Many decades ago, a British couple named Eric and Yvonne Hitchens had two children, both of whom grew up to be prominent journalists and political commentators with strong contrarian streaks. The older son, Christopher, who died in 2011 at age 62, was a lifelong Trotskyite and atheist; the younger, Peter, now 68, went through a period of youthful leftism and unbelief before moving to the right (although he still calls himself a social democrat) and becoming an Anglo-Catholic. There’s one other important difference between the two brothers, and it goes beyond political orientation: while Christopher was a bon vivant of the first water, famous for his wit and charm, who enjoyed cocktails, liqueurs, and a few bottles of wine over dinner and had a glittering circle of friends from all over the political map, Peter is a notorious curmudgeon, wet blanket, moral scold, and full-time blowhard who, on TV or radio or podcasts, seems incapable of making a point succinctly. Also, he has an upper-crust accent that makes Jacob Rees-Mogg sound like Ernest Borgnine in Marty – an accent that, fairly or not, makes him comes off as an unbearable snob. (In fact, his English sometimes ascends to glorious heights of aristocratic mumbling that many a mere American may, at times, struggle to make sense of.)
But let’s come to the point. In recent weeks, Peter Hitchens has been by far the most high-profile critic of the measures instituted in Britain to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In a March 21 column for the Sunday Mail, he asked: “How long before we need passes to go out in the streets, as in any other banana republic?” He accused his government of assuming “grotesque, bullying powers” and of employing “the crudest weapons of despotism,” and charged that his fellow Brits “seem to despise our ancient hard-bought freedom and actually want to rush into the warm, firm arms of Big Brother.” The following Sunday, March 28, he returned to the same topic with equal passion and hyperbole: “As I watched the Prime Minister order mass house arrest on Monday night, I felt revulsion, anger and grief – as anyone brought up when this was a free and well-governed country would.” Calling Britain under lockdown a “Stasi society,” Hitchens said that he wondered “whether there might also be restrictions on what can be said and published.” Humberside police, he noted with horror, were “already advertising a ‘portal’ for citizens to inform on their neighbours for breaking the ‘social distancing’ rules.” On the third Sunday, April 5, he was back with more of the same.
Meanwhile Hitchens was giving interviews on the subject to (it seemed) anyone who asked. Appearing on Good Morning Britain, he got into a headline-making contretemps with host Piers Morgan. Speaking with writer James Delingpole, Hitchens said that the UK lockdown is a “move away from the rule of law….We live in a country under authority rather than under law.” He held up Sweden’s refusal to lock down as an example to be followed. (He even called Sweden a “well-governed country.” If he thinks Sweden is well-governed, I’m not about to buy anything he’s selling.) Chatting with John Anderson, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Hitchens said that “this atmosphere of total belief in what Big Brother tells us” is “most dispiriting” and that he fears we have reached “the end of civil society.” And in an appearance with Mike Graham on talkRADIO, Hitchens waxed eloquent about the heritage of Magna Carta: “England has had a unique form of law and liberty for many centuries and it’s based on this fundamental principle: everything is legal unless it’s specifically prohibited by a law agreed by a free parliament….There’s something servile with being told by the government and the police when you can leave your home. Anybody who doesn’t fundamentally bridle at being told that the police can decide when you can leave your home or not has really got something wrong with them.”
My take on all this: good for him. Radical lockdown measures of the sort undertaken in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere around the world should be criticized vigorously. The arguments of people like Peter Hitchens should be widely aired and given thoughtful consideration by everyone. No, I don’t agree with him about any of this, but I’m glad he has plenty of outlets that are willing to give him a hearing. What I do wonder, however, is this: where was Hitchens’ ardent devotion to Britain’s ancient liberties during the decade and more prior to the present lockdown, when the existence of Muslim grooming gangs all over Britain was an open secret in journalistic and political circles, but when nobody in a position of power dared speak the truth about them in public – even though those gangs’ activities represented the most disgusting imaginable violation of the civil liberties of thousands of young and innocent British girls?
Where, moreover, was Peter Hitchens’ stirring rhetoric about the inviolability of British freedoms when Tommy Robinson – who first brought widespread attention to those grooming gangs, thereby earning the everlasting enmity of the British Establishment – was taken into custody for broadcasting outside a grooming-gang trial in Leeds, and then (within the space of a few hours) tried, convicted, and imprisoned on charges that the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales later found entirely illegitimate? Hitchens refers with horror to the possibility of “restrictions on what can be said and written.” But there already are such restrictions: during the last few years, innumerable decent, law-abiding Brits have been harassed, and even jailed, for criticizing Islam on social media. Where was Hitchens’ fiery pen when all this was happening? As noted, he’s outraged at Humberside police for arranging means by which people can “inform on their neighbours for breaking the ‘social distancing’ rules.” Is he unaware that British police have, for some time, been actively encouraging citizens to rat on neighbors for criticizing Islam?
