase in the total vote share, compared to 2010.
Finally, he’s opening up, and it’s a pleasure to hear his opinions
He then says that “there actually isn’t any substantial difference between a Labour government and a Conservative government”. Both parties are ‘left wing’ compared to him, and both have been swallowed up in what he calls “the ideology of equality and diversity”. He mentions the “ludicrous personal attacks on Ed Miliband”, but when I point out the Daily Mail’s role in these attacks, he pauses slightly, getting caught up in his words. “I’ll stick to making general comments. I think that basing a campaign on personally discrediting Ed Miliband was… well, I mean, it works, but it’s something I don’t approve of.” For someone so outspoken, he’s clearly uncomfortable talking about his employers.
These tricky questions might be the reason for his later revenge, and the painful highlight of the interview. “You’re quite open about being a pessimist,” I begin – intending to ask if he saw any positivity in the world at the moment – but he immediately interrupts: “should I be ashamed of being a pessimist? What’s wrong with it?” I try to clarify that I haven’t yet asked my question, and I wasn’t attacking him for being a pessimist. In a two-and-a-half-minute exchange, I apologetically repeat “no” or “not at all” nine times, trying to explain that he’s misunderstood. “It’s you that’s misunderstood what you were yourself saying”, he informs me. Eventually, he answers with a blunt “no”. I ask if he has anything else to say. “No. It’s an unqualified, straightforward ‘no’.” He pauses. “One of my favourite words, actually.”
“no”. He pauses. “One of my favourite words, actually.”
Soon, the interview is over, and he’s kindly offering to help if the recording is indistinct at any point. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last long. “If you misrepresent me, I’ll haunt you after I’m dead. There will be no mercy. Apart from that, good luck.”
And that’s the unsettling end of my interview with “The Hated Peter Hitchens” (his words, not mine). He’s undoubtedly an intellect, a skilled orator, and a man of incredible conviction. In other words, I disapprove of what he says, mostly, but I’d defend to the death his right to say it.
On the other hand, we already have one Katie Hopkins in this country, and that’s more than enough for me.