The following is the full transcript from Editor Michael Curzon’s interview with Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, on the government’s disproportionate response to the coronavirus, and Britain’s failing institutions. The audio recording of this interview can be found here:
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Michael Curzon (M.C.): Mr. Hitchens, you have been getting in a lot of trouble recently over your position on the government’s response to the coronavirus. I thought it would be best to start by asking generally what your position on this is.
Peter Hitchens (P.H.): It is quite simple; my argument is, to some extent, really just a critical one. I think that the government’s position is disproportionate to whatever threat there may be. I cannot claim to be absolutely sure about the size of the threat but, from what we can see, I do not think that the level of the response is justified.
I think it would need the most extraordinary event – probably a Martian invasion – to justify practicality smashing up the economy and making the most severe attack on civil liberty in my memory or, indeed, more than in living memory.
It really is, fundamentally, a matter of proportion. I am all in favour of taking measures to promote health and safety where possible, but I think there are points at which you have to say ‘this is too much’, and I think this is too much.
The other question which has increasingly become clear as I have gone into it, is whether the measures are effective anyway, or are justified at all, and whether the threat which has been proclaimed by the government, and accepted as being true by the government, is actually true.
M.C.: Absolutely. Well, one of the first things I wanted to raise which has been appearing in the news a lot in the last few days, especially in The Times today (see here), is a slow-rolling back of the number of people who are predicted to die of coronavirus (with or from is not necessarily considered very often)…
P.H.: It isn’t; we might come to that.
M.C.: Absolutely, I hope that we will.
P.H.: I think the implication of the figures that were initially put forward by Imperial College, and particularly Professor Neil Ferguson, was that they would die of the coronavirus because they would be excess deaths; that is, deaths beyond the normal figures that might be expected. He came up with the figure in this country of 500,000 if the government did not take severe measures to prevent the spread of the disease. He then revised that down; he said that if measures were taken, that would go down to 250,000, but if the more severe measures – that were finally taken – were taken, then… he has now first of all said less than 20,000, and I think that went down this morning to another figure I don’t have at my fingertips, but well below that.
M.C.: It’s around 5,700.
P.H.: 5,700, that’s right. I knew it was a slightly awkward figure. I have to say, it is almost like Monty Python: somebody saying ‘well if you don’t do this, half a million people will die’, and then you say ‘alright, I’ll do that’. ‘Well, in that case, only a quarter-of-a-million people will die’, and then you say ‘well, I’ll do that too’. ‘Well, in that case, only 20,000 people will die’, and then you do a little more and he says, ‘well, we have got it down to 5,700!’… Where do these things come from?
It is supposed to be from some sort of modelling, but it seems to me that there is some problem with this. I would have to point out that this is not me, because I’m not an expert in any of this, and don’t proclaim to be. I just look at other experts.
If you look in The Daily Telegraph this morning, you will find a long article (see here) featuring the work of other scientists who have cast doubt on the quality of the work of Imperial College in these matters in the past, particularly over the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic of nearly twenty years ago which I remember well, where a policy of mass slaughter of healthy animals was adopted which many people to this day think was a great mistake… It was one of my assignments that I had to go down to Devon and try to speak to farmers, most of them standing in tears as herds which they had raised over many years were slaughtered and thrown on to a great pyre. It was a very unpleasant experience. At the time, I tended to accept that the arguments must be right; that what governments did was always right. But, the appalling nature of this turned me to looking at some critical journalism about it, and I have ever since had serious doubts about it and I feel that one owes it to oneself and to everybody to be sceptical about such claims.
M.C.: You talk about the disproportionality and the effect this might have on the economy…
P.T.: It’s not a question of might have. [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak has already announced 350 billion quid’s worth of supposed aid to the economy.
We are into the territory of a Magic Money Forest here. If Jeremy Corbyn had proposed expansion of the public debt on this scale, he would have been excoriated by the Conservative Party as being completely mad and utterly irresponsible with the economy, and yet now it is being treated as if it were normal.
