Peter Hitchens has a very public persona; he is articulate, angry, and often at best abrasive in how he articulates his arguments. The phone rings, and my sense of trepidation builds – will the private Hitchens be a mirror image of the public version?
He answers the phone and my fears are partly quashed; his tone is friendly and becomes friendlier when he realises who I am, that polite (I hope) student journalist who said he’d call at 11am.
Yet almost as quickly they disappeared, my fears return as he begins to answer my first question, immediate flashbacks to numerous Youtube eviscerations fill my head, will I be next?
The question is about his early life, how he went from being a Marxist atheist to a conservative Christian. The answer is, he says in a tired tone, one that he has given many times, “I’ve been asked this question so many times, it’s now sort of a standard answer. I grew up.”
He asserts that it’s not interesting that he ‘grew up’, instead, the question we should be asking is why have so many people not grown up?
“You get people now in their 60s and probably 70s cramming themselves into jeans and going to Rolling Stones concerts, that’s much more interesting than the fact that I did something which is a cliché of history and human life.”
“We live in a world of Peter Pans, they’ve still got the tastes, objectives and cultural attitudes of people in their late teens.”
He does have a point, but to seemingly dismiss all opinions besides your own as ones which are held as a consequence of not having “grown up” is, to put it mildly, slightly unfair.
We move onto the controversy over the rising tide of censorship – such as in the form of so-called ‘No-Platforming’ – by students’ unions on university campuses.
I tell him that I’m pessimistic about society’s ability to turn the tide because – as can be seen with the Government’s PREVENT bill – it now runs so deep.
He responds, rather depressingly, that the issue of campus censorship is “one of the many things happening at the moment in our society which convinces me that there isn’t any hope of recovery or reform.”
One of the contributory factors, he says, is the general decline in education; schools now create “conformists rather than thinkers, they teach people what to think rather than how to think.”
“The institutions nowadays called universities are not those recognisable to anyone who went to university 60 or 70 years ago where these were small, highly selective kingdoms of the mind, where nobody went unless they were qualified to think and discuss difficult ideas. They are now becoming entirely different places, where those principles aren’t observed”
I put it to him that the reason for this transformation is a result, at least in part, of Tony Blair’s crowd-pleasing target of getting 50% of young people into higher education; it was an obsession with making the figures look good, and it has had the disastrous consequences of creating a glut of graduates with no jobs to go to.
My observation brings out Hitchens’ characteristic verve in delivering verbal lacerations to those whom he thinks deserve it; this time it’s the much-maligned figure of Blair.
“Blair didn’t understand what he was doing in this or many other areas… he is a vacuum, he doesn’t actually have any ideas or know anything.”
“Probably the origins of university expansion were a desire to cover up the growing problems of youth unemployment… and also to make the unemployed pay for their own unemployment pay by borrowing them from their own futures.”
Shutting down people with whom you disagree is also, I say, a result of people being so confident that their view is correct that they can’t see the value in allowing the expression of views which they view to be incorrect.
“Its not a matter of confidence,” says Hitchens, but rather that, “they believe that their opinion is an expression of virtue itself.”
He says that part of the reason for this belief is that, with the general decline in religion, people now believe that, in Hitchens’ words, “a temporal utopia” is within reach.
“Once any idea that there is a temporal utopia available is there,” he asserts, “then people will strive to create it and they will find that those who disagree with them about what that utopia should be are so infuriating that they will first of all silence them…”
I add to his evaluation that people bang on about tuition fees when the real problem is that there are so many people going to university who aren’t necessarily suited to it; they don’t know what they want to study, so they do a useless degree and get nowhere, and then feel robbed by the system.
Hitchens concurs, “Well there is that problem, of course there is…”
At this point, I briefly mull over what we’ve discussed so far; despite the shaky start, our conversation has been perfectly amenable.
I therefore decide to move on to a more contentious topic – the debate about the re-introduction of capital punishment.
Bluntly, I say, ‘you support the re-introduction of capital punishment?”
He responds that, “only in theory” does he support it, because, “the conditions under which it would be possible are departing rapidly.
“It’s very very hard, under the current jury selection system, to imagine that you’d get a jury capable of making a judgement of guilt or innocence responsibly in such a trial.
“The idea that our modern media would cover a murder trial in a way that was responsible is also a little hard to stomach.”
My measly trump card is that in the circumstances in which capital punishment would be workable, what about the certainty that at some point, an innocent person would be put to death?
Hitchens’ response challenges my long-held assumptions, “well that’s a perfectly good argument against about 300 things that any modern state does… it’s a very good argument for banning motor cars, [which guarantee] the deaths of thousands of innocent people every year and nobody gives a damn.”
His example seems ridiculous, but also indisputably correct, even if it’s a strange comparison.
“Almost all the wars which we’ve been engaged in… such as Kosovo and Libya have resulted in the unintended deaths of innocent people and nobody gave a damn,” he continues.
“You execute somebody after an open trial, exposed to press scrutiny, with an impartial jury, the possibility of appeal and the possibility of reprieve.
“When a policeman shoots a suspect he has half a second in which to decide whether or not to blow his head off. Which is less likely to produce the death of an innocent person?
“We would not have an armed police force if we still had an effective death penalty. If people’s real concern is about the unintended deaths of innocent people, then a properly constituted death penalty after due process is one of the least problems they need to face.”
I try to interject by saying that the idea of the state taking an active decision to end somebody’s life makes me uncomfortable, but Hitchens cuts me off mid-sentence, “well of course you feel uncomfortable… it’s an uncomfortable idea.
“What we have got as a result of abolishing the death penalty is a huge increase in the amount of armed crime… very large numbers of people are charged with quite serious wounding offences or attempted murder who would have been charged with murder [in years previously]… except that very fine [and vastly improved in recent years] medical services have rescued their victims and saved their lives.”
