Date finished: April 9th 2016
At some point, we all challenge ourselves by reading something out of our comfort zone. When it comes to fiction, I’m happiest reading something a bit out-of-the-ordinary which challenges my perceptions. But in terms of political non-fiction, I’m still finding myself and my own views, and thus I tend to stick to a certain sphere of political non-fiction that I know is generally related to my world view.
Of course, that’s not the best way of forming one’s political views. One has to challenge oneself from time to time in order to become better-informed and more well-rounded in their views. If you’re going to read books that preach to the choir, you’re probably not going to learn anything especially new. So, when a family member recommended The Broken Compass, on the grounds that “it’s the kind of thing you read”, I was simultaneously taken-aback and intrigued.
The Broken Compass is adequately surmised in topic by its sub-heading “How Left and Right lost their meaning”. The book is written by Peter Hitchens, who you might know as the brother and yin of Christopher Hitchens’ yang. If not, allow me to summarise what little I know of Peter Hitchens:
- He writes as an independent columnist for the Daily Mail which is, quite simply, one of the worst newspapers in Britain: full of spin, unsubstantiated claims about all manner of things, and pursuing an obviously right-wing agenda that stoops to loathsome lows in its so-called ‘investigative journalism’.
- He once wrote a column advocating a Yugoslavian-style all-out war with Scotland for holding its referendum. Whether in jest or seriously, I can never decide.
- He’s a vocal proponent of the war on drugs, despite a general acceptance that it’s failed.
- He’s an old-style Burkean Conservative. This meaning that he adheres to a very old-school philosophy of social conservatism, far-removed from the modern Conservative party who distance themselves from Burkeanism. It’s a very moral, religious and old-fashioned form of thinking that has fallen out of favour in recent years, notably among the Conservative party themselves.
- He’s actually an intelligent and passionate man. I don’t agree with his views at all, but I find it hard to deny he’s an eloquent-speaker; a man of his convictions and I can’t fault him for that.
For these reasons and the aforementioned inclination to challenge my own beliefs, I decided to delve ahead with the somewhat unappealing task of reading The Broken Compass. In the preface alone, I’m intrigued and repelled simultaneously. Hitchens speaks about instances of a more-divided, modern politics in which individual politicians have pursued causes quite at odds with their party’s ideologies, as well as instances such as New Labour pursuing a hodge-podge of Left and Right philosophies at once. He then undermines it all by delving into theories of Marxist conspiracies in which politicians try to cover-up their former-communist pasts in order that they might perpetuate some insidious, covert Marxist scheme to undermine all that is noble and virtuous in Britain. What Hitchens doesn’t seem to consider is that high-flying politicians like Mandelson and Darling might be more preoccupied defending business interests who might not look kindly upon former radical left-wing tendencies in those with whom they collude.
In the book’s first volume, he goes on to describe our revolving door politics in Britain: ministers meeting up with journalists to get certain stories printed that further their careers, newspapers towing a certain editorial line with an acceptable sphere of what can be printed – well-established as an informal guideline for all journalists, and the tendency for the media’s switching of allegiances and the rise of a new party going hand-in-hand. It’s worth pointing out now that The Broken Compass was published in 2009, and therefore deals with the leadership of Brown, the expected rise of Cameron, and Blair, Major and Thatcher’s premierships before.
To an extent, this dates the information somewhat. The tendency for Parliamentary secrecy coupled with the slow-leaking of information to journalists was a specifically Blairite-era phenomenon, as Hitchens points out himself. It wasn’t quite as established before 1997, and has somewhat fallen out of favour these days as the Tories do whatever they want with little backlash, and Labour are placed under constant scrutiny over minor things. That’s not to say this kind of collusion between MPs and journalists no longer takes place but, even as a boy of thirteen, reading the newspapers seemed a surreal experience in which a disproportionate amount of people were attacked thanks to whistleblowers and leaks.
