Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens is one of the most forthright critics of the government’s irrational and damaging policy on coronavirus.
LAURA PERRINS: Peter, in the spring on the eve of the first lockdown you and I opposed it. In the mainstream media you were nearly the only dissenting voice. Do you feel vindicated now that we approach Christmas under restrictions?
PETER HITCHENS: I don’t think ‘vindication’ is the word. Information and analysis easily available at the time, from several distinguished scientists, especially Sucharit Bhakdi, Sunetra Gupta and John Ioannidis, showed that the Government’s response was disproportionate to the problem and a departure from all previous human experience. Professor Bhakdi also warned convincingly of the dangers of the shutdown to public health in general, to human society, and especially to the old but healthy. I remain astonished that so many failed to perform their normal duties of sceptical scrutiny, forgetting their education. Do you really have to be an ex-Bolshevik like me, trained to doubt the official version, to resist the conformism of panic? In that case, we badly need more ex-Bolsheviks. I was not guessing or taking a gamble.
LP: Did you think it would get this bad?
PH: No and yes. My reasoning mind had no idea that it would be so bad, because I had made the habitual – and mistaken – assumption that the checks and balances of our system would eventually assert themselves. I realised that this was an error when Lord Sumption’s powerful intervention was brushed aside and had no impact. That was when I grasped that there were no brakes on the Johnson machine. But my instincts had told me from the start that something quite exceptionally serious was under way. I had a strong sense of foreboding in the fortnight before March 23, foreboding about freedom as a whole, which was not then justified by the facts. Now it is.
LP: How bad do you think it might get?
PH: I have no idea. The numbers of people beginning to grasp that this is a terrible mistake have grown. I am delighted to welcome them to our beleaguered little island lost amid the vast swamps of hysteria and unreason. But we are still a minority, and the almost complete failure of the BBC to abide by its Charter and Agreement means that millions are unaware that there is even a controversy. I have been trying very hard to encourage a truly large write-in to MPs, almost the only lawful and peaceful means open to us to influence events (Simon Dolan has tried to act through the courts but at the moment there is no sign that he has got anywhere). One of my reasons for doing so is that I value the rule of law above all. Our current form of self-righteous autocracy, which classifies its opponents more or less as immoral saboteurs who wish to ‘let the virus rip’ and kill their grandparents, has no safety valves. Limited constitutional government has to operate on the understanding that opposition is legitimate and criticism valuable. Johnson and Hancock do not appear to share that understanding. Starmer has failed in his duty to assert the legitimacy of opposition. I fear that if the government does not soon admit its mistake, growing numbers of people ruined by its policies will become dangerously angry. Once that happens, there is no telling where it might end, but I am certain no good will come of it.
LP: Why are people going along with this? I saw the latest poll saying over 50 per cent actually oppose loosening restrictions over Christmas?
PH: Mainly it is the result of the destruction of rigorous education half a century ago. People who were once taught how to think are now taught what to think. Even the supposedly independent schools and the great universities have been drawn into this. This submission to conventional wisdom, repellent to me, has mass support. Electronic media and the weakening of family and private life have helped to make us a more conformist society, which fears and dislikes dissent.
The other sad truth is that free countries become complacent about their liberty. They think it is a natural state of affairs. They do not realise how rare freedom is, how easy it is to lose, and how hard to regain. It may be even worse than that. I have often, as I have shuffled (seething silently) through the humiliations and stupidities of airport security, got a worrying impression that far too many people actually quite like being bossed about. Get them to believe that handing over their liberty is a benevolent life-saving action, and they will hurry to do as they are asked.
LP: How dangerous is the Tory party right now?
PH: The Tory Party has for some years been the main obstacle to conservatism. I spent years trying to persuade people of this, when it might have done some good. I completely failed. But I suspect that the economic consequences of Johnson will be so bad that the Tory Party itself may not survive what is to come. I fear that this outcome, which I once desired, will be far too late to do any good. The era in which a new conservative formation might have been created, and might have understood, opposed and reversed Blairism is, as far as I can see, gone for ever. The future looks pretty bad to me.
LP: If we voted in Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, do we deserve what we are getting now?
PH: I don’t think anybody deserves this, or that it could have been predicted at the time of the last election. But I do think a lot of people were far too easily taken in by Johnson’s image. One certain effect of these events is that his old easy popularity, largely created by Have I Got News for You, has dissipated. He’s still there, even so.
LP: Is there any hope for the future that people will wake up and start opposing this tyranny?
PH: Probably not. It is not really a tyranny, unless you can construct a tyranny out of marshmallow. It is more of an obdurate, glutinous stupidocracy, which intelligent people find intolerable while the rest mutter ‘mustn’t grumble’ as they absorb the latest insult or humiliation. But we must try to oppose it. What we do here and now will matter somewhere else at some other time. If our formerly free society shrivels into a banana republic, ruled by puerile slogans and Johnsonian populism, without one serious cry of protest or one notable effort to save it, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Hence my call for everyone to write now to their MPs in such numbers that they cannot be ignored, saying this must end. A really big revolt in the Commons on Tuesday [today] could be the first step back to sense. Could be. Probably won’t be though. People mock Eeyore, but he remains one of the most intelligent, unillusioned and witty figures in English literature.