“When the bugles call, the conservative’s instinct is to rally to the tattered…” Tattered what? Was it colours or banners? I was trying to remember the end of this line as I walked towards Café Phillies on Kensington High Street. To my surprise, the venue was unusually full, the average age of the patrons around seventy. I checked my Twitter feed. Macron had won in France and the EU bourgeoisie were predictably ecstatic. I ordered a coffee, took a table next to the door, and waited for Mr. Peter Hitchens.
For those too young to remember the birth of this century, the aforementioned quote is from an essay entitled “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” published in The Spectator during the buildup to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I was eighteen, an idealist, fairly radical (as people usually are at that age) and an admirer of Peter’s elder brother Christopher. In the wake of the 9/11 outrage, there was a widespread feeling that we were on the cusp of a civilisational conflict that would define a generation. It was also the first time I read anything written by Peter Hitchens.
As a sceptic by nature and a reader of history, I found the wisdom of transformative nation-building questionable. However, I am not ashamed to admit that I did not oppose the invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, I was not at all sure of the correct response to 9/11 given the circumstances. But I was instinctively opposed to the use of force as a tool for the promotion of values, even against an enemy as vile as the Taliban. This was in spite of the fact that I am from India, herself a victim of what Christopher called “Islamo-fascism.” Force, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history would agree, should only be retributive and punitive. Transformative force always risks imperial overreach. From the Romans to the British, the Mughals to the Soviets, everyone failed in their utopian wars.
Hitchens’s Spectator essay became famous for creating a rift between the two brothers, reflective of the broader ideological divide in the Western world between Wilsonian values promotion and Palmerstonian conservative realism. This personal rift began to heal in 2005, though their ideological differences persisted until Christopher’s untimely death. Over time, I began to prefer Burke over Bukharin, an embodiment of the cliché that men tend to grow more conservative with age and education. My optimistic radicalism inevitably diminished and I resigned myself to an acceptance of the power of structural forces and the limitations of human agency. The Hobbesian idea of an anarchic world – one in which societies are at a different evolutionary stages of development, and the problems of which admitted no simple universalist solution – made a lot more sense to me. I did not discard Christopher Hitchens entirely due to his neoconservatism foreign policy evangelism (I am still closer to his ideas on religion), but I began reading his brother Peter more thoroughly.
* * *
I didn’t expect my guest to be my height. From the YouTube videos and BBC Question Time appearances, I was, for some reason, expecting him to be considerably taller than me and rather imposing. As I stood up, relieved, I was met with a firm handshake. I suggested that the cakes looked good, as a sort of pitiful icebreaker. “Oh, I’m sure they are…but…” Mr. Hitchens then ordered a glass of orange juice. “Let’s get on with it.”
I find it impossible not to compare the two brothers, even though I had resolved not to do so. Despite their opposing views they are in other ways not dissimilar. I always found Christopher’s prose to be more forceful, like a sledgehammer to the medulla oblongata. Peter is a subtler wordsmith, more poetically stoic. There are, however, observable similarities: flashes of quick temper; a touch of arrogance; an earnestness and resolve to compel an adversary see your point of view, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Both were Trotskyist in their early days. Peter found Anglicanism, while Christopher turned from evangelical Marxist internationalism to evangelical neoconservative globalism. In a way, both remained men of faith; Peter had faith in religion, Christopher in transformative internationalism. I’d imagine this assessment would be mortifying to the latter, veritable hero of reason and logic that he was.
But my brief was different. I was meeting Peter to discuss a speech he gave at Keele University, titled “The EU is a Continuation of Germany By Other Means.” Given the current geopolitical situation, this assertion is surely so obvious it hardly needs empirical corroboration. For any researcher of geostrategy, it is clear that European Union is a hegemon in the making. The pattern is strikingly familiar. The EU is a liberal internationalist and interventionist force, governed by a small ideological elite, and it throws its weight around. The most disastrous example of these impulses ravaged the entire North African coastline and turned Libya into a slave trade hub. It is also expansionist, having accumulated the entire real estate of central and eastern Europe right up to the Russian border by either economic or military means. It has imposed tariffs on China, punished US companies, reprimanded India and Australia on human rights, is on a confrontation course with United Kingdom, and has openly pondered its own military force. Whatever one thinks of the EU and its liberal hegemonic ideology, these are the facts.
And yet, at a time when even academia is waking up to these facts, such a view is still too 19th century and ‘realist,’ given the media’s soft liberal bias on both sides of the Atlantic. European Geostrategy has revealed how the Gibraltar crisis between UK and Spain was a trap set by the EU. Bob Kaplan has called the EU a “necessary empire,” an assessment shared by George Friedman. I wrote in 2016 that EU intransigence would push Britain to be more nationalistic.
It is a theory of great power politics that if you push a great power too much, it will snap back like a spring. Britain and Russia are great powers, and facing a continental liberal expansionist hegemon might compel them to align tactically as a conservative nationalist counterforce. Imagine a situation in which the EU tries to break up the UK by stipulating that Ireland needs to be independent and unified within an expansionist EU. The inevitable reaction to such a development would be the British use of force to prevent it, and the subsequent instigation of nationalist and secessionist forces within Europe, just as Russia is doing now. Sounds implausible?
