It is true that Peter Hitchens is one of the last public conservatives allowed to exist in Britain. The establishment is apparently willing to tolerate him as a relic, but eagerly waits to consign him to history and prevent any successors from reminding us of the inconvenient foundations of politics in philosophy and ideology, rather than the pointless pursuit of power and status quo.
I was surprised to see him appear in Owen Jones’s latest attempt to wheel out curiosities who have not yet conformed to the metropolitan liberal consensus.
In speaking to Jones and the Guardian, Hitchens is somewhat guilty of putting pearls before the swine, he seems to justify it in cheerfully acknowledging his relaxed acceptance that Britain is finished in anything other than name anyway, and he may be right. But that doesn’t mean conservatism is finished, in fact it is engaged in a global culture war that many more in Britain are capable of taking part in, if they had the basic tools to engage with the debate.
Hitchens is now reduced to reminding us in his sadly seldom screen appearances of the definition and basic concepts of liberalism, socialism and conservatism. Not because that is all he is able to do, but the political debate in Britain has become so debased it is necessary for serious commentators to have to walk Guardian columnists through the ABCs of political theory while their eyes bulge in shock to learn that David Cameron is not a conservative.
Owen Jones describes his interview as exposing some of Hitchen’s surprising views, I suppose he has to, yet no one with a basic understanding of conservatism would have failed to predict them all – as Britain’s self styled greatest enemy of the conservative movement, it’s odd that Jones has not managed to look up its definition.
Hitchens concedes that he was once foolish young Trotskyite, which is a fitting description of the current incarnation of Owen Jones (and I would imagine the majority of his followers). As Jones himself frets, if Hitchens could make such a startling volte face from his youthful indiscretions, then surely Britain is not lost, and others can do the same as easily?
Hitchens remarked that he often hears “David Cameron and George Osborne coming out with things which I used to say when I was a trot. The difference is that I knew when I said them that they were Trotskyist things to say. They have no idea. They are left wing but they don’t know they’re left wing – which is even more alarming in some ways. At least Jeremy Corbyn knows he’s left wing.”
I recently sat in on a string of intern interviews where two consistent questions were asked of every candidate: “why are you a conservative?”, and “Who do you want to be the next President of the United States?” Half of the candidates described their long-term commitment to conservatism, before expressing their support for Hillary Clinton.
What has changed since Hitchens was a young Trotskyite, as well he knows, is that political movement can no longer be achieved in Britain via a simple change of government – the problem is not David Cameron – it is the entire system, from education to mainstream media to politics, that won’t allow anyone with any depth or detail of thought through.
There would have been a time in Britain, quite recently, where Peter Hitchens would have been interviewed over lunch by a William Rees-Mogg on Oakeshott and eternal truths, and people would have read it, today he is quizzed by a 25-year-old on what conservatism was.
The value of political organisations for young people in Britain is questionable, certainly in systemic improvement, almost all tend to become a Westminster-centric magnet for irredeemable, useful idiots on their way to becoming irredeemable special advisers and MPs, as an evening’s stroll through Parliament’s worst watering holes will prove.
But an organisation called the Young Britons Foundation once made its name in the good work of introducing young British Conservatives to the American political debate in which there are liberals, and there are conservatives. Even without assistance, at least some who consider themselves Conservatives in Britain may still look across the Atlantic, where conservatism is alive and well, and question why none of the Republican candidates for President support gay marriage, and why Cameron seems to get on so well with the most left-wing President in American history.
It seems unlikely that the young and passionate at the universities of the future are going to be sustained by the great debate of their lives being whether they should be a leftist Labour supporter, believing in a top rate of tax of 45 per cent, or a firebrand Conservative, believing in a top rate of tax of 40 per cent. We are not at the end that Hitchens believes.
The chasm of thought and meaning that Blairite politics has brought to Britain probably explains why Conservative Party membership has dwindled to those simply in search of career advancement, and why young people have no basic political foundations, but it also explains why many are so pleased to see Jeremy Corbyn redefine socialism and the Labour Party.
In my relatively short time in the political world I have experienced a fair few attempts to silence me, and I’m sure Hitchens has far more. Anyone who does or says anything outside of the media imposed orthodoxy is automatically in line to be smeared and removed.
One of the establishment’s great strengths has always been it’s ability to co-opt those it cannot destroy, but it would be a great shame if Hitchens was happy to relax into the comfortable defeat of being wheeled out as a relic, for no other reason that we are on the cusp of an awakening in the West that Blairite politics delivers only a slew of charlatans that want to be something, rather than leaders and thinkers who want to do something.
In his own write up of his own interview (of course) Jones acknowledges, “For the first few decades after the second world war, it seemed as though the left was on the advance. Back then it was the ardent supporters of the free market who were the fringe elements apparently damned by the onward march of history. Since the late 1970s, that process has reversed. The political winds will one day undoubtedly shift, and what now seems radical will become mainstream.”
The task of Peter Hitchens should be the promotion of conservatism, and if we introduce even a handful of people to conservative philosophy the ideology is powerful enough to grow, and the winds may shift to our favour at any time as they have for socialists and liberals.
It may be that anyone who does anything positive in politics will be accused of not doing enough – and Peter Hitchens has done more than most – but he has a responsibility to leave something behind other than cheerfully greeting the maws of doom in the knowledge it isn’t really his problem any more, because if the last conservative in Britain isn’t Peter Hitchens, we may not be as doomed as he thinks.