**Two things strike me about Peter Hitchens as he settles down in the Boar’s
shabby little office. The first is that, for a man with a reputation so
fierce, he is really very pleasant. Taking a seat in a ragged old chair and
looking around the room – from which I have carefully removed any trace of
obscenity, including several charity nude calendars – he is patient as I
fiddle with the voice recording settings on my phone. The second thing,
entirely irrelevant but striking nonetheless, is that he bears a remarkable
likeness to Parker, Lady Penelope’s butler in the sixties puppet show
Thunderbirds – an impression only reinforced by the cold he’s clearly
carrying and a nose reddened by the chill outside.**
Hitchens has been invited to campus to address the Warwick Conservatives,
and he has kindly agreed to meet me beforehand to discuss his new book, The
War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender To Drugs. I have
a copy sitting on a desk in the corner of the room. Its cover lurid blue and
purple, and adorned with cannabis leaves, it hardly reflects the austerity
of its message, still less the personality of its author. If nothing else,
though, it’s a handy reminder not to forget to actually talk to him about it
- because there’s quite a lot I’d like to ask first.
Peter Hitchens is a very interesting man. Today he is one of Britain’s
best-known, if not best-loved, journalists. His Mail on Sunday columns are
great fulminating missives, dispatches from the frontline in the battle
against the liberal left, insipid Westminster politicians and the moral
cowardice of the new British establishment. To his name he has already a
series of works with such severe titles as The Abolition of Britain and The
Broken Compass: How Britain Lost Its Way.
Politically, he is a full-blooded right-winger – though it was not always
so. Like his older brother, the late author, critic and atheist Christopher,
Peter Hitchens started his political life at the other end of the spectrum
as a Marxist revolutionary. He took his first job in journalism at the
Socialist Worker after graduating from the University of York, where he is
alleged to have once told a lecturer who queried his time-keeping: ‘I am
sorry I am late. I was trying to start the revolution.’
All of which rather begs the question: what changed?
“Well, you grow up in a way”, Hitchens explains. “Though what I always say
is that it’s very uninteresting what I’ve done. Throughout the history of
mankind people have been revolutionaries when they’re young and crusty
reactionaries when they’re old – until now, when people are revolutionaries
when they’re young and they’re revolutionaries when they’re old.”
“And people still wear jeans in their sixties and go to Rolling Stones
concerts”, he adds with a hint of disapproval, “which I do not do”.
Nobody who has read more than a scrap of Peter Hitchens, though, would think
him a wizened old relic or a young firebrand gone mellow with age. At 61 he
is still a sharp thorn in the side of the establishment, and he certainly
has form for it. According to Christopher’s autobiography, the belligerent
young Peter once told a schoolmaster:
‘You may be in command now, but you will never quell the fires within me.’
“I may well have said that”, he admits. “I was always given to grandiose
phrases from an early age.”
Peter Hitchens, it seems, has always been something of a troublemaker.
“I would hope so”, he says rather seriously when I put it to him. “I think
that it is essential for any civilization to have people who are prepared to
make trouble over things they think need to be troubled.”
But clearly something has changed. Hitchens is hardly practising class war
these days, and the Mail has never exactly been hospitable to the
practitioners of revolution. He explains:
“During my life, the establishment that I imagined I was fighting in the
late 1960s and early 1970s was already dying – in fact it was really already
a living corpse.”
For Hitchens, the 20th century has been the story of the death of the old
British establishment – indeed, of Britain itself – and its replacement by a
new, more liberal elite. His writing is shot through with the theme of moral
decline. His new book, though it concerns mostly drugs, includes a chapter
sternly entitled ‘The Demoralisation of Britain’ and from the earliest pages
he thunders that the worship of a new hedonistic creed, the lamentable
trilogy of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, is responsible for many contemporary
“What all this is really about is the collapse of Protestant Christianity as
the dominant system of thought and belief in modern England over the course
of a century”, he elaborates, dating the start of the rot at the beginning
of the First World War. “In many cases people have found the constraints and
what they would call the repressions of Protestant Christianity irksome, and
taken the opportunity to throw them off in many parts of life.”
