Monday, 22 August 2011

The Cameron Delusion, Peter Hitchens (aka The Broken Compass)

"If the Conservative Party were your refrigerator, all your food would go bad.  If it were your car or bicycle, you would be stranded by the side of the road.  If it were your accountant, you would be bankrupt.  If it were your lawyer, you would be in prison.  If any consumer good, service or profession so consistently and predictably disappointed or failed in its ostensible main purpose, people would turn their backs on it.  It would be overtaken, replaced and driven out of business by a better competitor."

The old battles between left and right, says Peter Hitchens, are over.  The Conservatives' recovery after 2005 was manufactured by the media, who felt able to trust David Cameron to preserve the prevailing left-of-centre consensus.  The torch of New Labour was passed, over Gordon Brown's head, from "Anthony Blair" to David Cameron.

For Hitchens, the contemporary centre-left of Blair and Cameron has nothing to do with the old left of nationalisation, trade unions and Cold War politics.  Rather, it is a broad cultural and social liberalism.  Hitchens writes of how it "tore apart the old constitution of family life", with easy divorce and welfare for single mothers.  Meanwhile, decent-minded opposition to racial bigotry ("racialism") turned into left-wing anti-racism, with "racism" in this context meaning anything other than support for mass immigration and multiculturalism.  Something similar has happened with sexism.  If Hitchens is to be believed, it is difficult to locate an area of British life where the leftists have not left their characteristic trail of destruction behind them: the marvellous railway network has been ruined; the state education system has been vandalised (Hitchens comes dangerously close to making sense here); the Anglican Church has been subverted; and an unholy alliance of un-conservative "neoconservatives" and pro-war leftists have managed to get together and pursue disastrously misconceived foreign policy adventures like the Iraq War.

Much of this is typical Hitchens - a repetition of his reactionary political credo, as laid out at greater length in The Abolition of Britain.  His position can fairly be described as idiosyncratic.  The notion of a fundamental continuity between Messrs Blair and Cameron is quite widespread on the left, but it tends to be advanced in the context of the claim that the Blair-Cameron consensus is fundamentally right-of-centre.  After all, New Labour largely accepted the Thatcher settlement, didn't it?  Hitchens' riposte to this is that Thatch herself, for all her right-wing Cold Warrior rhetoric, largely failed in practice to overturn an older, liberal-left consensus.  According to Hitchens, this consensus has been in place at least since the 1945 Attlee government, if not since the 1930s, when the Conservatives under Baldwin and Chamberlain began to adopt socially progressive policies in order to draw support away from the rising Labour Party.

There is something in this.  It would be possible to make a long list of reforms undertaken by Liberal and Labour governments that have become practically irreversible, including David Lloyd George's creation of the welfare state, Clement Attlee's creation of the NHS, Harold Wilson's legislation on gay sex, abortion and divorce, and Tony Blair's new constitutional settlement.  I can understand why this stuff would have a reactionary conservative like Peter Hitchens tearing his hair out.  As for Thatcher (whom Hitchens doesn't seem to have much time for), she talked a good right-wing game, but she succeeded neither in shrinking the overall size of the state nor in bringing about a return to Victorian social values.  She accommodated herself to political realities and public opinion more pragmatically than is usually realised; when, towards the end, she started to develop delusions of omnipotence, the electorate turned against her and her colleagues removed her from office.  It was only after she left Downing Street that she turned into a caricature of herself.

Some of the book is given over to Hitchens' personal political journey from the left to the right.  This was a gradual, drawn-out process - unlike, say, Terry Eagleton's boast that he had gone straight from Catholicism to Marxism without bothering to go through liberalism.  Hitchens moved slowly, over a couple of decades, from the Trotskyite revolutionary left to the archconservative right, taking in the Labour Party and the SDP on the way.  He talks about his travels in Soviet-era Eastern Europe and about the Winter of Discontent.  He complains that the left in Britain was too soft on the USSR, and in some cases actively sympathetic towards it.  He claims that the mainstream left in the early 1980s was riddled with Marxists, and that the CPGB exerted significant influence on the Labour Party through the trade union block votes.  He recalls an interview in which Lech Walesa denounced the TUC, which preferred the official tame communist unions to Solidarity.

It is safe to say that the world which Hitchens knew as a boy and which he would dearly love to return to is never coming back.  Short of an ecological catastrophe (it may be remembered that Hitchens doesn't believe in climate change), nothing is going to de-invent the car, the contraceptive pill or the basic structures of the welfare state.  Postwar mass immigration is not going to be reversed, and Christianity will never again be a mass religion in this country.  Hitchens has written elsewhere that "[a] national party espousing my views would in my opinion sweep the country".  But the Conservative Party hasn't been that far from Hitchens' views even in recent times.  William Hague tried selling an anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, pro-Section 28, law-and-order agenda to the voters in 2001, and they responded by giving Labour a majority of 167.  The old, hardline version of IDS - whom even Hitchens admits was a real Tory - wasn't even allowed to fight an election before his colleagues realised he was going to repeat Hague's performance.

Having said all this, it must be admitted that there is a constituency for Hitchens' views.  He himself warns that, if his agenda isn't taken up by "civilised and thoughtful men and women", it will simply be appropriated by the likes of Nick Griffin.  One hopes that his judgement here is as questionable as it is elsewhere.