The other Hitchens boy

On "Mortality", journalism and Russell Brand.

A review on the cover of Christopher Hitchens’s final, posthumous book "Morality" insists that "there isn’t another Hitchens". I visited the offices of the Mail on Sunday in Kensington to meet the man who stands contrary to that dust-jacket’s praise.

I meet Peter Hitchens in the building’s foyer, and I am politely welcomed, and extended the offer of seeking a coffee shop. Hailed as the most dour and cold of conservatives, I’m alarmed by the warmth and enthusiasm with which he shakes my hand, before leading me on a tour of the nearby Kensington squares and streets.  He expounds on the diplomatic area’s regal housing, winding towards a café that he assures me will be perfect for our conversation.

            When we arrive, the French owner is closing up early to visit the Notting Hill carnival; but he welcomes my host with a smile, and they exchange a couple of edgy jokes about Peter’s controversial stance on immigration. We’re all grinning. The other Hitchens - the man who’s had me nervous all day - is now laughing too. Put mildly: this is not what I was expecting. We eventually bury ourselves in the corner of a different café.

            Born in Malta in 1951, Peter arrived two years after his brother Christopher. Their father Eric - affectionately dubbed ‘The Commander’ - was stationed on the island towards the end of a long career of service in the British Royal Navy: with his wife Yvonne, he had moved the family abroad just after their first son’s birth. This was to be the first of many geographical shifts for the Hitchens clan as they followed the Commander between various work posts.

            By the time he was fourteen, Peter was in Cambridge at the same boarding school as his brother, and from there, he would remove himself to York for university. He graduated with a Politics degree in 1973. As we’d navigated the chess board of Kensington’s pedestrian crossings, he’d laughed about his sloth as a student: time not spent relaxing was consumed with proselytizing about his growing Trotskyism. He flashes me an ironic grin when I ask about his recent 60th birthday.

            "I’d probably been born to be middle-aged. I welcomed its arrival. I’m not one of those people who thought “Oh, no! I’m 40! Life has come to an end!” It’s a time of life I’d always wanted to reach, and I haven’t - so far - found it disappointing."

            He also offers a lament for his teenage years:

            "Being a teenager is awful. I feel great sympathy for anyone going through it. You aren’t what you want to be, you want to be what you can’t be, and you don’t understand it, and you’re not capable of understanding it until it’s over. One of the terrible things now is that you’re free to follow impulses that you really ought to restrain. That’s why being a teenager is so much worse nowadays. Nobody says “stop”."

            I tense a little; here is a glimpse of the staunch conservatism that has won him such notoriety. We discuss his views on education and British society, and above all he mourns the effect of modern life on children.

            "When I see - in some of the poorer suburbs of one of Britain’s larger cities - the children in the push chairs with the dummies crammed into their mouths, or children of ten with that hardened look that they can develop these days, it saddens me. People don’t know what’s good for them at that age. Adult authority is terribly important."

            Sensing a shift towards the topic of lawlessness, I ask him about a recent - and cringe-making - encounter with comedian Russell Brand. Peter and he formed part of a panel about drug addiction on Newsnight. They had dueled before, and Brand had ignored Peter as a "Daily Mail bigot".

            "He started again with the stuff about bigotry. I plainly listen to my opponents and take some care to figure out what it is that they think, and I offer reasoned rejections of their positions. You can call me a reactionary, you can call me anything you like: bigotry is just false. I have to defend myself against this. If you don’t respond, then it sits there. In fact, the logic of Russell Brand actually supports my position. If [heroin] does enslave you for life, then surely almost no effort should be wasted in making sure you never have that first contact."

            Brand had appeared on the show to promote his BBC Three documentary on life as a drug addict, and spoke stridently - if vaguely - about the need for compassionate, non-threatening treatment of users. Peter is having none of it, and insists that preventative measures are the real solution. His new book, "The War We Never Fought" (an attack on the allegedly fictional war on drugs), was released at the start of October.

            "One very effective way of [deterring users] is to make possession of this drug a very serious crime. People who haven’t got the sense to see that it’s a stupid thing to do will at least have the incentive of knowing that their life is seriously damaged if they are caught. Doublethink is incredibly common here, otherwise left wing people couldn’t sustain their belief."

            Russell Brand isn’t the only leftist celebrity with whom Hitchens has brawled intellectually. At the Vanity Fair memorial for his brother, Peter’s biblical reading was praised by the comedian, writer and actor Stephen Fry. Following an almost immediate disagreement, Hitchens told Fry how little he thought of him.

            "It was about him seeking me out. I was trying to avoid him."

            He likens Fry to Bill Clinton: finding the one person in the room who disagrees and trying to woo them.

            "I’ve never liked what I’ve seen or read of him. I didn’t want to make a scene [at the memorial]. But he seemed to be anxious to have the conversation with me. It’s dishonest to pretend friendliness to people you don’t like. We disagreed about religion, and the next thing I knew he’d put something about me on Twitter."

            A tweet which was soon deleted, following criticism from Fry’s followers. It’s not hard to find online; it denounced Peter as inferior to the late Christopher, calling him a "clod".

