The Tab talks to Peter Hitchens

Russian bears, the flaws of idealism, and filling the vacuum

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Peter Hitchens.

Having read his work before, there was a part of me which expected a fulminating tribune of the right, spewing invective about immorality and generally living up to the wet-dreams of the sort of people who use psuedointellectual bigotry and memeing as a substitute for a personality.

There was also a part of me which, having seen him in the debate, awaited an exercise in contempt and brutality, with his comment about “land[ing] on Malcolm Rifkind” making me raise my eyebrows and think longingly of the beer which awaited me on the other side of the interview.

I’m pleased to say that I was wrong on both counts.

Peter Hitchens, and some speccy student.

He’s clearly not a fan of the US. “From the Suez Catastrophe, to the imposition of a deal with terrorists in Northern Ireland, to the extraordinary decision to move European Union and NATO power westward into the Ukraine in 2014…”, he argues that many of the cock-ups in recent European history took place, if not at the US’s instigation, at least with its help and encouragement.

He likes mentioning Suez, stating that “the Iraq War was America’s Suez Crisis. It was their act of grave stupidity.” After Suez, Britain and France conclusively fell from the ranks of the superpowers, leaving the US as the dominant power in the West. If the US is in decline, it follows that they should be replaced by something else.

But as to what this replacement is, Hitchens is slightly less clear- certainly not Russia, “with a GDP smaller than that of Italy” and “no capacity” to go on the offensive in the Ukraine, “the idea that Russia is a threat is a dangerous fantasy.”

Suez- the end of one superpower, and the shape of things to come.

Instead, he advocates a system (in Europe, at least) where countries with “long experience of constitutional rule… come up with an arrangement as to how Europe should be divided up and governed without the US’s help.” So it’s a farewell to superpowers, and a return to national politics, with nations running their own affairs without the help of a US nurse in the background.

Listening to it, I’m not sure whether it’s the new reality, or a fantasy which seems close to coming true. Based on recent events, with the US’s international standing in freefall under Trump and May pushing for a hard Brexit, I’m inclined to believe that while this new, isolationist universe may not be a good thing, it’s where we’re headed.

Throughout the Union debate, there was an Elephant- well, a Bear- in the room. What of Russia? What of this geographical giant? In Hitchens’ eyes, it isn’t a threat. Its GDP is tiny, its armies are paper tigers, and its propaganda campaigns in the West are at best ineffective, at worst “a bogey, like so much about Russia. it’s a bogey, exaggerated and inflated for effect.” In short, we shouldn’t fear the Russian Bear- it’s hardly a snarling grizzly.

The Russian Bear, according to Hitchens.

Hitchens has often been critical of idealism in politics, but his vision of a return to nation state politics seems rather idealistic in  itself. We asked him about this- “instead of arguing against idealism, you are instead arguing for a different vision.”

“I don’t think the idea of the nation state is an ideal, it’s an actuality. The nation state exists.” On the idea that actualities are grounded in ideas, he argues that this isn’t necessarily the case- “if the idea comes first and the actuality second… but nation states existed before we developed the theory of nation states… they [were not created] by idealistic philosophical developments, but by rather cynical philosophical developments.”

Hitchens in the flesh is far more reasoned than he appears in the tabloids, and less of a bully than he appears in his television appearances. He is a far cry from the raging prophet the alt-right in this country considers him to be, and also distant from the bogeyman painted by the left and centre.

He is a man who professes a disdain for idealism, but nonetheless comes across as something of an idealogue. At the last calculation, he is a contradiction, a raconteur, and a determinedly individualistic thinker.

He is also a pleasure to interview.

Lewis Thomas interviewed Peter Hitchens on January 19th 2017, along with writers from TCS.