Last Monday I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Hitchens before his address concerning drugs at the Student Union. Covering a range of topics, from drugs to poetry to party politics, I will try and guide you through the core of our discussion – my questions, and his answers.
For the Mail on Sunday columnist his address on drugs would serve two purposes, the first, that he “enjoy[s] arguing the way other people enjoy drinking” and the second, “underlying purpose”, to persuade, or, hopefully, “plant the seed of doubt” in at least one person’s mind. He regrets the de facto decriminalisation of cannabis and seeks to raise awareness of the danger it poses to one’s own mental health, as well as the wider implications of having a “more pliant, more passive…more willing to accept what they’re told” society.
On the likelihood of these ideas ever being enacted, he explained why he takes a “fundamentally pessimistic” outlook: “I think it is a wise position to take, it is the position which any person with a sense of proportion and a sense of humour is obliged to take about anything which is really dear to his heart. If you became too optimistic you’d spend your entire life in a state of grief and disappointment.” Having said that, he conceded it “would be a dereliction of duty” not to try, reciting Arthur Hugh Clough’s Say not the Struggle nought Availeth, which reminds the reader to never fully surrender hope.
Hearing someone recite poetry by heart has always pleasantly struck me, probably because you never really hear such things uttered these days. Evidently a topic he has given much thought too, Peter explained that poetry is fundamental to our education because “the ability to feel is constrained by the ability to express and if you’ve never heard certain feelings expressed you are going to find it very much harder to express them yourself, and if you can’t express them, can you feel them fully?” Whilst acknowledging some of the profound, positive impacts of technology, he similarly lamented how a child’s imagination can be stunted by the overuse of television, mobile phones, etc, for “it is in our imaginations that we take moral decisions. It’s in your imagination that you try to work out what the effect a decision will be”, and so “if you don’t have a functioning imagination you can’t, in my view, really, be a moral person.”
I tried drawing Peter into a broader critique of modern family life, but it quickly became apparent that his blame lay at the feet of the state. “Private life, stable family life, lasting marriage are under huge attack from the law and from bureaucracy and to maintain a lasting relationship under which children can grow up and flourish is extremely difficult in the modern world.”
Moving through to higher education, I asked Peter for his opinion on the intimate relationship between the left, student opinion and academia. “Well I know a lot of it’s just fashion. People will adopt, particularly during their student years and afterwards, the fashionable ideas of the time. Very few people have the courage to defy fashionable ideas…it’s also true of course that the whole educational sector is pretty much dependent on the state and therefore you would be in favour of a large, well funded state.” It is also the case, he points out, that “it’s much easier to live the life of a moral and social revolutionary in a university milieu than it is in the big housing estates of Newcastle upon Tyne.” Addressing the trend in no-platforming and other encroachments on freedom of speech, he acknowledged it is worse presently than when he was a Trotskyist in his youth. “The righteousness of political utopians is huge, [they] believe that they discovered the solution to the world’s problems and therefore anybody whose against them is wrong, and not just wrong, but evil, so they feel licensed to do what they like about them. This is the foundation of all totalitarianism.”
Proceeding to well-trodden ground I asked Peter if he was going to vote in the upcoming general election to which he gave a swift and certain “No…why would I want to give any kind of personal endorsement or legitimisation to this non-choice…I don’t see why I should give the current political class any reason to believe they have any source of authority and I am amazed that other people do.” He briefly fantasised over an election in which “each MP had gathered about twenty votes” and the “two dead parties” collapsed, giving rise to genuinely representative parties. Peter then recalled how he “gave up politics for good and forever” following his failed pursuit in sacking the Conservative opposition during the 2010 election, telling me, with a look of bemused weariness, “you can keep politics from now on.”
Nevertheless, as is in his nature, he willingly offered up his opinions on the election which, he cautioned, could “all go wrong” for Theresa May if the Liberal Democrats caught the large Remain vote, particularly in southern England, and took away her majority. As for Labour, he doesn’t take the popular view that Jeremy Corbyn is the root of the problem. For Peter, the turning point was when “David Cameron stole Blairism from the Labour Party, adopted it, turned the Conservative Party into New Labour, leaving the Labour Party purposeless.” Add to that the collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland, he now believes it doesn’t matter who their leader is, they will not achieve a majority. As for UKIP, he thinks it will survive only “because lots of people have fun…it’s a kind of political train set. It bears the same relationship to a political party as a sort of Hornby 00 train set does to British railways.”
Nearing the end of the interview, I turned to less politically charged questions, asking what motivated him to get out of bed in the morning to which he responded, with the quick wit I had become used to over the interview, “it never occurred to me not to get out of bed in the morning.” On the topic of his favourite novelists, he explained how he struggled to rouse much interest in novels, preferring instead the works of historians like Adam Tooze, A. J. P. Taylor and Thomas Macaulay. Running through a list of questions I hadn’t heard him answer before, I asked him if he ever had a life changing moment, not expecting the response “yeah, I crashed my motorbike into the side of a pork-pie lorry one day in 1969”. Musing, he continued, “luckily for me the pork pie lorry had a two-way radio so he was able to call an ambulance, otherwise I’d only have one leg.”
For my final question, I thought it fitting I invite him, tongue-in-cheek, to wonder what posterity will think of him, but Peter humbly told me “It’s fantasy isn’t it? I think there are people whose opinion I care more about than posterity.” With that Mr Hitchens went on to deliver his address concerning drugs in the Student Union and I came away with a better understanding of the much maligned Mail on Sunday Columnist, whose bold opinions are more popular, I think, among students than he suspects.