Peter agrees with the assessment, but adds that the EU is not just an empire, but a German empire. “No empire is completely benign.” The story of modern Europe has always been one of geopolitical rivalry between Germany and Russia. The British (and the Americans) have always tried to understand European geopolitics through a British (or American) lens as a struggle between the Anglophone and the Continental. In reality it was always about German expansion in the east. Britain foolishly miscalculated, twice, and joined a completely unnecessary war, losing empire and global hegemony in the process.
Germany and France have battled for dominance of Western Europe, which France lost in 1870. Mittel Europa was different. Germany tried to consolidate this militarily, twice, but failed. The third attempt has been much more subtle and successful. In reality, it was always about a German grand strategy of dominating East-Central Europe and Russia resisting it. The European Union is essentially therefore a modern avatar of the empire, based on Richard von Kühlmann’s imperial concept of “limited sovereignty.”
But what about Poland, I ask. Or other socially conservative states opposed to liberal hegemony or policies like mass immigration? “If you see Poland or other eastern European countries, alongside Germany, [the relationship] is clearly one of patron and recipient,” Hitchens replies. “Do you honestly believe that any country in Europe has the economic might of Germany or the capability to resist German diktats?” It was foolish of me to ask. The heartland of America is conservative and, one would imagine, quite non-interventionist, yet it is ruled by a liberal internationalist/neoconservative grand strategy. You can have differences of opinion within an empire, but the elites will still decide foreign policy.
“Look, empires are there to serve imperial purposes. I don’t think Americans worry about Germany dominating Europe too much.” Unlike Britain, the Americans have smartly realised that Europe needs to be dominated by Germany to balance Russia. Everyone will choose a side. There is no other option. “[The] Ukraine crisis is essentially punishing Russia.” This charge is extraordinary. “Russians played their hand smartly, which the West didn’t expect.” They offered a better deal to Yanukovich, and almost managed to tear Ukraine from the EU and ever expanding union. The result was a naked putsch, just months before there could be a general election. But if Putin is such a strategic genius, then why is he bogged down in Ukraine and Syria? “Well he is not a genius, but it’s a choice he made. Who controls Sevastopol now?” It is pure nineteenth century geopolitics. Land and naval access are still the key determinants. Everything else is secondary.
“But one might argue…” I begin. “Are we arguing or are you interviewing me?” Hitchens interrupts. “I don’t mind arguments, but we don’t have unlimited time today.” A flash of mercurial Hitchensian temper at my impertinence. I am there for a schooling, not a peer discussion. One needs to choose one’s words carefully in front of Peter Hitchens.
The topic turned to another of his causes, from migration, to terrorism and drugs. “Look, it’s simple, something about which I have already written. I’m not defending Islam, but crimes like gun violence in US or Anders Breivik were influenced by drugs. All I am saying is that terrorism is a very small percentage of crimes, and there is a high correlation of any crime with substance abuse.”
It was my turn to be frustrated. “But correlation is not causation…”
“I am not finished yet. Why not just have a look? My point is, we are not looking in the right direction. I was a fanatic myself, and it never led me to even think of killing my family members or murdering random people. Fanaticism in itself is not a spark for outrage, there must be something else.”
I obviously disagree, but we were running out of time. “Interesting.” “Well of course it is interesting, that’s why I said it!”
We moved on to religion. How can he possibly tolerate so much abuse on social media, especially from people who lack his talent and experience? Does his Anglican faith help him to keep calm and carry on? Or a sort of romantic martyrdom for pushing back against the conventional wisdom? “I’d of course like adulation, but I don’t mind arguments.” By now he was sounding almost friendly, even reflective. He calls himself an obituarist of Britain. “[The] United Kingdom is a threat to itself, not Germany or Russia.” Britain lost its sense of identity, social cohesion, faith, something which I think applies to the entire West.
Pessimism can be soothing sometimes.
As I watched him leave, it came back me. “When the bugles call, the conservative’s instinct is to rally to the tattered colours, however boneheaded the government.” And however unassailable or lonely the cause might be. Peter Hitchens is an Edwardian Englishman. Despite his resigned belief that Britain and the West are doomed, this probably gives him the causes to argue for, and the strength to face the incessant abuse from ignorant and anonymous trolls.
Interestingly enough, contrary to what he might believe, the West is now more socially conservative, non-interventionist, and isolationist than at any period of recent history. There’s more currency now for Peter’s ideas than he gives himself credit for, no matter how under-represented they are in the media. With a seething trans-Atlantic undercurrent brewing against the liberal elites, no victory for Macron or Merkel will solve the structural rot of ‘the empire.’ Nationalism is a hard concept to kill. Even the Soviet Union couldn’t manage it. Borderless utopianism is in trouble. If history has taught us one thing, it is that empires inevitably overstretch and contain the seeds to their own implosion. For the sake of the West, let’s hope that history proves its obituarist wrong, as it did in the past. I somehow believe, despite all pessimism and protestations, Mr. Hitchens would want that as well.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.