The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost Its Way

It must have been in the early 1970s that I first met the author of this book.

He was then a young reporter on the Swindon Evening Advertiser and a keen member of the International Socialists.

In my mind’s eye I can see him now, a clutch of copies of Socialist Worker under his arm, as he advanced slightly nervously into the dingy light of a wine bar in Holborn that the staff of the New Statesman used to frequent once the day’s tasks were over.

But he knew, of course, that he was among friends: his brother and fellow-IS member, Christopher, then worked on the paper, as did at least one other equally enthusiastic IS evangelist, the art critic and future professor of poetry at Oxford, James Fenton.

All three of them have travelled long and complicated journeys since then, and it is only fair to say that the now 57-year-old Peter Hitchens – currently the Mail on Sunday’s answer to the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer – never seeks to conceal the dramatic nature of his own ideological odyssey.

Indeed, in easily the best chapter (entitled “The Prague Train”) of this always spirited book, he even describes how a visit to eastern Europe in 1978 finally enabled the Marxist scales to fall from his eyes. Six years later, he abandoned his Labour Party card, though it remains possible that this process was hurried along by the not notably hospitable atmosphere of the Hampstead Constituency Labour Party general management committee, when he campaigned for its parliamentary candidate in the 1979 general election, Ken Livingstone.

Today, famously, he is a fully fledged flail of the left, though interestingly this had not led to any great devotion to the Tory cause, least of all as represented by the emollient David Cameron.

If there is one thing that can be counted on from the reconstructed Hitchens, it is his eagerness to go tooth and nail for political timidity wherever he detects it – and, in his view, “compassionate Conservatism” is every bit as vulnerable in this respect as was New Labour back in 1997.

He writes with much of the verve and brio of his elder brother and with a greater regard for detail and accuracy. (He is plainly, however, slightly overawed by him – witness his uncharacteristically rueful admission that he is not prepared to pick any further quarrel on the family front.)

But what is it that he is really trying to say?

That his subtitle should appear in one form on the dust jacket (How British Politics Lost Its Way) and then in quite another on the book’s title page (How Left and Right Lost Their Meaning) argues a certain confusion of purpose – and not only on the part of the publisher.

For what we are eventually served up with is a hotchpotch of separate essays – some addressing familiar targets such as the group of Westminster journalists who form the parliamentary lobby, others drawing on the author’s experience as a foreign correspondent, and all culminating in almost a cry of despair at the lack of a confrontational element in contemporary British politics.

On this last, unfashionable point, Hitchens may well discover that it commands assent in surprising quarters. Whatever may be true of scripture, in politics there is something repellent about the notion of the lion lying down with the lamb.

Indeed, many would go further and argue that, by turning the old poster colours of interparty combat into pastel shades, Tony Blair performed a singular disservice to British democracy. It is not, after all, only governments that have to “choose” (to borrow Pierre Mendès-France’s phrase); so do voters – and they can only do so if confronted with a real choice.

With what I take to be Hitchens’s core argument I confess, therefore, to having a sneaking sympathy.

But, alas, in this book it gets muffled by any amount of padding – the way in which successive governments have consistently chosen roads over railways; how Christian marriage has been sacrificed to illicit unions between same-sex couples; even a rousing tally-ho in favour of grammar schools and an uninhibited running-to-earth of the late Tony Crosland.

None of this denunciatory approach exactly comes as a surprise – though the final, unfortunate impression is of some faintly out-of-date figure searching the kitchen for any pot or pan he can hurl against the spirit of the age.

This cannot help seeming something of a pity because, on the form displayed here, it is clear that the old revolutionary socialist has lost nothing of his passion and indignation as the years have passed us all by.

It is merely the convictions that have changed, not the fervour and fanaticism with which they continue to be held.

Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman between 1972 and 1978

The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost Its Way
Peter Hitchens
Continuum, 236pp, £14.99