Peter Hitchens: ‘The civilisation you thought you live in is finished’
In the wake of unprecedented Big Tech censorship, Jack Cousins talks to one of free speech’s most ardent advocates on matters of the Militant Left, shedding the utopian mindset and our country’s uncertain future
Last week saw a milestone, as the Western world further relinquished its grasp on liberty. Overnight, Twitter suspended outgoing American President Donald Trump’s account, while Facebook temporarily banned him. Many right-leaning or pro-free speech social media accounts had thousands of followers taken from them with the touch of a button. Social media outlier Parler, who prefer not to censor posts, had been given an “ultimatum” that it must moderate its site, or face the consequences. They chose the latter and have subsequently been banned on Apple and Google platforms. Big Tech is making its move with the promise of a sympathetic Biden presidency. Seemingly an American crisis, the implications will be far-reaching due to the universal nature of social media.
Silicon Valley aside, we must also acknowledge what is happening closer to home, and note the actions our government has taken against freedom of expression in recent months. Protesting out in the streets for any cause, including against the lockdown restrictions themselves, is currently illegal and will remain so until the threat of Covid is deemed tamed. The public square, in its literal and digital sense, is sieged. What can we do except merely spectate this circus show; our once most cherished right to free thought is being juggled by those who show little desire to keep the performance running.
This week I was fortunate enough to chat with someone who knows all too well where this could be heading. There are few people better qualified to comment on the world and its peoples, cultures and, ultimately, shortcomings as the Orwell Prize-winning political journalist and stalwart conservative thinker Peter Hitchens. It was a great pleasure to be able to engage Peter in deep conversation and attempt to understand the world from his meticulously thought-out perspective. Independent thinkers are just what we need right now to burst through the dogma we have intoxicated ourselves with.
Living in the times we are, Peter greets me by video call from a neatly decorated room in his family home. The 69-year-old dons a beard nowadays as an act of rebellion in what he believes to be a time of great conformity. His bookshelf also fights against the domestic serenity, with countless works having seemingly been pulled out, pored over, and promptly shoved back. Peter is still very much an active and inquisitive thinker, as I would soon come to discover.
We begin by discussing Peter’s stormy past as a committed Trotskyist; he was a young man back then who, in his own words, “participated in attempts to silence people”. He recounts one such tale with great shame as a student at the University of York when the “demonised” Professor Hans Eysenck came to give a talk, only to be met with great opposition and a student-led campaign to ensure the event did not go ahead.
Sound familiar? Well, this debacle took place in the early 1970s, but the details of the nature of the protests themselves are easily interchangeable with the present day. Indeed, I can remember a time just a few years ago as an undergraduate at Cardiff University when 3,000 students attempted to silence the outspoken feminist Germaine Greer. That particular event went ahead, but it does seem to be the case that censorious students are winning more of these battles every passing year. Peter recognises the distinct lack of opposition students face on campus in contemporary society.
“The fascinating thing then was that we encountered a lot of opposition from fellow students and from the university itself,” he says. “There was still a very considerable feeling in civil society that freedom of speech needed to be stood up for and instead of giving into our teenage yelling they fought us. They were quite right to do so.”
“The big difference between now and then,” explains Peter, “is not that revolutionary left-wing people want to shut up their opponents, but that in those days people stood up against them. Now they don’t.”
Peter adamantly believes in the reality of the “Long March through the Institutions”; the revolutionary Left’s alternative to forcing their way to positions of power. To understand the concept, consider the scenario to be something like Aesop’s Fable of the North Wind and the Sun. The Wind failed in its attempt to relinquish the Traveller of his coat by means of brute force, just as the Communists, through their barbaric regime, eventually failed to achieve the utopia it desired. Instead, it was the Sun with its persistence and gentle touch that showed true strength in submitting the weary Traveller to its desires. Peter believes the militant Left now favour this approach.
“It no longer involves the seizure of the post office, the railway station and the barracks,” he explains. “It involves the seizure of the television studio, the newspaper, the university and the school.”
I notice behind Peter’s shoulder a large red book with a glistening hammer and sickle jumping out from the front cover (a reminder of old times?).
Peter continues, “Imagine a society which, in a few short years, abandoned the use of the word ‘husband’ from official documents. And you might say, ‘So what’, but actually it’s a very important change.”
“Because it contradicts Christian morality?” I ask with uncertainty.
“Not just that, it’s all part of a process of making the state much more important than the family,” he firmly replies.
Peter’s recognition and understanding of this phenomenon is based on the fact that he, himself, came close to contributing to The Long March.
“I was very nearly part of it,” he admits. “I had gone into journalism initially so as to spread the revolutionary word in that trade – to rise as high as I could by hard work and diligence, and to aid the cause by doing so. That had been my purpose.”
It’s hard to believe just how committed my interviewee once was to a cause which he evidently now resists with every fibre of his being. Peter tells me that, even compared to other revolutionaries, he was particularly fanatical, often reading the works of Lenin and Trotsky through the night while listening to Beethoven; a comical image which sounds like something you might find in an Anthony Burgess novel. But it was no joke to Peter, who admitted in the past that he probably would have killed for the cause.
“Utopians always think their opinions and their objectives are so good that anybody who gets in their way is not just wrong but bad, and therefore can be silenced and, if necessary, killed or imprisoned,” Peter tells me.
The consequences of silencing
Thankfully, Peter did not subjugate himself further to militant Leftism and, slowly but surely, fell out of love with a cause which he had allowed to characterise his personality for years. He recalled to me one of those defining moments where it became all too apparent that the hardcore Left could only lead down a dark path. Peter was a young reporter for the Daily Express and visited Prague, then a Warsaw Pact country, for the first time in 1978.