This line of thinking is somewhat similar to that outlined in Owen Jones’ fantastic book The Establishment, though Hitchens peppers his with random paranoid remarks about cultural Marxism and Leftist conspiracies, which is a good way for anyone to undermine their own argument. The Right are sure that the BBC is a breeding ground of Leftism and the Left are convinced that the BBC favours the Tory mantra. Both can’t be true, so neither must be. The BBC swings both ways, if you ask me.
Jones was willing to interview and include examples from both Left and Right to explore his points. Hitchens is, by and large, content to ramble on self-importantly about his own experiences as though they’re the only ones that matter. He backs it up with a few choice quotes and gives little acknowledgement to any potential counter-arguments. In my experience, this seems to be the favoured method of argument in semi-unstable right-wing commentators.
Things start to get somewhat unrealistic when Hitchens starts talking about the ineffectiveness of the Tory party since the 1930s to undo any of Labour’s policies, indeed becoming complicit in their schemes by not reversing such policies as the NHS, and the welfare state; and implementing what he sees as Leftist, globalist policies such as pursuing the Common Market. He even portrays Thatcher as being a tool of this strange conspiracy to impose Labour’s will upon the nation, and, though I see what he means when he says that historians will say Thatcher was far less radical, and Blair far more radical than either seemed at the time, I find the way he fits all these disconnected facts into one theory rather convenient and not very believable.
Might it not be the case that, the NHS and welfare state having been met with vigorous support from the public upon their formation, that the Tories would never win an election again if they opposed such well-established British institutions? If the breaking up of the Empire was occurring due to multiple factors (the break-up of most empires globally, revolution and industrialisation of occupied countries, etc), would the Tories not have been mad to try and reverse it? And, as for pursuing the Common Market, this marked the beginning of Neoliberalism which is largely unrelated to Left or Right-wing politics.
It’s easy to criticise Hitchens on this point with the benefit of a few years to look back on. Hitchens predicts that the Tories, if elected in 2010, will largely adopt a Blairite-style spin method and not touch any of New Labour’s bastions. In a sense, he is correct – the PR-ruled governance of New Labour continues under the Tories, but the way in which the Tories are similar to, and different from New Labour is much more complex than a simple pursuing of left-wing values. The Tories relentless sale of everything British is neither conservative nor left-wing. The Tories have transcended traditional left and right-wing politics for all intents and purposes, and have instead adopted a form of Thatcherite Neoliberalism that serves profit, and nothing else. The modern Conservative party is ideologically moribund, and utterly self-serving; a power and money project that pays mere lip service to democracy.
That’s not to say I completely refute Hitchens’ idea of cross-party collusion to keep politics within an established status quo, it’s just that I believe he overstates its reach and ramifications, making it sound like a concentrated conspiracy rather than just an unfortunate fact of a corrupt democracy.
In the book’s next volume, Hitchens delves into his own felonious past as a former Trotskyist, and how he became disillusioned with the Left. His reasons are his own, and point to the various hypocrisies of Soviet-era communism. This is fine – everyone has different points of views. It’s the way he sneers at others who don’t follow his line of thinking that I find baffling. Though he can cite several examples of his own disillusionment, when it comes to trying to convince others he often presents one example – possibly exceptional – and considers it more than enough proof. Clearly. Hitchens preaches to the converted. These arguments are intended to support a line of thinking, not convince others. I’m no communist-sympathiser, but Hitchens’ manner doesn’t make me want to agree with him.
We then come to Hitchens’ views on racism, sexism and homophobia. He describes himself as an anti-racialist and a defender of a monoculture through which we can be all equal, and dismisses the charge of ‘racist’as a vague, meaningless insult leveled at those who disagree with intolerable practices of radical Islam or positive discrimination gone mad.
