Tuesday, 1 March 2016
Famous people often look shorter in real life but not Peter Hitchens. He is neither tall nor short but, as a voice to my left whispered as he came on stage, he looked about right. Straight up, solid and as forthright as his opinions, he speaks from the experience of more than 30 years as a political and foreign affairs reporter, observer and commentator.
Delivering a guest lecture at the University of Lincoln last night, he began by saying : "Same sex marriage is unimportant, the EU referendum is a waste of time, New Labour is not right wing at all, and everything you have been told about Russia is completely wrong." If he expected an adversarial or shocked reaction to suggest that these popular issues are irrelevant in the current global storm of war, Britain's uncertain economic and political future, our frenzy with an in/out EU referendum, Russia, Putin, and other world leaders, then he would have been disappointed. Most people either agreed with him or kept their reactions to themselves.
"We are told we face a new Cold War threatened by an aggressive Russian dictatorship which proposes to sweep westwards and we should be prepared to stand up and position ourselves against this enormous and powerful country," he said.
He spoke at length and in detail about Russia's historical relationship with the Balkans and the Caucasus, the public joy at the collapse of Communism and bursting into song himself as he drove through Moscow, the West's lack of understanding of Russian borders and the problem of the EU "following German policy" and moving in on the Ukraine and Georgia which, Hitchens said, provoked the reaction from Russia to annexe the Crimea. "In the Russians' view, this was a bit like parking its tanks 20 miles outside of Guildford," he said. "Which country gave up quantities of land in Asia? Which country has given up 700,000 square miles without any kind of physical struggle? Which power expanded its authority given up by Moscow which no longer controls Belarus, Ukraine or Georgia or any of those old Warsaw Pact states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria? They all come under the control of the nation of the EU."
It is not that Hitchens is a Putin fan. Far from it. But he shares in common with many British people the concern of the EU's empire building and sees Germany as the architect and driver of it all. "I yield to no one in my dislike of Putin," he said. "I was one of the first journalists to write about his threats to liberty. He is a tyrant. He won't speak to me and his spokesman won't take my calls."
Western and British hypocrisy also got caught by Hitchens' sniper fire as he questioned our Government's strong moral tone against Russia while welcoming Saudi officials from a country with appalling human rights and delegates from China including a visit to Buckingham Palace by the Chinese president.
"China is a country that is currently engaged in kidnapping book shop owners in Hong kong, it has gulags, and it executes people and then harvests their body organs," he explained to anyone in any doubt about the regime in power.
He doesn't rate any of the candidates currently running in the US elections. As much as he would like to see a woman President in America, and as much as they needed one, he said, "belligerent" Clinton was not that woman. He's no big Donald Trump fan either but he'd rather him or anyone other than Hillary although he would laugh if Bernie Sanders made the White House, "because there would be no more US sponsored wars."
Questions from the floor included whether he thought that our view of Russia had been influenced by America, whether Russia was right to side with Assad, and whether Tony Blair should face prosecution for war crimes.
I missed the answers to the first two as I was preparing a question of my own but someone then beat me to it. As far as Blair is concerned Hitchens described him as "olympically dim."
"War crime is a misleading term because all war is crime. I don't think Blair should be prosecuted. I think he's too dim to understand what he was doing and in some way it would be unkind to put him on trial."
Something of a school boy smirk occasionally flashed across his face as he spoke. He answered questions with sincerity and held your gaze as he explained his view. My public question was whether he thought there could ever be peace in Syria. He said it could find peace and he hoped it would soon and although Assad was a nasty tyrant, most of his downfall was orchestrated by Saudis. When asked about the refugees, he said the Syrians fleeing war didn't go far from the borders and they want to go home as soon as they can. Others currently walking through Europe are a mixture of economic migrants and others seeking better lives but few are Syrians.
He said he would be staying home for the EU vote on June 23rd believing it a waste of time because even if the country votes no, it will take us a good 15 years to extricate ourselves from the EU but before that, like when Ireland voted no to the Lisbon Treaty - the EU constitution - if the leaders don't get the yes they want then it will keep coming back until they get the right answer eventually.
At the end of the event, as people began to file out of the room, I wandered up to the desk as Hitchens gathered up his papers. I had to ask him a question completely unrelated to anything he had been talking about and I felt a bit embarrassed to ask in the public hall in the middle of so much intellectual analysis of world affairs. I think he was a little taken aback by it.
"Do you do shorthand?" I ventured.
Hitchens smiled and then recalled his days 40 years ago learning Pitmans, something he still uses and can read back but his speed is not quite what it used to be.
"Can I tell my students that Peter Hitchens says shorthand is very important?" I asked. (They need motivation and it helps for them to know their journalistic heroes and heroines use it too.)
"More than that," he replied, "you can tell them that Peter Hitchens says he bitterly regrets not keeping up his speed and he wishes his shorthand teacher was here to help him again," he said.
He remembered the name of his shorthand tutor, as many students do throughout their journalism careers, and of course it would have been churlish of me as a shorthand lecturer not to offer to help him reach that speed in Teeline but he graciously declined the opportunity to sit in with my Year 1 or Year 2 students although I think they would have enjoyed it very much.
The "hated Peter Hitchens" as he often describes himself appeared to charm all who met him in Lincoln and I was one of those. Dare I say he is a lovely man. I profoundly disagree with him on many issues but there are many more that simply make sense.
You can read more from the pen of the man himself HERE and below is a video of Lincoln University student Jarrad Johnson's interview with Hitchens on his opinions, his politics, and his general visit to Lincoln.