As he anatomises the death of Christian Britain, he does so with a somewhat
resigned matter-of-factness. I almost feel sorry for him, although I am
quite sure that that is the last thing he wants, and that he would bristle
at the very idea. I am compelled to ask, though:
is there to be no salvation, no return for the old morality?
“My reasoning mind says not. But I’m getting on, and the fires of hope burn
low once you’ve got a senile railcard – and it’s possible to be wrong. And
I’m not allowed to despair. It’s a terrible sin for me to despair, so I
Without hint of irony or humour, he tells me that his advice to young people
is normally simply to emigrate.
Strangely, though, I’ve never much wanted to emigrate, and I suspect that if
I ever do it won’t be to escape the ravages of social liberalism. In fact,
as Hitchens laments the decline of the drab world of the old, I find myself
reflecting that I’m rather glad it’s gone.
I’m not convinced that a society according to Hitchens would necessarily be
a nicer one.
“Well, some people would think it was better and some people would think it
was worse. A lot of people, particularly fairly well off people, living
professional lives, protected often from the cold winds of commerce, will be
quite happy with a way of life which is terribly destructive for people much
lower down the scale.”
He picks the example of the liberalisation of divorce laws, which began
under the Labour government of the sixties, which, he says, has been
‘catastrophic’ for those lower down the scale, especially where the absence
of fathers in the households of young men is concerned.
“Some of the things I propose would have ugly consequences. I just think the
consequences of not doing it are even uglier.”
It would be easy to caricature Hitchens as merely a cynical, populist
reactionary. Quite often the justification for his views seems to come down
to the old saying that you must crack a few eggs if you want to make an
omelette. But that would be unfair.
“The main thing I want is a free society in which peoples’ lives are
governed above all by conscience, the state is limited, the rule of law is
restored to primacy, a country which belongs to itself which isn’t ruled
Underpinning his views is a coherent political philosophy based not on a
dewy-eyed longing for a better past, but upon reason, rooted in Burke and
the English political tradition of free speech and thought, liberty and the
rule of the law. Certainly Hitchens is capable of fire and brimstone, but he
has a ponderous, theoretical side too, which is more than can be said of
some of his brasher, more flamboyant colleagues at the Mail.
It is perhaps for this reason that Hitchens has often been touted as a
potential MP. Earlier this year Hitchens announced on his blog that he was
entertaining the thought of practising politics from the other side of the
divide. But although he was quick to rebuke me for asking him if he might
again consider “running” for elected office – “standing, if you don’t mind,
we stand for office” – he seems to have given up on the idea itself.
“The chances of anybody like me being selected are less than nothing”, he
proclaims rather bluntly.
“A single member of parliament with no party has probably a good deal less
power than a newspaper columnist over events”, he adds, which reminds me
that we have a book to discuss.
_The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender To Drugs_, at
least as far as the first half of the book is concerned, does more or less
what it says on the tin. Anybody who has seen Hitchens’s televised
skirmishes with Russell Brand will know where he stands on drugs. To
deliberately stupefy oneself, he declares, is not only physically and
mentally dangerous but absolutely morally wrong, and a symptom of a culture
of sexual urge, violence and greed in which Christian morals and the
authority of parents have no sway. What is more – as the title suggests -
Hitchens contends that the new liberal establishment is happy to stand by
and watch it happen.
The first 80 or so pages are therefore what you’d expect: in ten short
chapters Hitchens identifies a powerful cannabis lobby in Britain, traces
the history of the introduction of the classification of drugs and the
legalisation lobby’s effect upon it. He finds at the root of the surrender
to drugs those politicians who wished for a more permissive society, the
Labour ministers of the sixties and their Tory counterparts, and the
rockers, judges and cultural luminaries who allowed it to happen.