Of course, Hitchens’ vague monoculture doesn’t specify which culture we’re all going to be a part of. He believes that immigrants should assimilate the culture of their host country and, certainly I believe they should learn the language and abide by our laws – I should imagine 99% of immigrants do this without the intervention of myself or Daily Mail contributors. But the subtle implication seems to be that Hitchens believes we can all get along, regardless of skin colour, as long as we all think in exactly the same way – a sort of communism of the mind, Mr Hitchens? And, obviously, Hitchens will want us all to think along the same lines as he does. That way he can rid the world of the things he doesn’t like: rap music, feminism, Islam, etc.
In this way, he seems to subscribe to an increasingly outdated belief in society needing to be held together by one truth – a monarch, a political ideology, a God. A more modernist view, which I myself hold, is that society, and indeed reality, is made up of multiple overlapping perspectives that allow us to approach all things from a variety of different views. If we can appreciate the inherent differences in these views we can use them to gain a greater overall understanding of ourselves, society and life in general. This, at its logical extreme, might create a monoculture, but it would be an inclusive monoculture – as opposed to Hitchens’ implicitly exclusive monoculture.
Hitchens pays fervent attention to the Left’s supposed “love-affair” with Islam, and is very loud about anti-semitism in Islam without paying any attention to the problem of Israel in the Gaza strip. It’s very convenient to forget this when denouncing Islam as inherently sexist and violent. Like many on the Right, he equates the practices of a vocal minority with the beliefs of the wider population, but when the accusation that all white Christians are like the KKK arises he will inevitably dismiss it as nonsense. Hitchens’ arguments would easily come back to bite him in the backside were anyone interested enough to argue with him (I realise the irony of saying this when I am, indirectly, arguing with him myself).
The spirit of ’68 and sexual revolution is still alive and is going to destroy Christian belief as it makes the Left feel guilty about pursuing its sexual mores. Apparently. Hitchens argues – somewhat uber-conservatively compared to what came before – that we are approaching a Brave New World style society in which pleasure is pursued over all other things, and that we are rejecting inherently Christian concepts like “modest dress, seemliness of all kinds, restraint in speech, decorum and manners in general” – this outlines the kind of old-fashioned world Hitchens would like to live in. In an everchanging world, he is merely a hanger-on to an older order exemplified by Christian belief, but not necessarily anchored to it. It is possible to be modest in dress, restrained in speech and to have manners whilst simultaneously being irreligious, sexually permissive, and even communist. Hitchens makes the mistake of many on the Right – equating all the things they hate about society with those who oppose their beliefs. It’s the sort of doublethink (as Hitchens is fond of saying) that allows them to reconcile a belief that people can and should be silenced for supposedly transgressive views but being simultaneously (rightly) horrified when others (wrongly) try to silence them in turn.
Up next is the chapter ‘Sexism is rational’. Yes, you read that right. Hitchens proclaims himself a supporter of the original feminist revolutionaries who secured education, the vote, property rights and legal equality between spouses for women. What he dislikes is women working when it interferes with motherhood, and encourages abortion and the decline of marriage. He asserts that children within these families have lost out, and that the only people to gain from this new feminism are the companies that exploit female workers for low pay. What, he asks, is Left-wing about that? The answer is nothing. Neoliberalism is what keeps pay and rights down in the workplace, not some Godless lefty plot to stop people getting married. Apparently, Marxists embrace the decline of marriage so they can create a new working class to manipulate from female workers, and it is the last bastion of Christian conservatism that they need to demolish before they can ‘win’. I’m not sure why the socially conservative right need to phrase everything like a battle. If they’re fighting a war, they’re the only ones. Ultimately, conservatism – as the name suggests – lives in denial of the fact that society evolves: things change and they don’t like it, so they rant about it and say its the breakdown of society.
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
That’s not a quote from Hitchens – though he’d likely wholeheartedly agree with it. Socrates said that over 2,400 years ago. Society has managed to get by in the intervening years without collapsing, I think it might survive a bit longer, despite Hitchens’ lamentations implying the contrary.