            "[Fry’s intelligence] is not what you’d call lightly worn. I don’t want him locked up, I just don’t like him. The BBC might benefit from having some other voices, and one of the things they value him for is that he uses [his Cambridge education] to espouse revolutionary views."

            I feel I have him in battle mode, and ask him what gets him writing in his fiery way. Then he’s grinning again, and charming, and I’m disarmed.

            "I just think it’s fun. You get your name in big print, and it has a feeling of not being left out. I’m blessed with some skill at words, so it’s easy for me. I find the idea of doing quite a lot of things - athletic, mechanical, scientific - extremely off-putting. So I want to do the thing that I find easiest."

            Supping his coffee, he quotes the old Ronald Reagan joke:

            "When I was a boy, I was told that hard work never killed anybody, but I didn’t want to find out if it was true or not."

            It was in childhood, too, that he first developed a flair for this written word. The conversation is continually shifting - he can talk with the trademark Hitchens smoothness about almost anything. He holds court on literature, history, politics and philosophy, although he loathes any talk of theology ("I’d rather go to the dentist").

            But I’m fascinated by the brothers as a pair, and I ask him if anything caused two such ardent scribblers.

            "No, I think it’s easy to over-psychologize these things... [My brother] would say, with great generosity, “No, actually, if you tried to work out which one of us was going to be a journalist when we were children, it would have been Peter.” Because that was the thing I was best at."

            He muses about the family newspaper he produced - "unimaginably filled with cricket scores - and assures me that, blood apart, they were always very different people.

            "We got into [journalism] in such completely different ways.

            The brothers both worked at the Daily Express in 1977, but apart from that:

Christopher barely worked for a daily newspaper at any time in his life. We were completely different."

            Nowhere was this more apparent than in their intellectual stances. Peter responded to his brother’s best-selling atheist polemic, ‘"God Is Not Great", with his own book, "The Rage Against God. It covers their initially similar beginnings as Trotskyists and atheists, and describes Peter’s transformation to the Christian right after seeing a haunting portrayal of the Last Judgement. Despite this, the pair did have some contact: the afterword to "Rage" narrates the brothers having dinner in Christopher’s Washington apartment.

            He died in December 2011, and I don’t want to press Peter too much on this recent sorrow. Alarmingly, he seems eager to continue, regaling me with heartwarming family stories, and he jokes about his brother’s seeming lack of physical grace and domestic prowess.

            "There was the late night with the bottle of scotch and the unending conversation, there was the circuit of speech-making, there was the endless hours at the keyboard: but the idea of him roasting a leg of lamb, or taking a child to the playground, or mowing a lawn was just unimaginable."

            Yet these are all things he confesses to having discovered about his brother, some in person, some posthumously. Despite this warm discussion:

            "We didn’t have much to do with each other. He went away to school in Cambridge, and for a year nothing much happened. Then, one Christmas, he came back. And he’d left us to all intents and purposes. He wasn’t interested in being a member of our family any more, he’d found another world. He’d had the horizons of the world opened up for him, and he knew that he had to get out. He’d set his heart: it was going to be Oxford and it was going to be Balliol [College], and he was going to get out."

            He’s suddenly serious.

            "He was consumed with the fear of the suburb. We lost him then, and from then on he was a sort of stranger. When he was home, he was home anxious to be away. Term would come around and he was keen to be at school in the larger life that he’d got. Our father found it completely incomprehensible, our mother not much less so. He’s made this drama out of their contrasting personalities, but it wasn’t quite like that. They were both pretty baffled by him."

            He pauses to gather his thoughts, and drinks more coffee.

            "Because we grew up at boarding school, we didn’t have networks of friends. We were always moving anyway. We were forced on each others’ company, certainly more than he wanted. So [when he left], I felt very much deserted. He’d gone. And when people say to me that it must be terrible to lose your brother, I tell them yes, it was a pretty awful thing: but in reality, I lost him 40 years ago. We could finish each others’ sentences in private language, we knew a lot of the same things, and when we were together it was never awkward. But I wouldn’t claim any great friendliness."

            Then he seems to U-turn.

            "The fact that you’ve known each other longer than anybody else means that there is an irremovable closeness which nobody else can have. That served at the end quite well. It made it a lot more..."

            And he breaks off, and stares past me. Consulting the recording of our conversation, he stops for over ten seconds. When he looks back at me, he isn’t crying - but his eyes aren’t dry either.

            "He didn’t want to be told things, or for people to make references which suggested that he might die. I knew that. The times when I went to see him - when I knew he was dying but he wasn’t admitting it - I managed to contrive them all to be visits for other purposes. Otherwise, I felt, it would be like the bloody angel of death flapping onto your windowsill. There was always an assignment, or a speaking engagement. I never went with the specific purpose of seeing him because I felt that, if I did that, he would feel dispirited."

            He gestures to the copy of Mortality on the table.

            "And then I read in this that that’s exactly how he did feel."

"Mortality" is out now, available from Atlantic Books at £10.99.

"The War We Never Fought" was released on 27/09/12, available from Continuum Books at £16.99.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change