“All is not lost”
Kim Jong Un’s calculus. Saudi Arabia’s bone saws. The return of Socialism. The indestructible optimism of African mothers. Famed British journalist and author Peter Hitchens surveys 2018, and explains why he believes the Cold War was “terrific”.
As soon as you shake Peter Hitchens hand in greeting, he cannot be stopped — he starts and keeps talking in a blizzard of ideas, musings, political observations, and big truths. During the few steps from his office to a local cafe in London's Kensington district, he manages to cover: his theory that “Europe is the continuation of Germany by other means"; his fear of a new Great War. As we pass the house that Talleyrand occupied in London, he mentions the lack of Talleyrands today. And that’s just the warm up. The 67 year old columnist leaps from one subject to another with the vigor, skill, and stamina of an intellectual decathlete.
Hitchens was born in the Crown Colony of Malta, the son of a Royal Navy officer. He dreamed of commanding a battleship, but an eye defect thwarted his plan. Instead, he became a journalist, reporting first from the former Soviet Union, then from the United States. His current impressions can be read in the popular British Mail on Sunday.
Brother of the legendary journalist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens, Peter fought passionately and sometimes bitterly with his older brother over politics and religion. His brother, a famously unsparing critic of religion (Christopher wrote a notorious polemic denouncing Mother Theresa as a zealot and a fraud), said of Peter, “The main difference between the two is belief in the existence of God” Peter, who was once a militant atheist, became a devout Christian which he chronicled in his book, “The Rage against God - How Atheism Led Me to Faith”.
Originally a Trotskyist, Hitchens made his way from the International Socialists to the British Labor Party. For several years, Hitchens claimed membership in the Tory Party until he left in disappointment.
Now, Hitchens is drawn the tension of perpetual change and constant values, returning to the subject again and again in his work. “Ask me whatever you want, I answer,” he gamely offers Born and Gehriger over his cup of hot tea. He adds dryly, “You’ll wish I hadn’t.”
Let's start with the big topic: Brexit. Prime Minister May’s travel back and forth to Brussels. The British Parliament is holding endless debates. Do you regret leaving the EU?
I have nothing to regret. I was against the referendum. I didn't vote in it. I predicted almost everything that's happened.
What did you predict?
I predicted the constitutional crisis. I thought you couldn’t have two competing popular mandates. One belonging to parliament and the other belonging to the referendum. I thought it would go the other way until about three weeks before the vote took place, when I changed my mind on the basis of conversations. It was basically the issue of immigration, which is what swung it. I didn't vote in it. I didn't campaign in it. I wasn't in favor of it. I believed that Britain should leave the European Union, but not by this route.
By what route, then?
I think the only way it could be done is through a political party seriously embracing it as a policy, explaining why it wanted to leave, how it was going to leave, and what its objections were in doing so. That never happened. So, that's why the campaign for some years saw the destruction of the conservative party. I thought we needed a political party which was serious about national independence, about liberty, about which the Tory Party is not and I completely failed.
Now we're here in a most complicated divorce.
Now we're here and I'm sick of it. I'm not surprised it's a mess. I have for a long time been saying that the Norway option was the most practical route for us to take.
Which is that we remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) and we join European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and we stay there for the single market. Whether we stay in the Customs Union or not, I'm open to argument on, I'm not really bothered. What you leave is the European Justice Forum, you leave the common fisheries policy, you leave agricultural policy. You're much, much more free to make your own decisions than you are where we are now. I went to Norway probably 15 years ago and came away pretty much convinced that we could do what Norway had done. If the Irish border were as easy as the Norway-Sweden border it really wouldn't trouble anyone. That's what I'm in favor of.
What about a Swiss route?
I mean the Swiss position is impossible for us. It’s taken you decades. We can never replicate which the European Union would never give to anybody else. (Pause) I'm sick of it. I want it to end. There are so many other things more interesting to me which are blanketed by this incessant …
What is most interesting to you at the moment?
At the moment, the danger of war.
Let’s hold back with war for a moment. Two key topics with Brexit are migration and borders. We've seen the topic of borders emerging everywhere in Europe. One new strongman of 2018 addressed it quite clearly. Matteo Salvini, the new interior minister in Italy. In May he refused to let the “Aquarius”, a ship with 600 refugees, come ashore in Italy. He said, "Italy has stopped bowing its head to obey. This time there are those who say no." Populists are now in the government in Italy, in Austria, and in Hungary, of course. What's your view of the populists in power?
