Belfast Festival: Peter Hitchens

The veteran rightwing journalist on abortion, Direct Rule and the perceived lack of drug law enforcement in the UK

Best have your ideas in order before speaking to Peter Hitchens on any topic other than the weather, though even then he's likely to hold you on the difference between mist and drizzle.

We speak ahead of his arrival in Belfast to read from his book The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs at the Belfast Festival at Queen's, a book which argues against what Hitchens terms ‘the general liberalisation view’ embedded in the UK’s anti-drug laws. ‘There are people who disagree with that view,’ he says. ‘I am one of them.’

Hitchens is preparing for a busy few days including an Oxford debate with the infamous Welsh dope smuggler Howard Marks, known as Mr Nice, and our conversation is arranged so rapidly that I am, frankly, utterly unprepared for a detailed and disputatious 20 minutes with one of the most prominent English journalists of his generation. 

20 minutes in which he dispenses wisdom on the legal status of cannabis, cocaine and heroin, as well as stating dead-cert opinions on abortion, and the unfashionable notion – in genteel Belfast social circles, at least – that the Stormont power-sharing executive represents ‘the most disgraceful surrender to criminal violence in modern history'.

But Peter Hitchens is openly a man of the political Right, and while his columns for the Mail Online provoke snarky remarks from left-wingers, in conversation he is argumentative but ultimately generous, insisting (even when I try to abandon ship) on giving more and more time to an ill-informed and inarticulate dupe who picked the wrong day to test the value of ignorance as an investigative tool (i.e., me).

The UK Drug Policy Commission has just published A Fresh Approach to Drugs, a report six years in the making which concludes that the UK wastes most of the £3 billion it spends each year tackling illegal narcotics. The report does not suggest the legalisation of any substance, but the BBC reported on recommendations including simple fines for possession, and drug treatment orders in place of cautions, arrests and criminal records.

Hitchens’ immediate objection is that the commission, with its grandiose name, is likely to consist of people who are already in favour of relaxing drug laws, and that the title gussies up the group’s true status as a common political lobby. But even though the government is not obliged to act on the report, Hitchens feels that the current laws have not been meaningfully enforced in years.

‘Britain has decriminalised cannabis more than Amsterdam has,’ he argues. ‘But it hasn't been done officially. It has been done by a series of unofficial and semi-official steps, the most recent being the introduction of a thing called the "cannabis warning". Never legislated by Parliament, just adopted by the police unilaterally, which means that if you’re caught in possession of this illegal substance nothing happens to you. The law has been eviscerated by practice, or rather by lack of practice.’

Which may be true. I do not know anyone who has been cautioned let alone arrested for possessing cannabis. Important to mention that I don’t smoke the stuff, but I’ve registered the aroma during sunny lunchbreaks in respectable parks, and even been surprised in professional environments where the smell of an unseen joint lit somewhere outdoors expands and wafts in to fill an office interior before ten in the morning. When I interrogate my own experience I begin to think that just maybe, Hitchens is right.

This is part of the appeal of reading him. He is maligned by liberals as a representative of repugnant conservatism. A Guardian review of The War We Never Fought finishes by saying that the book should never have been published, but no-one can deny that Hitchens is a provocative voice driven by principles.

When he was awarded the Orwell Prize in 2010 for political dispatches from Canada, Japan and South Africa, I was reminded that, from time to time it’s useful to read against the grain, as it were, to challenge your own little orthodoxies and, as his brother Christopher suggested in his 2010 memoir Hitch 22, ‘to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind’.

But there is little time to ponder such things. Hitchens has not heard of and cannot comment on the Caleb Foundation, who successfully lobbied for a Creationist exhibit to appear at the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, but offers a few remarks on political lobbying in general.

‘Pressure groups are constantly working on government. The sensible ones work so quietly that you never know they're doing it. The day I hear about any lobbying will be a sign that lobby is weak. Strong lobbies are embedded in the political system anyway – it tends to be weak lobbies that make noise and hand out leaflets and have all the noisy meetings. Demonstrations are demonstrations of weakness.’

He has, however, heard about the Belfast opening of a Marie Stopes private abortion clinic. I ask if it strikes him as old-fashioned that women in Northern Ireland haven’t up until now had the same access to these kinds of services and facilities as in other parts of the UK.

