There are not many of ‘God’s Englishmen’ left. One of the greatest is Peter Hitchens, almost the sole defiant public figure of the early weeks of COVID-19. He has a doctrine, which one gradually learns, and then forgets, from one column to the next, and even from one conversation or lecture to the next. But it is a doctrine worth some written reflection.
The title I have used above is De Excidio Britanniae, which was the title of the first book written about Britain: a Latin phrase which means, aptly enough ‘The Ruin of Britain’. So we have come full circle from ‘The Ruin of Britain’ of the sixth century to ‘The Abolition of Britain’ of the 21st Century.
What is Peter Hitchens’s doctrine?
I call it ‘Black Pill’ partly because everyone is familiar with the language of ‘blue pill’ and ‘red pill’, and partly because it reminds me of Blind Pugh’s Black Spot: Robert Louis Stephenson’s remarkable symbol of the coming doom in Treasure Island. I heard James Delingpole explain somewhere that ‘black pill’ = ‘red pill’ + despair, where ‘red pill’ is that there are concerted forces behind the ruin of Britain. So ‘black pill’ denotes the idea that there are concerted forces behind the ruin of Britain, and that it is too late to do anything about it.
I saw that Peter Hitchens had delivered a Roger Scruton Memorial Lecture in Oxford a few weeks ago; so listened to it, and then listened to him on the Irreverend podcast. The interesting thing about Hitchens, who has always deferred to Scruton as a philosopher, is that Scruton was so much less robust and resolute than Hitchens. Hitchens has some of the inner workings of an English constable, an English admiral and also an English saint – of the Becket type – whereas Scruton, alas, and this is why he has never particularly been a hero of mine, despite his many good qualities, seemed to shield himself from actual politics and religion with woolly higher culture on the one hand and the admirable quixotic intrepidity which got him involved in Eastern Europe on the other. There was slightly too much Kant and Wittgenstein and Descartes and Sartre about his writing. Now, there is something to be said for a Scrutonian sensibility, and one sees flashes of it in men like Noel Malcolm, Jonathan Sumption, Robert Tombs and David Abulafia, and even in Douglas Murray (a confusing figure who cannot decide if he wants to be the Roger Scruton or the Christopher Hitchens or the Ryan Gosling of our time), but it is a sensibility which does not dare always to be wrong by official, including high official, standards. Hitchens does dare. So he is in the highest class of heroes.
The doctrine is simple, but has several elements. One is about Britain, or, ultimately, England, and one is about Christianity. Let me try to put it in some order.
- British or English national interest matters.
- It is the major way of making sense of foreign involvements. Therefore, the First World War, the Second World War, the Iraq War, the Ukraine War were all mistakes.
- It is also the major way of making sense of domestic politics.
- Conservatism, with a small ‘c’, is the key to understanding what should be done in British, or English, politics.
- Ultimately, the Hitchens model seems to be – as everyone says, or even mocks – an idealised version of the late imperial power he knew when young. But, truly, it is a 19th Century model: the one which we can find in Salmond’s Jurisprudence, say, where the role of government is twofold: internally, it is about law, and externally, it is about war. And, incidentally, law and war concern the same thing, which is about establishing right in the world.
- Politics is therefore a method of establishing a sense of how to establish right in this part of the world, and is mostly a matter of law and order. Hence the interest Hitchens has always had in the policeman: the policeman of the old-fashioned sort, preventing crime, dressed in black, rather than signing bits of paper about it after it has happened, decorated in fluorescent yellow.
- The rest of the model includes 19th Century meritocracy, and hence 19th Century education, with an emphasis on ultimate or original equality or opportunity, but also interested in fostering the right sort of elites by filtering them out through a modest but forceful higher education system; then moving them around on the right sort of transport; entertaining them with the right sort of entertainment, etc.
- There are obvious corollaries about the sort of society idealised here, and Hitchens has made more of some themes than others. He has, for instance, more or less stopped talking about sexual and marital subjects (possibly because he feels obliged to engage with the backchat he receives on Twitter); but has continued to talk about drugs, crime and cancellation. Hitchens is always prepared, has always looked into origins, going back 50 years or more, and offers current discussions some rare historical analysis. In addition there are the two major political claims.
- The first political claim is that the Conservative Party is dead. It is no longer conservative. Capital ‘C’ is no longer lower case ‘c’. It has been captured, not only by the libertarian conspiracy of the 1970s and 1980s, but by the Blair conspiracy of the 1990s.
- The second political claim is that the Blair conspiracy was worse, because it concealed a Trotskyist or Gramscian conspiracy to remodel the entirety of our society from within by using an ideology of multiculturalism, a policy of immigration and a technique of breaking down the distinction between government and society by encouraging ‘public-private partnerships’, in addition to whatever contemporary expedients came along, like, say, war, or the death of a royal: whereby whatever survived of British or English culture would be eroded away leaving only an empty set of ‘British values’ behind.
- The doctrines about Brexit and Covid are decisive. Brexit was right in principle, but the referendum was a constitutional hazard, and in practice absolute exit might have been worse than some sort of compromise. Covid was absolute folly: disproportionate, unwise, immoral, uneconomic, against British or English interest.
- Note that the arguments are always local, not global. It is not part of Hitchens’s doctrine to polemicise against ‘globalists’. He avoids that discourse; and does so conscientiously, saying that he prefers to consider that his ‘opponents’ (‘not enemies’) have good intentions, and that situation and location are always paramount. This is where someone like Delingpole would say that Hitchens’s ‘black pill’ is in the end just a jaundiced blue pill. Hitchens refuses to secularise the devil into corporations and conspiracies, though no doubt he thinks the devil is at work somewhere.