As many readers, I hope, will remember, Christopher Hitchens, who moved to the U.S. in 1981 and became a proud American citizen in 2007, was, after 9/11, one of the most eloquent, outspoken, brave, and uncompromising critics of Islam on the planet – a man whose voice on this issue has been deeply missed since his death. Peter, by contrast, while occasionally making a vague, feeble gesture toward disapproval of one of two of the most obviously noxious aspects of Islam, has repeatedly taken the line, as he put it in a 2014 article, “that the immigration has happened, that we have new neighbours, and that it is our absolute duty to get on with them and befriend them as best as we can.” He was, he wrote in that same article, “scornful of the windbags and panic-spreaders who now seek to make an issue out of the supposed takeover of some state schools by Muslims.” If Christian schools are allowed, he asked, why not Muslim schools? After all, “I, and many traditional British Christians like me, have a lot in common with Muslims.” For example, “[w]e dislike the pressure on teenage girls to dress as sluts and get drunk….We’d much rather our children went on religious pilgrimages than to a Britney Spears concert….We see nothing shocking in the idea of boys and girls being taught separately….We don’t especially want schoolteachers to undermine our views on marriage and child-rearing in politically radical ‘sex-education’ classes.”
So much, then, for “schools” in which the only text is the Koran and in which children are taught systematically to revere bloodthirsty murderers and have contempt for Jews, Christians, Hindus, gays, infidel females, and the very societies in which they live. So much for the systematic oppression of women under Islam. So much for forced marriages. So much for female genital mutilation. So much for the “honor killings” of girls by their own parents because they went outside without wearing a niqab or had a conversation in public with a boy who was not a family member. Nor was Hitchens’s despicable 2014 article a one-off. In 2016, he tweeted: “Why is Islam the only force still standing for modesty?” In 2018, he expressed support for a pregnant ISIS member with a UK passport who now wanted to “come home.” And in an article published last July, he wrote that the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo massacres, and indeed “almost every incidence of supposed terrorist killing in Paris, were perpetrated by long term cannabis users.” In other words, these acts of jihad had nothing to do with Islam – they were motivated by marijuana. “You will find this again,” he went on, “with a man on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, the man on the beach in Tunisia, the man who drove the truck through the crowds in Nice.” If you think Hitchens might have been smoking something when he wrote this, he has made essentially the same argument repeatedly over the last few years.
And what, finally, of Tommy Robinson? Peter Hitchens has consistently treated him with utter contempt. “I loathe everything he stands for,” he wrote at his blog in August 2018. “Please waste no time here trying to persuade me that I should have any time or sympathy for such a person.” He linked with approval to a Daily Mail article by Guy Adams that might just as well have appeared in the Guardian. Adams called Tommy a “hatemonger” and “far-Right activist” who’s “bankrolled by a flood of foreign money,” including cash from “an opaque and controversial network of U.S. billionaires and far-Right lobby groups.” Among those groups: “an anti-Islamic website from Canada called The Rebel Media,” “the Middle East Forum, a controversial think-tank based in Philadelphia,” and – surprise! – the “far-right” David Horowitz Freedom Forum, which the “Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights charity, has described…as a ‘hate group’ which publishes ‘anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant racist sentiment’.” In addition to the SPLC, Adams cited the Center for American Progress and the UK’s Hope Not Hate – left-wing smear machines, all of them. Such is the kind of perfidious propaganda that Peter Hitchens pushes.
So it goes. The more one peruses the oeuvre of Peter Hitchens, the more a certain pattern becomes clear. Of course he knows that Tommy Robinson has been a victim of systematic injustice, ordered and sanctioned by officials at the highest levels. Of course he knows that British police have urged citizens to turn in purveyors of “hate speech.” Of course he knows that many of his fellow Brits have been harassed by police, and in some cases even locked up by courts, simply for tweeting about Islam. Of course he knows that untold thousands of girls have been raped, some of them hundreds of times apiece, by Muslim gangs. But all these victims of government indifference or authoritarian overreach have one thing in common: to borrow a word from Hitchens’ own lexicon, they’re rabble. Rubbish. Scum. The dregs of society. “The United States,” he told Anderson, the Australian politician, “is under very poor leadership….There doesn’t seem to be any argument about that.” No, not among the elite types whose opinions Hitchens considers worth listening to. It’s plain that he regards the views of Trump voters as undeserving of his notice.
Note that the cops have never arrested Douglas Murray for writing his 2017 bestseller The Strange Death of Europe – even though it contains some pretty strong words about Islam, and was far more widely read than any of the tweets that have landed many other Brits in hot water. But then, Murray went to Eton and Oxford, has a posh accent, and moves in all the right circles. In short, he’s a nob. Such people are, by definition, inviolate. Or were, at least – until now. Which is why it’s only now that Peter Hitchens – a member of the beau monde, the crème de la crème – is sounding off so furiously about “British liberties”: for even though British authorities have for years been trampling brutally on the freedoms of the hoi polloi, it’s only since the beginning of this lockdown that Peter Hitchens has felt his own freedoms threatened. Good on him for speaking up; too bad, however, that he didn’t say something sooner, when the individuals being punished for exercising their freedoms were riffraff.