‘Well you describe these things as services and facilities. What you're talking about is the killing of an unborn child. That's not a "service" or a "facility". That’s an utter shame.

'I don't think that it should be happening anywhere. And the encouragement of women, usually under pressure from men, seems to me to be deeply disgraceful and a blot on our civilisation. An annual massacre of something in the region of 180,000 unborn children is one of the most shameful things that our country permits. Especially at a time when so many people who cannot have children are desperate for them.’

He is prepared to concede – remembering that this is not the main topic – that not all abortions are imposed upon women by men. But ultimately, the availability is a shame about which very little can now be done.

‘They're not always imposed directly by men, but I'm not going to argue about that. This isn't an interview about abortion. If you want one of those we’d have to have one another time. It's a long and detailed subject. But they often are [imposed], and the principal beneficiaries of the post-1967 Abortion Act have been irresponsible men. The principal losers, of course, being the millions of babies who have been massacred.’

I'm reminded that the interview is about the importance of consistently enforcing drug laws. The idea that people should have the right to choose to possess illegal substances only washes, for him, in the sense that citizens are free to knowingly break the law.

‘It's a right to choose to be a burglar as well, and that is also against the law. If you choose to be a burglar you ought to be arrested, tried, and if found guilty, locked up. You can choose to break the law if you want to, but if you break the law, the law then punishes you. Seems to be a fairly basic principle of a free society.’

And it’s the law that guarantees a free society, which doesn’t leave much room to consider the idea that punitive laws might be less effective than a compassionate approach to drug addiction, or that laws can criminalise people who might otherwise be seen as suffering. Hitchens says that compassion should not be confused with soppiness.

‘It's not necessarily compassionate to somebody to make it easier for him to take a drug which will destroy his life and the lives of those who love him. It seems to me to be a wholly prejudiced attitude to believe that a feeble law which isn't applied, even though it's been clearly published and passed through Parliament and is agreed by the normal national organs of decision, why it's compassionate not to enforce that law. What is compassionate about letting people ruin their lives?’

It’s a question I cannot answer, and I become increasingly aware that, during the course of our conversation, my vague objections and half-formulated questions no doubt give the impression that I am some kind of sneaky advocate for across-the-board legalisation.

The truth is, I realise with a measure of fear and trepidation, that Hitchens’ stridency, capability and oratorical ability have unlocked some latent puritanical impulse within saying that, if there were a referendum tomorrow to outlaw both alcohol and tobacco, I’d vote for it without hesitation, canvassing in the streets to guarantee its success.

We have a little light talk about Ireland. Hitchens loves the place, both Northern Ireland and the Republic, finds it beautiful and interesting and loves meeting the people. Politically speaking, though?

‘I think it’s regrettable that we have surrendered in Northern Ireland to terrorist murderers, and put parties which are in alliance with terrorist murderers in political power.’

This is a jolt, if only because it seems so clear in contrast to most utterances about the euphemistically-named Troubles. And while you might object to Hitchens’ ‘we’, he is at ease with being one of the few Fleet Street journalists who opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998. He offers to send cuttings. ‘It seemed to me from the beginning the most disgraceful surrender to criminal violence in modern history... to eviscerate any claims by the British Government to be opposed to terrorism.’

In his opinion, Direct Rule was at one point the way to go, and that it was much underestimated in terms of an enormous amount of work undertaken to abolish discrimination.

‘I think Stormont should have been abolished and Northern Irish elections should have sent MPs, as everybody else in the United Kingdom does, to Westminster and to nowhere else. But since then, thanks to devolution and Europeanisation and many other things – and of course the surrender to terrorist violence – that’s a pipe dream. There's no point in even raising it.'

I'm beginning to wonder if we'll ever find any common conversational ground when Hitchens states something I can find no problem with. ‘My concern,’ he says, ‘was always the maximum happiness and peace and harmony and prosperity among the people of Northern Ireland.’

Hey, I think. This interview's beginning to swing. But our time really has run out, so there's nothing left to be said apart from thank you. ‘If you’re able to email me whatever results I’d be very interested to see it,’ he says. I will indeed, certainly. ‘Good luck,’ he adds. Yes, I think, in total agreement now. I am going to need it.

Peter Hitchens reads from his new book, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs, at the Elmwood Hall on October 22, as part of the 2012 Belfast Festival at Queen's.