Next in the surfeit of acts perpetrated entirely to undermine the sanctity of Peter Hitchens’ marriage is homosexuality. Hitchens agrees with the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, but emphasises that this legalisation emphasised homosexuality as a private act – out of sight, out of mind. What he rallies against is the idea that homosexuals can have a civil partnership, thereby undermining the privileges of marriage which are apparently in place to help what can be a bumpy ride. One does not need marital privilege to maintain a lifelong marriage. If it fails, it’s down to a lack of love and commitment. According to Hitchens, teaching homosexuality in schools is wrong because its propaganda, and there are worries that young people will feel pressured into becoming homosexual as a result.
All evidence points to the contrary, is all I can say really. I know of a man raised by homosexual parents (both male) who has recently married. To a woman, no less. His parents relationship had no affect upon his own sexuality. Of course, any cases in which gay parents have a gay child would be pointed out as evidence to the contrary, regardless of the child’s personal convictions.
The thing is, I don’t think that Hitchens is racist, sexist or homophobic. By his own definition, he certainly isn’t, and, at a fundamental level, if we can take his assertions of beliefs in fundamental equality at face value, he isn’t by anyone’s definition. But his conservatism means that there’s only so much that he as an individual can accept, and beyond that, these freedoms threaten his ideas of decorum, privilege and morality. He also isn’t institutionally against these ideas so much as he’s against the breakdown of marriage and Christian thought, of which he has come to see homosexuality, feminism and multiculturalism as symptomatic. In a sense, this decline is linked to these things, but not in the way Hitchens and his ilk believe. There is no absolute truth, but Hitchens believes he might hold the keys to it, just as many other groups of all different beliefs think that they do. This is why Hitchens has to decry the decline of his outdated modes of thinking as a result of other things, rather than a relic of an older society slowly dying out as new ideas and freedoms take hold.
I have taken a lot of time to argue against Hitchens on the points with which I disagree, but this isn’t to say that there aren’t points on which I do agree, or can at least sympathise with him on. Underlying many of his assertions is a general fear of something I have observed myself. Along with the new freedoms and rights that socially left countries have granted is a tendency to silence opposition. Hitchens laments that there is a mentality that those who oppose abortion, homosexuality, etc, are often dismissed as a something -ist or a something-phobe and that this completely invalidates their opinions. This flies in the face of the freedoms of speech which we supposedly uphold. There has long been the rebuttal that, just because one has freedom of speech, doesn’t mean people have to listen to it, agree with it, or can’t tell them it’s stupid. I largely agree with this, but I believe its somewhat silly to take someone else’s opinion and say “you’re completely wrong, I disagree, I’m not talking to you”. You’re not going to win anyone over with that attitude. If you engage in debate with these people – try to find out their objections and counter their arguments with your own, both people come away better off. Both gain an understanding of another person’s view. Neither has to to agree with the other – both are free to find the other’s views disgusting, abhorrent and downright silly. But the important thing is neither has attempted to silence the other. Perhaps one may even talk the other around to their way of thinking, even if only ever-so slightly.
And this kind of silencing – once an overreaction by increasingly irrelevant social conservatives – has become bolder and more insidious, to the extent that it is challenging free thought. Two recent incidents highlight the problems that arise from it: an incident in which a black female student accused a white male student of cultural appropriation because he had dreadlocks, and an incident at Edinburgh University in which a young female student who raised her hand to object to a point being made in a social meeting was told she couldn’t raise an objection because the area was a ‘safe-space’, an area in which LBGT peoples can feel safe, and not at risk of abuse or questioning.
In the first case, the male student pointed out that dreadlocks were to be found in many cultures including the ancient Egyptians. The black female student didn’t have dominion over the hairstyle. Indeed, had she been correct in her assertion, would it be wrong for the male student to have that hairstyle? It would, surely, have been a celebration or endorsement of that culture, not an unlawful appropriation of it. One cannot steal a haircut. And if we start to think that it is possible to do so, then that is a curtailing of freedom, not an upholding of it. We wouldn’t say that white kids listening to rap music is cultural appropriation, or that black people liking Coldplay is cultural appropriation, even though Coldplay is empirically the whitest thing out there. This is anti-racism taken to such an extreme that it becomes racist again.