“I’d been out for the evening with a friend and we’d had a fairly pleasant dinner,” he remembers. “We were riding back to our hotel on a tram and I began to talk politics with him, because the relaxed dinner with him had given the impression I was in an ordinary, civilised place. He said, ‘Just shut up, will you? Do you not realise where you are? You can’t talk about that here,’ in a very sharp peremptory whistling. I suddenly realised for the first time what it was like to live in a place where speech wasn’t free.” He adds, “That was very educational.”
By the time Peter was living in Moscow in the early 1990s as a foreign correspondent, the spell of militancy was, for him at least, long broken and he could see the “Evil Empire” for what it really was: “a knight dying inside its armour”, he suggests by quoting John le Carré. Soviet orthodoxy was being shattered by Muscovites, as demonstrated by the cinematic release of Tak zhit nelzya, which Peter reliably informs me translates to something roughly equating ‘we can’t go on living like this’.
Stanislav Govorukhin’s heart-wrenching documentary cast light on the Soviet-era and all the poverty and crime the decrepit regime generated. Peter remembers the poignant moment of visiting a cinema in Moscow to watch the film. Despite limitations on freedom of speech being loosened somewhat, seldom would publications which criticised Soviet life ever see the light of day. Tak zhit nelzya spelled the beginning of a new era for Eastern Europe.
“The extraordinary thing about it was that it was telling the truth about Soviet life in a way that had never been told before, and when I went to see it in the cinema in northern Moscow almost everyone else in the cinema was weeping. It was the first time they’d ever actually seen, openly said, the things they all knew but until that point couldn’t say.”
It is perhaps because of these intense experiences that Peter is so committed to preserving free speech on the shores of his homeland. He lets me know just how “galling” it is for him to see how Britain possesses so little concern for the preservation of intellectual freedom.
Indeed, Peter has found himself on the end of blatant corporate censorship in recent months following YouTube’s infamous reprisal of TalkRadio’s account. Google, who own YouTube, have crafted strict policies on Covid-19 ‘misinformation’, meaning they will take down any content they deem to pose a “serious risk of egregious harm”. As one of Britain’s most outspoken lockdown sceptics, Peter’s interviews with TalkRadio had been erased from existence. The government had to intervene before their account was reinstated.
I ask Peter why these private entities are so keen to shut down dissenting content which profits them.
“Well, there’s very little doubt there’s a strong ideological Leftism in the big internet companies,” Peter informs me. “I imagine the money side of it is trivial by comparison with the money they pull in anyway, they make so much.”
At this point, one might counter with the Libertarian argument that, as private companies, Big Tech have the right to alter whatever content it wishes, regardless of the political biases they may harbour and without any acknowledgement of the public good. Peter is having none of it.
“Oh sure,” he says, “and if you believe that, as the Duke of Wellington once said, you’ll believe anything.”
Despite a strongly held belief in the preservation of civilised discussion and the importance in allowing opinions and, unquestionably, facts to be openly discussed, Peter is by no means a free speech absolutist. He holds clear standards that defamatory speech, which by definition is deeply damaging to a party, or speech which incites violence, must be policed, but only “with very careful thought”.
He tells me, “I have come to the conclusion that the 1968 Race Relations Act in this country, which began to prevent people from making offensive racial remarks or putting ‘no blacks’ notices in their windows when they were advertising rooms to rent, was justified. Even though on principle I might say I’m against limitations on freedom of speech, I can’t really come up with a good argument against that one and I think it was justified.”
Peter also stands firmly opposed to the proliferation of pornography into modern culture and believes the “treatment of the human body as meat” should be banned.
He says, “Looking back on it, I think that the literary merit argument which was used to un-ban pornography was, in most cases, spurious. Maybe those who campaigned for that change of the law thought that it would lead to a new age of enlightenment, but in fact I don’t think that it did.”
“So pornography doesn’t have to be the price of freedom?” I ask.
“I don’t see why it has to be any more than racial abuse should be the price of freedom,” Peter responds. “I think there are just points which you actually have to say, ‘No, we don’t want that.’”
A dystopian reality
Peter retains the gusto of his youth, which is regularly displayed in his eloquent, yet fiery Mail on Sunday columns, but he quickly reminds me there is no fight as such for him to take part in. As far as he is concerned, the battle for liberty is lost.
“This is the world we live in. I don’t believe I have any power or influence to do very much about it. I just point out to people as I have done for some time that the civilisation you thought you live in is finished,” he reflects solemnly.
I put it to Peter that there is a distinct Orwellian tinge to the air right now, but he cannot agree. As far as he is concerned, this is something new.
“This isn’t Orwellian,” Peter points out. “In Nineteen Eighty-Four it took a nuclear war for the state of affairs projected to come about. We’ve had nothing like that. My own attempt to explain it is that the cultural revolution…probably achieved 90-95% of its objectives before [the events of 2020] happened.”
But what for the future? Should my generation, and those of us who will be around long after Peter’s time, be entitled to any sense of hope? Peter thinks not.
He coldly asserts, “I knew that something of this kind was coming but I really did think I’d manage to get my six feet of English earth before it came. And now I find the rather alarming prospect of having to live under what I regard as a hateful regime.”
Peter believes you have to have been a revolutionary socialist to understand why all of these events that have unfolded matter. I’m not so sure, and I think many people are on the cusp of finding out why the hard way.
My guest has time to pass on one final pearl of wisdom.
“They used to put on ‘London to Brighton in four minutes’ in the cinema when they had nothing else to put on as a second feature,” he remembers, “which was a hugely speeded up journey of an ordinary train from Brighton to Victoria Station.”
To find where we are now, Peter thinks, “All you need to do is speed up the film.”
As we clatter into an uncertain destination breaking time-honoured conventions and the sound barrier alike, I rather hope someone remembers to put the brakes on.