Whether it is normal or not, money does eventually have to be paid for in some form or another; if it creates value, then it will, ultimately, demand a price. The price may come in several ways; increased taxes, increased government borrowing, which again leads to increased taxes… Already, the pound sterling has fallen considerably and the stock market has fallen. Nobody is paying any attention to this whilst we the economists think about the coronavirus, but the stock market has fallen catastrophically with terrible results for people’s savings and pensions, and the economy in general. I would have thought many, many things will happen to people’s savings and incomes over the next few years because of the need to pay for Rishi Sunak’s ‘Doctor Feel Good’ attempt to keep the economy going while simultaneously trying to strangle it, which is a bizarre policy for a government to take.
I don’t know where you live, but I live in Oxford and every street I know, and have known for years – it is so dispiriting to see all this commerce silent by government decree. Not because the businesses have failed or because people don’t want to buy things or want to go out, but government has forbidden business to be conducted on an immense scale. In an economy which is predominantly now a service economy, the services have been stopped. I have never seen anything like it… If, as I say, there was a genuine return of the bubonic plague, or Lassa fever was loose among us, you’d say ‘oh right, you’d do anything, wouldn’t you?’ But, I don’t think that the coronavirus lives up to… the most terrible disease ever known to man…
M.C.: No, absolutely, and we will come to that as well in a moment if we might, but something first: talking about the businesses which have now been forced to have been closed down, a lot of the response I’ve noticed that you’ve received, and others who have questioned the measures, is that the reason this lockdown – or ‘house arrest’, as it might more suitably be called – has taken place is because the government’s suggestion that we isolate before was ignored and people were carrying on going to the supposedly ‘unnecessary’ business which they shouldn’t have been; in effect saying that it is your fault, my fault, and everyone else’s fault for still having left the house. What do you make of that?
P.H.: Well I think the difficulty is that the work really hasn’t been done on any cause-and-effect relationship between this shutdown of the economy and the slowing of the spread of the coronavirus. One interesting thing is that Sweden, among all the Scandinavian countries, has kept itself – so far – largely open. I think there is huge pressure on the Swedish government to conform with everybody else, and I will be interested to see if they will resist it, but up till now, they have. And it is interesting to see that, allowing for the sizes of the populations, I think neighbouring countries such as Norway and Denmark, both of which are less heavily populated than Sweden, have actually suffered more deaths per capita than Sweden.
Everywhere you look in the world, there is no clear path demonstrating that one particular policy is the only way to produce better results. People go on and on about testing and isolation in South Korea, but the fact is that in South Korea they did not shut down the economy, they did not shut down huge parts of the country the way the Chinese did, and yet they didn’t get an explosion of the virus. Japan is still virtually ‘business as usual’, and also didn’t do so. Hong Kong and Singapore are much praised; they both used different measures but, oddly enough, the same result followed. There was an interesting article in the Washington Post yesterday about that (27.03.2020).
There simply isn’t, in anything that we can see, anything to say ‘this method works, this method doesn’t’. Or, indeed, that any method works; it could be that the virus simply has a life of its own which we are not actually able to control. My own suspicion is that it has been among us rather longer than we suspect, and that very large numbers of people have already been infected by it. I know a lot of people who think they have probably had it back as long ago as January, but they never bothered to report anything and there’s no way of telling, at the moment that’s easily accessible, to find out.
The Oxford University study, reported in The Financial Times a few days ago (see here), which is so embarrassing to the government that it has been widely dismissed as a wild card, which seems to me to be very unlikely from a body of scientists from Oxford University, has also suggested that many, many people have had it and that there is much, much wider immunity than we think. But, again, because this undermines the gospel of the Imperial College report which the government has accepted and on which it has based its policy, it can’t be considered to be serious or good.
M.C.: Now that, as we said, the predicted number of deaths has been lowered, the government, it seems, are claiming that this is because of their actions…
P.H.: Well, of course, they would, wouldn’t they, but how could they possibly know? What’s more, this makes no sense on their own terms. Those people who advocate these shutdowns believe that they take about two weeks to work. This one has been very raggedly enforced, I would say from my own experience of being out and about, very raggedly been enforced for about three days now, how could they possibly draw any conclusions from that? Let alone do the thing which is the hardest in science and establish a causal relationship between the action and the alleged consequence. They cannot know. No proper scientist could claim to know that; it simply doesn’t work, in logic or investigation. It’s simply not tenable, and yet…
we’re in a world in which all the basic, simple rules of scientific method, which most of us used to know and understand, have been cast aside in favour of conjecture.