In the second case, the student was quite literally silenced, told that raising an objection simply wasn’t allowed in the area she was in. I understand LBGT people’s desire for tolerance, acceptance and a feeling of fitting in, when they are so often told by bigoted people that who they are is wrong. At the same time, to silence debate in a public forum is also wrong. It’s the application of trigger warnings on Tumblr to real life, and that simply doesn’t work in reality. In real life, people are going to disagree with you and say hurtful things and tell you that what you believe is wrong. You can’t get worried over being offended and try to preemptively stop it from happening. You have to engage in debate with these people, try to make them see sense, defend yourself, and grow stronger from the experience. Silencing dissenters never made them go away – often it makes them shout louder and results in the growth of hatred.
I find it odd that groups go about enforcing freedoms in this way. You’d think that groups that were once a minority that had to fight for their freedom whilst the majority repressed them and tried to silence them would have learnt from the experience. Groups that were once marginalised are gaining more freedom in society. Now they are gaining an upper hand, they shouldn’t abuse their growing acceptance and the power that comes with it by silencing those who once tried to silence them. Two wrongs don’t make a right. These people are often in the minority of their group, but the majority should step-in and explain the unnecessary hypocrisy of silencing the opposition, and how it undermines the group’s cause of seeking group freedoms.
After this brain-aching social conservatism, something wondrous happens, something so unexpected and marvelous that I keep having to remind myself it’s the same book as the one with all these mad rantings about insidious Marxism: Hitchens and I agree on something.
Try as I might, I haven’t found an appealing book on the British education system – it’s reformations, standards, changing curricula, attitudes towards teaching and the like. This is not that book either, but it’s a start. Hitchens turns to the history of the British education system turning particular attention to the introduction of comprehensive schools.
Comprehensive schools, he relates, were the brainchild of Labour, who wished to introduce a more egalitarian form of education in which all would receive the same privileges. This was an alternative to the grammar schools in which children would be divided according to ability after their 11+ results. This was considered to take away opportunities from those who didn’t do so well academically at an early age but improved in later years.
Hitchens points out that the so-called comprehensive system wasn’t as egalitarian as it seemed. Despite a nominal lack of entry requirements, schools divided classes by ability thereby creating a less egalitarian structuring than they had claimed. And, in recent years, comprehensives have built up a secret selectiveness based on catchment areas. Often, comprehensives known to be favoured by other education establishments will cause a rise in house prices in that catchment area, meaning that only the wealthier classes can afford the houses in the catchment area, and that working classes will be driven out. This now means that comprehensives actually provide less opportunities for the working class than Grammar schools did.
I don’t believe that either grammar or comprehensives are definitively the right way. I went to a comprehensive and found it a mixed bag: some classes were divided by ability and I felt most-challenged and fulfilled in those, the classes which weren’t divided by ability saw the teachers trying to help the less able students catch-up whilst the others got on with the work set but were restricted from progressing further. I have seen brilliant students from my school excluded from universities that they were perfect for, and I suspect this was partly down to the school’s somewhat-average reputation. They have gone on to obtain Masters degrees and even PhDs but only at great expense. Meritocracy does seem to be dead in the water. Allowing a vast proportion of the population to buy a degree (as our system more or less encourages) hasn’t worked – we’re left with a high-number of unsatisfied graduates stuck in menial jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors, unable to get graduate jobs because too many students are vying for the same positions and stuck with enormous debts. More and more often it is necessary for undergraduates to go further: applying for Masters and PhDs at greater and greater cost, just to stand out from the pack. Some people are unable to get a firm foot on the job ladder until their mid-to-late twenties, simply because it takes so many years to get the level of education required. Opportunities are limited – not everyone can get a work placement, and this means that those who are unable to secure these opportunities are less qualified for the few jobs available. The children who go to the comprehensives are the ones losing out: more students, larger, mixed-ability classes, and less-qualified teachers means that the standard of education in comprehensives is lower than it is in public schools. As a result, we have had 19 Prime Minister’s who were educated at Eton. No PM ever attended a comprehensive.
