Peter Hitchens is by far the strongest voice traditional conservative Britain has today. A former student of the University of York, he is a former foreign reporter, author and currently a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. To begin our interview, I asked him how much the university had changed since he had attended.
“It’s got much, much bigger – otherwise it is surprisingly similar. In fact I came back [to the university] about ten years after I had left, and what I felt then was that we had been living in the modern world in York, and the rest of the world had not caught up will us – and now the rest of the world had become like York.”
As much as Hitchens enjoys his trips back to his old university, he does have reservations about how much the institution has grown.
“The place is just impossibly big for me; I don’t like the size of it. One of the joys of York when I was here was it was quite intimate. You didn’t know everybody but it was a village, I think the small is invariably better in any institution or organisation. I can see why it has got bigger – I just wish it hadn’t.”
As Hitchens went to York under the old grant system I asked him if he believed that the rise in tuition fees would affect social diversity at University. “I think it is bound to because people worry about money – but you see what I would want would be to go back to the system whereby people got their fees paid and a reasonable basic maintenance grant, but many many fewer people came… I think what the government did- which was immensely cynical- was that they decided they would hide youth unemployment by vast university expansion and they would then make people pay for it themselves.”
Hitchens also explains that the whole principle of student debt is completely contrary to the financial culture he wishes the country had.
“I think it’s very regrettable – the other thing is it gets people into the habit of debt early when in fact what you should be getting people into the habit of early is the habit of thrift, and not debt” adding that “One of the reasons we are in so much debt in this country is the fear of and horror of debt has been undermined.”
Hitchens fundamentally believes we need proper higher education reforms and to return to the older system; “I want smaller universities, which are harder to get into and are more selective with fees paid and a proper maintenance grant – the way we had it.”
I asked him whether he believed that maybe in this scenario perhaps lower-tier universities would have to be closed.
“Well I think that if a university is any good then it would survive under those circumstances and if it wasn’t it wouldn’t. I don’t want to go around being rude about institutions that I don’t, in many cases, know enough about to be specific, but if there were fewer students then there would be fewer universities and some I think would fall by the wayside.”
He then adds something some may call pessimistic, but others would rather call pragmatic “It’s a shame, but then again as with most of my policies it’s most unlikely to be utilised so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
After commenting on his cynicism, the response was swift; “It’s not intentional, I’d much rather they were.. one of the things about knowing that no-one is going to listen to a word you say is that people can’t really get terribly exercised about the dire consequences of what you’re going to do”, then adding comically “It’s not going to happen!”
I put it to him that the response he usually gets on current affairs programs is rather different to the picture he paints. “Well that’s because they like to project onto me their fears and hatreds – it makes them feel good. It’s all perfectly normal, it’s not to be taken too seriously. A lot of politics these days- particularly left-wing politics- is a process by which people like to feel superior to those who don’t agree with them – therefore if they come across me they can feel really superior. Whether they are or not, that’s another matter.”
Hitchens comes across and someone who cares passionately about the freedom of discussion and his embrace of this philosophy extends to people who he strongly disagrees with. I asked him whether there was an attempt in the media to avoid discussion with right-wing people and focus on petty attacks.
“It’s not an attempt; it’s in the nature of left-wing politics. Which is fundamentally not a religion as such, but has many of the characteristics of one, and one of those characteristics is that the believer is superior to the non-believer and it’s become the case simply by holding certain views you feel superior”
“I disagree with a lot of people, you will have noticed, and I enjoy actually arguing with them, coming up against them and would do it more if I could, but the number of my opponents who won’t actually come out and debate is quite high. A lot of people simply won’t engage, I like to flatter myself by thinking it’s maybe because they think they might lose, because I certainly think I would win in most cases.”
Hitchens is very open to have his beliefs and opinion scrutinised. “I would cheerfully have left-wing people round my dinner table and share an evening of relaxed conversation – but they don’t feel the same about me!”
As he portrays himself as man of conviction, I asked him to comment on the apparent lack of conviction in mainstream politics: “You could say it’s easy for me because I don’t have any responsibility, do I? But I do like to think that if I did have responsibility I could stick to the convictions but there is only one test – power is the biggest test of character there is in many ways- whether you do what you say you’re going to do, and also whether it corrupts you as an individual”
Hitchens is a well-known critic of the political class, so I asked him whether he saw any hope its demise in the future. “I don’t see any. I’m not saying there isn’t any; I’m a pessimist and I find it a useful guide to life. It seldom gets me into trouble, optimism is much more dangerous and often much more misleading – optimism is often guided by wishful thinking which I find unwise in politics, but I see no sign of it.”