Well our view is just to see if they can sustain it. Whether they can actually do it. The problem is the Mediterranean has now become Europe's equivalent of the Mexican border. It's almost impossible to seal it. The route is open. The real issue, really — the thing that you would need to examine — was the really insane war which Britain and France fought against Libya. I think that created irreversible...
With Obama in the back seat, leading from behind.
That war probably beats Iraq in its stupidity. Iraq was very stupid. Vanity, emptiness and the lack of thought. I opposed it at the time. The opening of the southern shores of Europe to mass immigration from Africa and indeed a lot of Europe's mass immigration from the Middle East has happened. While I might say that if it had anything to do with me, I would rather these things had not happened. I think my whole political position is based upon the Christian religion. I feel that we now have to cope with it. I'm worried about certain tendencies of conservatism in Europe who talk too idly about fighting back and creating hostilities. I'm very wary of that.
What is now to be done?
You have to learn to live with it. You have to. It's not reversible by any civilized means. You might be able to do something about slowing it down. I doubt very much, given the current position in the Mediterranean, you can stop it. You might be able to do something about slowing it down. But ask yourself in conscience: What can you do which is within the rules laid down in the sermon of the mount? This is why it's so important when you take major policy decisions to make sure they are right, because the consequences of them are so often irreversible. The whole of Europe is a heap of irreversible mistakes.
We see the reactions to migration politics. We have populists on the rise. Do you think that is bad?
It frightens me.
Because I'm always frightened by demonstrations of shouting at people. It scares me. I don't like it. I know enough history to know these things can end badly. You open the door to people of this kind and where does it end? People are always opening the doors. They think they can control them. Look at all the people they thought they could control.
Populists come in great diversity. Boris Johnson, for example, you could call him a populist.
Oh, Al Johnson his real name. Alexander. His family call him Al. Boris was a stage name, right. Al Johnson is just an amusing, witty, clever lightweight.
Is he clever enough to become Prime Minister?
Oh, yes. Because he has cunning. I wouldn't rule out him.
Another typical characteristic of this year is the attitude of “nations first”. After Trump said “America first”, everybody seems to remember that their nation should come first. Where does that leave international rights and human rights?
Absolutely, absolutely. I loathe Donald Trump. I think he's an oaf and a yahoo. But you can see why he says such things. He goes to the old industrial areas of the United States. They've been devastated by free trade, and you can see why Trump's offer of an end to it is appealing. I just don't think he has the power to fulfill his promises. And what always scares me about the populist approach is it's all very well at stage one, but when he disappoints. Who comes next?
What do you mean?
Countries whose mass public have been disappointed by populists are countries in danger of growing instability. If the United States becomes politically unstable, then we are in a mess. I was watching an episode of the “West Wing” last night they were discussing the Constitution. Almost every country which has adopted the American presidential Constitution has had a political catastrophe. Very few countries have made it work. The USA has been incredibly lucky. Their Constitution does not actually, necessarily, offer an easy way out of the crisis that they're in. It's all very worrying. I was never scared of the Cold War. Not for a moment. I'm scared now.
You think we might head for another Cold War?
No. The Cold War was fine. The Cold War was great. The Cold War was terrific.
You are afraid of a hot war? Where do you see it happening?
Oh, Ukraine. It is the point of friction. If I say to you the US Navy is building a command and control center in the Ukraine, most people don't even know this. And if I say that the European Union Association Agreement for the Ukraine in 2014 contained political and military clauses, I get attacked by Radoslaw Sikorski, the former Foreign Minister of Poland. He doesn't even know that there are political and military clauses in the Association Agreement, but there are. And Ukraine's ambition to join NATO remains completely undimmed.
What is it about Ukraine that worries you so much?
Well, put it like this. Part of the problem with the English study of history is that it's Anglocentric. We look at the First World War as Flanders Fields. Well, okay, a lot of it happened in Flanders Fields. We lost a lot of people. But there was a huge part of the war in the East. But what was it about? It was about Ukraine and when it started again in 1939 how quickly did it end up in Ukraine and Crimea and the Caucasus. Same things again, again, again. Here is my favorite story. Where was bloody Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at the outbreak of war in August 1914?
Not yet in Switzerland.
He was in Austria-Hungarian Galicia. The local police in Galicia picked him up. In obvious enemy area, but word came down very quickly from Austria-Hungarian military intelligence in Vienna, this guy is one of us. Get him on a train to Zurich. Now, why was that? Again, Lenin was mixed up in the stirring up of Ukrainian separatism on behalf of the Austria-Hungarians.
That was long ago. What is it about Ukraine you see as a dangerous hot spot today?
It is the whole business of NATO expansion. The most extraordinary mistake. There is a fantastic book “Who Lost Russia?” by Peter Conradi which lays out: The US Senate had voted for NATO expansion. And a huge amount of money had been spent by guess who? American Armaments and Aircraft Manufacturers to persuade the Senate to be in favor of NATO expansion. That's where it all came from. They were frightened that the Cold War was going to deprive them of their market. So, they wanted NATO expansion. It never had any proper political reason. It was, as we now know, in direct contravention of promises made to the Russians at the end of the Cold War. Catastrophe. And it goes on and on, and they put up with it.
We have this picture on the front pages of today’s newspapers. (On the table lies a newspaper with the funeral ceremony for G.H.W. Bush.)
It is so touching, isn't it?
It is touching with all the living presidents lining up to say farewell to George Herbert Walker Bush. Was he the last of a kind?
[sighs] Who knows? It is a very strange assembly of people, isn't it? Very strange assembly of people. I didn't particularly like George Bush, Sr. But you could not deny that it takes something to be a Navy pilot. It takes even more to be a Navy pilot and to be shot down, and survive and carry on the fight. He did that. Bill Clinton and the others haven't done. They're not even comparable human beings.
Obama, if he wrote, which I believe he did, “Dreams From My Father”, I think that Obama is a man of some intellect and charm, which is more than you can say for his successor. I make a habit of not despising opponents. You just must not despise your opponents unless they've become, in some particular personal way, your enemies. In debate, I would put up with anything except stupidity. As soon as people start behaving stupid in closing their minds, then, they're an enemy. But until then, I will debate with anybody on civil terms.
What has been the biggest act of political stupidity this year?
I think there was a lot of stupidity in Syria. It wasn't on a very large scale. The belief without evidence that the Assad government had used chemical weapons.
You doubt that?
I'm free to doubt it. I'm saying, if you think it happened, show me the evidence. There isn't any.
Talking about evidence and another shocking event in the Middle East. Who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October?
That, we really do know.
Well, everybody is pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. But the evidence is not out in the open for everyone to see.
Let's not put it like this. I don't think that the separation of powers is a major feature in the Saudi constitution. It's as far as I'm prepared to go. If they do separation of powers, I think they do it with a bone saw.
What did you make of Putin giving Mohammed Bin Salman a high five at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in December, in the midst of the heavy allegations against the Saudi crown prince?
Putin is a sinister tyrant. He runs a lawless state. What I do is I attack silly Western attempts to portray him as a new Hitler who's planning to invade Europe and take over, which will lead maybe to war. But he is a sinister tyrant. No question of it. He was trained by an organization which elevated cynicism to an art form. Why would anybody be surprised that he is cynical about the exercise of power? What worries me much more is to fake piety, a fake piety of other world leaders who are quite prepared to allow Saudi Arabia to behave as it does. Not just in the consulate in Istanbul, but also in Yemen. We do act as if there are people with clean hands who are not cynical. I didn't go into this to defend anybody's government.
It's been a confusing year. The world is getting more and more diverse. We learn that there are so many genders. I lost count of it. Do you know?
I decided to wait a bit to see if it settles down.
Facebook offers you now 60 gender options. "cisgender man" and "cisgender male," as well as "cis man" and "cis male” etc.
How sad that I was born so early. I could have had so many more genders. In my day, there were only two. I'm not against that arrangement. But, hey, look I'm 67.
In this time and age, you're a young.
It doesn't feel that way. I laugh at these things. There is nothing else to do. This is a triumph in ideology. You try fighting it and you'll be trampled by elephants. There's nothing you can do of it.
Don't you have to fight this gender madness?
I don't know how you would. The political battle over cultural, sexual and moral revolution was lost decades ago. It was lost in the mid ‘60s.
The mid ‘60s?
Yes. Particularly when the formally Christian countries abandoned any serious support for life long marriage. That was the point at which it went. Everything after that is an after effect. The gender frenzy, the same sex marriage thing — these are not attacks on heterosexual marriage. They are the consequences of the collapse and destruction of heterosexual marriage. That happened so long ago.
Isn't this the collapse of Christianity?
The collapse of Christianity in Europe was the consequence of the First World War. I think the First World War is the greatest event. I don't mean in terms of being admirable but in terms of being a consequence, a magnitude since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a mass suicide of Christendom. And the last moment of European Christendom is the famous Christmas truce where the German and the British troops celebrate Christmas together in the trenches and then the following day they go back to shooting each other.
In November, world leaders met in Paris commemorating the end of the First World War. Some commentators remarked that we're actually in a very similar situation again 100 years later. Uncertainty is rising, autocrats and nationalism are rising in the world.
This is putting the First World War down to some sort of Freudian studies, but it wasn't. It was the result of German policy. The German Empire decided it was going to make ground for Russia and for world power, and to do so it had to crush France. Well, so it did so. I still stick to the Fritz Fischer interpretation of World War One. Germany started it as an act of deliberate policy. It wasn’t a natural event like an earthquake or a thunderstorm. It was a deliberate act of human will.
Talking about war. France was just hit by another terror attack in Strassbourg. Where are we in the War on Terror?
It’s a war you’d never win. Therefore, it’s a constant excuse. Like the constant war in George Orwell's “1984”. There’s always a war because this justifies the curtailment of civil liberty and it justifies the expansion of security services and it justifies certain forms of foreign policy which would otherwise not be acceptable. I, myself, think that we do not face an existential threat from the Islamic terrorists. They can do terrible things. But actually we do much more damage by our over-reactions to them than they can do to us by themselves.
So, what can be done?
The only thing which would stand against Islamists would be the alternative which is Christianity. I prefer Christianity in many ways to Islam, intellectually and morally. The problem is that you can't say that without embracing it, can you? The modern Europe is totally secular and the modern United States although has a coating of Christianity is, fundamentally, secular, too.
But, now, let us talk about something uplifting. After a fierce war of words, the world witnessed a surprise meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Or is Kim outfoxing Trump?
I don't know. I made a visit to North Korea some years ago. I came to the conclusion that it was a desperate country in which most of the people are drunk a lot of the times. Probably the only way they can bear it. Do you live anywhere where there are floods?
Yes, on the Aare River in Bern.
You will notice after a really high flood, pools of water remain in hollows from which there is no escape. See the Cold War metaphorically as a flood, and North Korea is a pool trapped in a hollow. There is no escape. They can't get out. They can't take help from the Japanese, because Koreans hate and fear and resent the Japanese because of the occupation. They don't want China, because they fear absorption by China. They see no future in reunification. South Korea fears an enormous wave of starving refugees coming across the border if they open it. What they are frantic for is an American intervention.
Would he ever give up his atomic weapons?
There was a time when a tyrant could go and live in Switzerland with his money, and so he would step down. But then we began prosecuting one tyrant after the other. So, who on earth who has sovereign immunity is ever going to step down voluntarily ever again?
A power that is a rather silent tyrant is China. Chinese power is spreading all over Europe. Is China a danger for the world?
China is a danger for the world. They are exporting corruption, and there's no doubt that their activities in Africa, particularly, are beginning to overthrow all Western attempts to bring corruption to an end. The deals which they offer are attractive, initially, but they turn out often to be quite hard on the people, too. I do not think that it's ever going to become a stable, free, law governed country. It's just not going to happen. I don't think its philosophy or its nature will allow. What may happen is its internal problems may become so great that it falls into some sort of civil war and chaos again. That is the real danger of China.
You mentioned Africa. What's the greatest news out of Africa in this past year?
It's just an enormous tragedy.
Well, the thing is Africans all have hope. You go to Africa, these dreadful places, awful slum shanty towns and you're walking down the street and the sewage is running as well. The door of this miserable little hut opens and out come four beautifully scrubbed neatly dressed girls off to school. How do they do it? I just admire African mothers and their heartbreaking optimism.
Is there any hope in helping them?
A lot of people have made political careers out of claiming to speak for the poor.
In the US, we witness a Socialist movement emerging. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn is popular among the young. Is Socialism making a comeback?