Hitchens concludes that though grammar schools needed serious reform, comprehensives did nothing to address those problems and, if anything, deepened divides in education. An egalitarian policy proved to be anything but.
After this, Hitchens levels his criticism at the treatment of the railways by successive Conservative governments. He points out that Dr Beeching, a ruthless businessman, was hired by the Tories to analyse British rail and make recommendations, resulting in wide-scale line closures, irrevocably damaging an important lifeline for travelers and a symbol of British economic prowess. The railways never recovered, and this, coupled with the damaging privatisation of British Rail, heralded the end of the rails as the most important and efficient means of transportation in the UK. Due to these measures, road-construction saw huge gains; the building of vast motorways, ring-roads and connecting routes to compensate for the loss of rails meant that the English countryside was permanently marred by thousands-upon-thousands of miles of tarmac. Thatcher was a rail-hater and other Tory governments did little to help the state of the nations stations though, as Hitchens points out, neither did any of the Labour governments post-Beeching. It is likely that many vested interests gained financially from the rise of the automotive industry.
Hitchens believes this to be an odd line of policy for a Conservative government. What Hitchens must know but always skirts around is that the Tories aren’t the socially-conservative government he wants them to be, and that they haven’t been since 1967 or perhaps earlier. Their position has increasingly been, especially during and after Thatcher, a pro-business line that suited their own interests in profiting as private landlords and board members on various industries, rather than any political conservatism.
Agreeing with Hitchens, whose views I am largely in complete disagreement with, is an odd experience. But if anything, it reinforces the idea that Left and Right (in the traditional sense that Hitchens argues no longer exists) aren’t actually as fundamentally polarised as they might seem, and that there are certain systems: the education and railways being good examples here, on which the public generally agree upon regardless of political leanings, and that these industries are only in a sorry state-of-affairs thanks to cock-ups by both parties over the decades.
Ultimately, social conservatism is as social conservatism does. The Broken Compass is the work of a man whose political beliefs can be more-or-less summarised as ‘not fond of change’. This means that his evaluation of how Left and Right-wing policies have become jumbled – with conservatives supporting the EU and sexual permissiveness, and left-wingers having forgotten that their forbears were once against nuclear disarmament and EU membership – is stuck in the context of those bygone days. Hitchens evaluates the world through a strange mix of increasingly irrelevant political views, and the fact that anything has changed since 1967 seems distasteful to him. At the same time, he does raise some interesting points about the fuzzy nature of political factions – how they pick and choose their causes at their whims – blurring the lines between Left and Right. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s important to be aware of. It’s easy to dismiss Hitchens as a socially-conservative nutbag, but it isn’t productive to do so. Understanding his objections to certain ideas can reveal things not just about the opposition, but about the movement itself, and how good, well-meaning ideas can be taken to an extreme that makes them impinge on political freedoms. It is viewing oneself through the eyes of others that can reveal far more than looking in the mirror.
It’s a different experience to read the work of someone who’s beliefs are virtually the antithesis to my own. Reviled by the Left, Hitchens reveals himself to be a thoughtful, compromising and eloquent writer. He’s mostly preaching to the converted, and unlikely to convince his political opposites. Nonetheless, there are unexpected areas in which one might find themselves agreeing, or at least sympathising, with some of Hitchens’ concerns. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend The Broken Compass, but I do think it’s important that we explore the work of people whose opinions we disagree with. We can widen our world-views and gain a greater understanding of matters by exploring the work of people on the other end of the political spectrum. And, sometimes, we find that we have more in common with these people than we thought, and maybe, just maybe, we can use that commonality to work towards a society in which we’re all happier and better-off.