“What I’m really trying to do,” he explains, “is checkmate a particular
campaign for legalisation.”
“What I think I have demonstrated in my book is that Britain pretends to
have a severe law against drugs but in practise it doesn’t.”
The second half, though, takes a radical and rather strange departure from
the first. Curiously entitled ‘The Search for Soma’, it takes many of its
cues from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Huxley’s dystopia a powerful
oligarchy maintains control of the population with the help of ‘Soma’, a
specially developed narcotic. From childhood children are taught that Soma
can help them to escape reality, to calm worry and to cheer the unhappy;
but, as Hitchens notes, it is also used by the government to quell riots.
Hitchens actually quotes Huxley at some length, and warns that his prophecy
‘seems more and more like a prediction of an attainable and approaching
future’. This is no passing reference: as a theme it dominates the latter
half of the book.
The implication is obvious: that drugs are, or could become, a method of
deliberate social control by an oppressive government; and that this might
explain the state’s happiness to let drug abuse go unhindered.
In conversation, he seems eager to bring the subject up. In passing I
mention Modafinil, a study drug used by students which was originally
developed for children with ADHD – and suddenly he interjects.
“Yes well ADHD doesn’t exist of course, and that raises another question.”
“Another question entirely”, I suggest, trying to guide the conversation
back to study drugs. But Hitchens is having none of it.
“It’s all connected”, he insists. “And it’s extremely sinister for a person
who loves liberty to see children being dosed with powerful drugs at ages as
low as five or six, and then to see large numbers of people demanding the
right to stupefy themselves as a right comparable to the freedoms of thought
and speech – when it is in fact almost completely the opposite. The
stupefied drug populace is exactly what the cynical government wants, isn’t
Can it really be the case that the government is deliberately pushing the
legalisation of drugs so as to be able to control the population more
easily? In person he sounds half-reasonable, but on paper it sounds absurd -
verging on conspiracy theory, almost. I point out that he drops plenty of
hints in the books, but never says outright that drugs are a mechanism for
controlling the populace.
“No, because I can’t establish that and I don’t in many cases believe that
it’s true. I’m more concerned in that case with the widespread prescription
of anti-depressants, which are often, I think you’ll find, handed out in
areas of the country where there are extremely high levels of unemployment,
and which may have become some sort of method of social control by default.”
I raise my eyebrows. “But again I don’t think there’s an actual conspiracy”,
The Soma element, I think, does more to cloud what is generally a fairly
coherent analysis. In parts, in fact, I found the book quite convincing.
Where Hitchens is most persuasive is where he dials down the fearsome moral
judgement and makes his argument in compassionate terms – particularly where
the protection of children is concerned.
“What you also need to do”, he tells me, “is have some counterweight to the
immense peer pressure in schools where most people are introduced to the
But Peter Hitchens’ critics have always claimed that he lacks compassion.
Would bringing the full force of the law to bear on teenagers really help?
I’m not sure.
“You mustn’t confuse compassion with soppiness”, he says, pausing for
thought, almost hesitant. “Sometimes you need to apply authority and force
to save people from danger.”
There probably is a book to be written, for the undecided in the drugs
debate, but I’m not wholly convinced that this is it. Whilst Hitchens does
in some cases make the humanitarian case, more often he turns to the more
aggressive rhetoric of his columns. This book will appeal more to readers of
the Mail than anybody else.
As our conversation comes to an end, we discuss what’s next for Hitchens.
“Well I will eventually die”, he clarifies, which is probably a relief a
relief for many a Guardian reader. But for now, Hitchens is working on
something rather different. I’ll save the surprise, but suffice it to say
that it is suitably controversial, and it prompts me to ask a final
question: won’t he ever write something which everybody will agree with?
“What would be the point of that?”, he shoots back and I find that, for
once, I am stumped for an answer.