My response to this is a rather pathetic, “yeah” and he seizes upon it, as if he’s disgusted that I can’t dispute his logic.
“Well you say ‘yeah’ but actually its devastating to the argument that the abolition of the death penalty hasn’t led to an increase in murder. It destroys it in a second.”
Hitchens’ words bring me back to the rare occasions in which I was told off at school; every syllable stings, and my attempt to explain my meagre response goes down equally badly.
“No well that’s the problem,” he says, “I’ve looked into it, I know the facts, I know the argument, I know what’s going on and as a result I’m prepared to defend the death penalty and you are not.
“There you are. But that’s the difference between us, I know the facts and I know the arguments and you don’t. You don’t. That’s why I’m right and you’re wrong, it’s very easily done.”
My final attempt at a rallying shot is to level the question that, if the arguments in favour of the death penalty are so strong, why was it gotten rid of?
Hitchens attributes its abolition to politicians being afraid of responsibility.
“Ultimately it fell to the Home Secretary at the time to decide whether to reprieve convicted murderers or not, and they didn’t like having that responsibility,” he says.
“So they were very happy to encourage parliament in taking it away from them, and putting it in the hands of a single armed policeman, which seems to me to be an evasion of responsibility.
“If you don’t want power, don’t seek it. If you seek power, then expect to have to wield it. It might sometimes involve having to defend people by actually signing a death warrant. If you don’t want to do that, don’t stand for Parliament, don’t become Home Secretary.”
Feeling bruised, I return the conversation to Blair, and Hitchens re-asserts his view that he is a ideological non-entity, a “hole in the air”.
I put it to him that Cameron and Osborne, in describing Blair as “The Master”, can be criticised in a similar vein, in that it’s difficult to ascertain what they believe in, besides power.
“The Conservative Party has always been an organisation for obtaining office for the sons of gentlemen,” he says, “[it] would guillotine the Queen in Trafalgar Square if it thought it would keep it in power. It doesn’t have any principles.”
On Iraq, Hitchens is equally forthright, and is not sympathetic to the idea that the Iraq invasion could be justified on the basis of getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
“The planet is covered in terrible dictators, many of whom we do a great deal of business with. If you want terrible people, then I think the IRA, to whom Alastair Campbell and the Blair government grovelled in the 1998 agreement, are about as bad as you could find…
“These are people who murdered people in front of their children and buried them in bogs, but they did a deal with them. So why are they so squeamish about Saddam Hussein?”
He goes on to cite other regimes that the West does business with, such as the Chinese government and Saudi Arabia, which he calls “one of the most grotesque despotisms ever to feature on the face of the Earth”, to assert the point about the weakness of the argument about Hussein.
In the end, on this issue as with a number of others, I find myself agreeing with him, but I then remember that we are yet to cover the issue of drugs, the very topic on which Hitchens came to debate at Sussex soon after this interview took place in April 2016.
Hitchens’ main argument is that, as a result of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which he argues “has been repeatedly revised… to make it weaker and weaker”, there has been a proliferation in drug use and therefore the popular argument about the so-called ‘war on drugs’ having failed is a fatuous one; there has been no war.
I ask if he thinks that at least some of the problems which drugs bring to bear on society have at least some root in the fact that their production and sale is controlled by criminals.
Hitchens is unequivocal in his answer, “No, I can’t think of a single one in which that is the case,” he says. I argue that numerous elements of organised crime are surely funded by the proceeds from the sale of drugs.
“Well that may be well,” he responds, “but that’s because rich selfish morons in the West contribute the money for it [organised crime], by buying illegal substances and they get away with it.
“There are plenty of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, which have incited a huge amount of illegal criminal activity, and drugs would be the same if they were legalised… So the idea that legalising it will remove crime from it is fatuous and wrong.”
On this basis, I ask if he therefore thinks that tougher penalties will deter people from purchasing and using illegal drugs.
“It’s not about much tougher penalties,” he says, “it’s about having penalties which people can expect to undergo.”
He argues that people would stop smoking cannabis if, for example, a first offence was made the occasion for a genuine police caution, with any subsequent offence resulting in a prison sentence.
Alongside this, Hitchens says that the police would do well to do what they do with other crimes, and make substantial use of informers.
“If you could reasonably assume that at least one drug dealer in three was certain to be an informer then you would be more careful about what you did wouldn’t you?”
Its on this note that I begin to bring the interview to an end, we’ve talked for nearly an hour, and I find that his tone changes from the occasionally contemptuous-sounding to very friendly and pleasant.
He goes as far as assuring me that “this is how I argue”, and “if people make an assertion to me I will say, what’s your basis for that?”
Despite the fact that at times I felt like curling up into a little ball, my ideas and beliefs have been challenged, and I hang up the phone feeling almost embarrassed by my performance; hence why I kept the transcript of this interview hidden away for five months.
I remain extremely uncomfortable with the idea of capital punishment, and can’t see myself advocating it, but the logic does appear to be quite sound.
Hitchens isn’t popular amongst the liberal left, nor among most students or most ‘mainstream’ politicians, but that’s because he challenges conventional wisdom, as marginalised figures have done throughout history.
He was a lone voice on Iraq and the politically popular policy of liberal interventionism, and he’s been vindicated on that front.
Very often, time proves writers such as Hitchens to have far more validity in their views than their angry critics give them credit for, and on Iraq and numerous other issues, he deserves praise for unashamedly having firmly held views which fly in the face of ‘popular’ opinion.
Harry Howard is a third-year History and Politics undergraduate at the University of Sussex, and the former editor of The Badger, Sussex’s student newspaper. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardharry