Peter Hitchens thinks Cambridge is self-destructively shutting out “ideas it doesn’t like”

We chatted to him over summer


“No-one likes us, we don’t care” – so goes one of sport’s most infamous chants, sung by the supporters of Millwall Football Club.

It’s not hard to think of public figures who embody a similarly unabashed approach towards their own unpopularity; Peter Hitchens, the outspoken author and Daily Mail journalist, is undoubtedly one of them.

He even prefixes his own name with ‘The Hated’ because, he tells me, “I might as well get some enjoyment out of it”.

Following last year’s controversy, from Greer at the Union to Farage’s no-show, I thought it would be interesting to start the interview by re-opening ‘that’ can of worms and hearing what one of the most vocal practitioners of the freedom to express unpalatable opinions had to say on the matter.

Hitchens at King's Politics.

Fraternising with the enemy at King’s Politics.

What it boils down to is this, Hitchens argues: “freedom of speech isn’t freedom of speech unless it extends to people you absolutely loathe”.

Even though he recognised the distinction between having the freedom to express objectionable opinions and being given a platform from which to share them, he says it’s “particularly shaming at a university, which is supposed to be a kingdom of the mind to close it to ideas it doesn’t like”.

I point out that the threat to freedom of speech comes by no means exclusively from a noisy student Left. There has been a challenge from the opposite end of the political spectrum with the government’s counter-extremism legislation, measures Hitchens describes as “very worrying”.  

Let me explain.

Let me explain.

These proposals include the blacklisting of ‘extremists’ from universities. Hitchens’ concern is the presumption that someone has the right, or, more importantly, the power to decide what is acceptable speech and what isn’t – “I don’t think the government should have that power”.

With this, the conversation moved onto a scathing attack of the Tory Party, “the principal obstacle to conservative politics” in Britain. Hitchens has never hid his dislike for their latest regenerations.

He is a proper Conservative: “respect the past and its decisions above all things, and leave people alone as much as possible”.

In a world in which “the Left dominates the culture”, the Right has had to compromise and “take on its ideas”, he said, sounding almost paranoid. This is why there’s “nothing between Cameron” – who Hitchens has referred to as Mr. Slippery – “and Blair at all”. They both come from the same philosophical origins, apparently; those being Marxism and Communism. Who knew?

“Even thick people can embrace ideas they don’t understand”, Hitchens states, though I’m not entirely sure if he’s referring to the political parties or me here. What’s clear is that “there’s been a funeral” for his conception of conservatism. By the sounds of it, there weren’t many at the wake.

Give him a glass of wine and he doesn't hold back.

Give him a glass of wine and he doesn’t hold back.

He is, however, qualified to talk at length (which he does) about the political ideology of the Left, this much becomes clear. As you’d expect, Hitchens confirmed he wouldn’t have been caught up in Corbynmania while he was a student. But that was only because he saw him as a “useless reformist…a bit of a compromiser” at the time. Confused? Well, that’s what he thought “when I was a Trot” – yes, Peter Hitchens used to be a member of the Trotskyist International Socialists.

How did he end up there? The answer to this is equally bizarre. He’d hoped to spend his young adulthood in the Navy “sinking the Queen’s enemies”. When the Empire collapsed, the only logical conclusion for a self-confessed “disappointed imperialist” was to become a young revolutionary instead. Quite the leap, but you probably had to be there.

It’s fair to say his views have changed. When I ask why he berates me for a such a boring question. I should be focusing on the 60-year-old revolutionaries and left-wingers who “haven’t grown up, withdraw their pensions and still go to Rolling Stones concerts. What’s wrong with these people?” Certainly not an impeccable taste in music.

Hitchens fits into the stereotype of student socialists leaving university and becoming raving Tories. Why might there be this connection between students and the Left? “Because students don’t have to take any responsibility for the things they do or say”, he laughed in response.

Don’t tell a guy in charge of feeding a morbidly obese cat that he doesn’t know anything about responsibility, please.

Exhibit A: Morbid cat.

Exhibit A: Morbid cat.

Hitchens doesn’t see an enormous gulf between having to put up with this government, “fraudulent about its purposes and often ignorant about its actions”, and one led by Corbyn, which would “at least be open” about it what it’s doing.

An unexpected half-endorsement the Corbyn camp was presumably awaiting with bated breath. But Hitchens doesn’t care much for any of the parties on offer to him – “I’d be happy with one that even vaguely represents me”. Nothing worse than someone fishing for sympathy; not from me Peter, not from me.

The hour-long phone call was peppered with characteristic controversy and occasional absurdity: addiction is a “fantasy”, the Tories are “extremely left-wing”, the War on Drugs is a figment of our imagination and New Labour were Marxist. Even Corbyn is electable, for Christ’s sake. It seemed for large parts of the discussion as if no truism I’ve held dear would be spared from attack in the parallel universe Hitchens sometimes appears to inhabit.

Or maybe I’m the mad one? After all, even Millwall win occasionally.

@danielselwyn