I think Socialism went through a transmutation. The Soviet era froze it in a certain form. During which time, really only very clever people like Antonio Gramsci, who understood that the Soviet experiment had failed. He understood the 1920's Soviet experiment failed and that if the left was to progress, it had to find another way which is basically through cultural revolution. I think it was Gramsci who, and I don't know how witting this was, but I think Gramsci's ideas finally took shape in Euro-Communism.
With Euro-Communism, where the great Communist parties of France and Italy have more or less vanished, Euro-Communism is now part of the policies of both the Socialist and, indeed, the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe.
You were once a Trotskyite.
Certainly, I was a Trotskyite in the 1960's and 70's, and things which I would have thought a bit extreme are now the policies of the British conservative government. I think it's been one of the great triumphs of Socialism to transmute itself into something else. The proletarian revolution thing was not essential to it. It was an outgrowth and a mistake. And the Vanguard Party, the Lenin’s party, was a mistake. The whole Soviet era did nothing but harm the Socialist cause and the Socialists all had to apologize for it all the time. Now, they don't have to.
What's the chances that the Socialists are leading Great Britain soon?
Quite strong, actually. That's very possible.
What is happening with the leading ladies of Europe? Theresa May is tumbling. The power of Angela Merkel, the Iron Lady of European politics, is weakening.
She was never that. I always thought Merkel was an overrated figure. I thought she was a walking compromise, and that's why she became leader. People would write all these sycophantic articles about her being the new Margaret Thatcher. What ideas does she have? What does she stand for?
Isn’t the art of survival a walking compromise?
No, I don't think. If you want good compromises, you don't go into the meeting offering one, do you? You want the other guy to do the compromising. [laughter] That's my view, anyway. I don't know how you do it.
You're no better than Putin.
I'm not. But on the other hand, you're quite safe to drink that coffee.
Your office is located in Northcliffe House, named after the British newspaper and publishing magnate. What's happening to the media these days?
Newspapers are slowly losing their power. They've been doing for a long time. People under forty don't read newspapers very much. Newspapers are really unique. They are able to hold governments to account in a way that no other medium can. Thomas Jefferson said, "I'd rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers." I'm very much with that. How long are politicians going to continue to be afraid of this? Because they're so slow-witted, it'll probably be quite a while before they catch on. But, eventually, they will realize.
They're now far more afraid of Facebook. No?
I'm not sure what Facebook can do to them. Twitter has a power. Because Twitter can have frenzies. Twitter is an electronic mob and you can be afraid of that.
Was Trump elected by Twitter?
No. Trump was elected because the Democratic Party picked the only person in the world who couldn't beat him.
We have had a splendid time talking to you, Peter Hitchens. Thank you. There is one more topic we wish to address: In October “Girl With Red Balloon”, one of Banksy's best-known images, was self-shredded moments after being sold at Sotheby’s in London for $US1.4 million. Banksy later published a video showing how he placed a shredding mechanism inside an ornate frame. What does that tell you about today’s art scene?
Let me tell you something about modern art, which I learned from somebody very involved in the art dealing world. This isn't a boast about my influence. I don't really have any, but quite a lot of people read me as a right-wing commentator. People such as Banksy and people such as Damien Hirst long to be attacked by me and my newspaper, because in the art world, being attacked by the conventionally minded people actually increases the value and price of your artwork. When I learned this, I made a solemn vow I would never again attack any of it.
So, you didn't write about Banksy’s shredded picture?
I just won't do it. I'm not going to help them sell the garbage that they do.
You're not going to help Damien Hirst sell his fish?
I'm not going to do it. So much of the life of a conservative commentator is not responding to provocation.
Is there something you particularly look forward to in the future?
Christmas. I really like Christmas.
What kind of Christmas? Traditional Christmas with carols?
I love the carols.
You sing them?
I'm not sure singing is really the correct word. I join in. We had the other day, a wonderful thing in my hometown. At University Church, St. Mary the Virgin, in the center Oxford. It's had since 1939 (for reasons you can guess) a German Lutheran congregation. Each year, on Advent Sunday, there is a joint English-German service in which we sing the German and the English Advent hymns.
You sing in German?
Yes. It is called “Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme.” You know that one? It's very beautiful.
So, not all is lost then?
Good heavens, no, all is not lost.