- Hitchens believes in cut and thrust. He is a remarkable polemicist, as talented as his elder brother, Christopher, who failed to find adequate ball and powder to load the musket of his moral power. However, there is a certain amount of Norman helmeted obtuseness about this: one sees it in Hitchens’s visard, the relation of brow to nose and eye; and it is admirable, though it means that he has prepared lines of argument which do battle with others’ usually far less well prepared lines of argument. The Dreadnought is not made for conversation: Hitchens’s arguments, when one knows them, come along the road like Soviet parades of tanks and ballistic missiles. There is also a habit of mentioning his own early Trotskyism as if this gives him an unfailing antidote against the nonsense of everything since. Not so: some of us have never been attracted to machine age revolutionary politics – and Augustine, say, gives one everything one might not already have taken from, say, Plato or Aristotle.
- Finally, there is a doctrine about Christianity. This stands somewhat apart from the home fires doctrine of the ‘British interest’ doctrine. But it is connected, ultimately, though, of course, it is hard to discuss adequately in our time. Hitchens is an old church-state man. The church is the Anglican church, the church of the English Reformation, which means the Reformation on both its superstitious and its enthusiastic side, hence Hitchens has a respect for the entire Christian tradition going backwards, but also a continual sense that Christ is the crux.
Since I mentioned superstition and enthusiasm, I should say that those words are an allusion to David Hume. Sometimes we may think scepticism is antithetical to superstition and enthusiasm, and so it is. Hume hated superstition and enthusiasm (of which there was plenty in Catholic-Calvinist Scotland in the early 18th Century). But Hitchens, unlike Hume, is not a universal sceptic. Like many of us, he is sceptical about secular truths: and it is his superstition and enthusiasm about religious truth which justifies his relentless sort of scepticism about the secular world. Hitchens might even be willing to say that it is the lack of religion which makes it possible for so many in modern Britain to become superstitious and enthusiastic about ‘climate change’, ‘pandemics’ and other fashionable causes.
If I may summarise the above summary: first, Britain matters, and, if not Britain, England; then, Christianity matters – quite independently of Britain or England, but also, as a matter of fact, dependently, as a fact of Anglican civilisation. The falling away from Christianity is decisive for Hitchens; and has some relation to, and is dimly to be discerned behind, his far more pointillistically detailed paintings of our falling away from the old worthy secular Britain or England into our current tinselly despond.
Hitchens is a journalist, so he writes more about police and trains and travels than about the church. He obviously writes at speed, but he writes well, just as he speaks well, and with some authority – the authority of that capacity for moral drilling through hard boards (which he shared with his brother) but also the authority of what he speaks up for: the old imperial sensibility, a new cautious sensibility, a Christian sensibility.
There are gaps, or awkwardnesses, in the doctrine, I suppose. One is the current provocative suggestion that the young should leave Britain, now it is ruined. I take this to be Psmith-type persiflage, though Hitchen’s twelve-inch gunned manner is designed to make one doubt. Another is the British Empire. Anyone who argues that the First World War and Second World War were mistakes has to be something of an imperialist. But this is a great burden: a ‘white man’s burden’ that no one is willing to take on – how to justify or theorise the empire now. The empire is nowadays, as we know, taken to be a period piece. I suppose Hitchens would have to fall in with the Benjamin Disraeli’s and Niall Ferguson’s hypothesis that the empire of liberty (the only imperium based on libertas) was for that very reason the first self-liquidating empire. Though he could claim that decolonisation could have taken place on better terms – though what that would have meant for the world (a world without the World Wars, a world with a stronger British Empire) is not clear.
Getting back to contemporary matters, Hitchens said, in the Scruton lecture, that there is nothing to be done about the world: that he is in ‘inner exile’. This disconcerted Daniel Hannan, who in sharp viva voce examination manner tried to cross-talk Hitchens out of it. But there is nothing new in Hitchens’s ‘inner exile’. For a start, Maurice Cowling, another one of the last of God’s Englishmen, wrote in 1980 (in a book, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, which is one of the greatest works in the high English literature of the last century) that the only possible position to adopt in the face of the contemporary world was a ‘Jacobitism of the mind’ which would protest its conviction that the ‘modern mind is corrupt’.
Hitchens, who began as a Jacobin, is now an open Jacobite. But it is not only the last half century in which we have seen this sort of Jacobite attitude arising about our world. The earliest Christians declared that they were xenoi, strangers or foreigners or exiles, in this world: and this word is in the Bible, suggesting that even the apostles were aware that the old Greek or Roman idea of the ‘citizen’ did not apply to them. Tertullian said something similar. So did Augustine in the City of God, that masterwork of the Middle Ages. Everyone lives on the ‘city of earth’, civitas terrena, but Christians seek to live in the ‘city of god’, civitas Dei, and so are ‘pilgrims’ in this life, on this earth, in this world.
The black pill is not, therefore, despite appearances, a counsel of despair. It is not giving up on the world, at least not in Hitchens’s Christian version of it. This is because he is stating it loudly, in stentorian voice: the world is corrupt. This is not an abandonment of the world. It is, on the contrary, prophetic. It is the sort of thing engaged in by Jeremiah (who was thrown into a sewer for his pains), and Gildas, and Milton, and Keble – and Orwell, for that matter. And prophecy is an act in the world. It is work in the world: and, as such, it is, sometimes, working works (to use a New Testament turn of phrase) on behalf of the truth. Even giving up on the world is, when declared to the world, an act of stern chastisement: and, I think, and I am sure I am not alone in thinking, that this is something the world needs to hear.
Britain might be ruined. But saying that there is nothing to be done about it is to do something about it.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.