“The UKIP phenomenon is interesting but as you know I regard UKIP as a kind of Dad’s Army shambles and as a party they are extremely vulnerable because they are full of people interested in politics and power with nothing to fight over, so they are likely face miniature scandals about women cleaning behind the back of the fridge and what have you, so they are likely to implode and if they do then we will be back to the state of affairs we were in before with the main two parties continuing to decline but still dominating.”
Hitchens denounces the idea of state funding for political parties as a way of breaking their deadlock on the system, so I asked whether he would welcome a change in the voting system.
“Not particularly. I do not think it is an advantage, I like strong decisive government just as I like the adversarial system and I think that the first-past-the-post system is essential for that. I would much rather change the political parties – we have the wrong parties for a two party system, I’d like to have a Polly Toynbee party and a Peter Hitchens party- that’s what we need.”
I asked whether he thought there was anyone in the House of Commons who he believed would make a good Prime Minister. “Well you don’t know you see there are people who might have potential. I remember when the SDP were revolting against Labour, I remember David Owen hugely growing in stature and intellectual power as soon as he cast off the ties of party loyalty… I think that we need to seek a new sort of politician – I think this class of professional politicians we have at the moment is fundamentally unsuited to governing the country. I think an awful lot of people and I would count myself as one of them – I’m 61, I reckon I’m just about ready to take part in the government of this country. lots of people of my age and experience- some of them with views of the left and some of the right- who are excluded from parliamentary politics because of the incredibly narrow gate through which you have to pass to become a candidate in a safe seat.”
As an old student of a top British university that was not Oxbridge I was keen to hear Hitchens’s opinion on the Oxbridge dominance of the professions. “Well they should dominate, if they did not dominate they would be failing – the question is who decides who gets into them and who decides who benefits from it?”
This inevitably led us swiftly on to the subject of grammar schools. Hitchens has always been a strong advocate of selective education and clearly believes that it is the only way to get social mobility and good representation of working class children at the highest level of education in Britain. I asked him, in a grammar school system, what he imagined for the non-academic, non-practical children.
“The problem for a grammar system remains and always remains what you do with the people who are not academically or technically minded. The problem with using that as an argument against grammar schools is that non of these children do well in a comprehensive system either – and at the same time you get this terrific wastage of talent in a comprehensive system because people who grow up in poorer areas get sent to schools which are in effect very big secondary moderns.”
Hitchens is not particularly supportive of what Michael Gove is doing with the education system and in one word describes free schools as a ‘gimmick’ and condemns them to fail as he believes they will reduce the support for grammar schools from the educated middle class.
I finally asked whether Hitchens had any hope for Christian Britain. “No.. I can’t see it, I think the battle was lost a very long time ago.. like many other great battles in 1914 and the catastrophe of the First World War which pretty much destroyed Christendom.. so no I don’t think so. But I could be wrong – I hope I’m wrong, I just don’t see any sign of it, neither do I see any sign of any particular intellectual force or coherence among the leaders of the faith that would suggest they know what they are fighting against and they know how to fight back.”
I was intrigued as to whether Mr Hitchens believed that a Christian Britain as he desired it would be better than a secular one for defending the right of freedom to faith. “Well I think so, the one that I would desire would be.”
Hitchens then continues to explain that his religious position is pretty much in line with a character in the Conan Doyle historical novel Micah Clarke. “It is not my business or my desire to get in the way of anyone else’s pursuit of their own faith.” But it does remain Hitchens’s firm belief that the whole country is built on the Christian faith and that the country cannot and will not function without it- the forms will not work without the substance.
“If we want to mend our civilisation then we would do well to restore Christian belief, but we can’t so we won’t. But if it were done according to the principles I espouse it would leave people free to do pretty much what they wanted but at the same time fundamentally it would be excepted that for, instance, the schools teach the Christian religion as the faith of the country that you were expected to believe but on the another hand people would be free to withdraw their children from religious instruction without any fuss at all.”
For a man who seems to have accepted that he is just the old patriotic traditional voice of conservative Britain sitting in the corner being ignored Peter Hitchens certainly has not lost his will to fight for what he believes is right. He has no wish to be optimistic about the future but maybe if the parliamentary system becomes more open to people like him we come see more of him in politics. The politic sphere of this country certainly would be significantly less rich without him.