It is guesswork, and guesswork, and guesswork, and guesswork, over and over again. Keith Waterhouse, the great Daily Mirror and Daily Mail columnist, once invented an outfit called the ‘Department of National Guesswork’ which he said was a secret government which, pretty much, put out all these figures, and it was amazing how gullible journalist, always anxious for a good, hard study, would be completely seduced by the claim that it came from an academic source, or had a PhD on it, would run with it like anything. Those reports which don’t have a sensational or a dramatic implication don’t get quite the same treatment.
M.C.: Absolutely. Another point I wanted to touch on…
P.H.: You must stop agreeing with me all the time; people will think that this is too soft!
M.C.: This is true, I will start disagreeing with you in a moment, then.
P.H.: I’m not used to it, either. I mean, it makes me feel uncomfortable.
M.C.: Well especially at the moment! Something I wanted to ask was about the response from the general public, and also journalists, and interestingly comedians…
P.H.: Ha! Alleged comedians, I think we have to say.
M.C.: And perhaps alleged journalists as well!… about the lockdown, or house arrest, why is it, do you think, that those like yourself who have been critical of the government’s response have been so berated by the journalists who themselves are supposed to be critical and question what the reaction is?
P.H.: I think that it’s generational. I really do increasingly think that those of us who were educated before the revolutions in the late 1960s have a completely different approach to knowledge, and also we have more experience… Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era know that governments lie, for instance. Those of us who were education more or less before the late sixties know various basic things about numeracy and the scientific method and logic, and we know how to think.
Those education since don’t know this. They don’t remember the Pentagon Papers; they don’t remember the incessant lies of the government over Vietnam; they have already forgotten, because they have such short memories, the government lies over Iraq. They are credulous, and they are also herd animals in the way that we were not brought up to be, and this is, I think, an effect largely of the internet, and also of television, both of which are terribly conformist forces. They create a model of what people should be like, which makes individuality harder and harder.
Again, I was brought up as an individual and it seemed normal to me; I am not a herd or pack animal, and I walk by myself. It’s simultaneously dispiriting and exhilarating to find that one is being pelted with slime by people… I think that they strengthen me. Every time one of these slime bombs is thrown at me, I gain strength because there are enough intelligent people to see that if my opponents had any decent arguments then they’d deploy them, but they don’t.
M.C.: Do you find increasingly that, rather than these sorts of arguments, you’re receiving four-letter words that oughtn’t to be uttered.
P.H.: Well, I get that, but what I also get is quite a lot of communications by many means from people saying ‘well, thank heaven you’re saying this; I felt so completely alone and I’m really glad that somebody with some prominence’ – not all that much, I fear, but some prominence in public life – ‘is saying what you’re saying’.
As in the other instance, I can think of, of similar mass hysteria – the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana – large numbers of people simply did not feel that the world that was being presented to them on the television news and in the newspapers was the one in which they lived, or the things that people were doing were the things that they would ever do; the applause of people at funerals [and] the great piles of flowers, and all the rest of it, [made many think] ‘this isn’t me, it’s got nothing to do with me, I don’t feel this way. I’m obviously sad that a beautiful young woman has died, but I simply am not taking part in this gigantic festival of politicised grief.’ And there are people now, who feel that there is something wrong with this; who particularly find it objectionable that the government of what they had previously regarded as a free country is forcing them to stay at home by taking on powers which actually are legally highly dubious.
I don’t want to go on about this too much in case I am accused of trying to get people to defy the law, which I am not. But, in The Times on Thursday (see here), Jonathan Sumption, probably the brightest legal mind of our time, cast very serious doubt on whether the powers which are being used – which you may be amused to find are based on the Public Health Act of 1984 – do actually have validity. He is also quite stern about the nature of the way in which the government took the powers, and it is basically by press conference, which he says is akin to the way in which a police state develops. It’s very harsh language. You would have thought that in a normal society, someone like Jonathan Sumption, who is in many ways a liberal hero, might have been listened to in this occasion. But, it is on page fifty-four of The Times, and that’s it; and I’m lucky to know that. It should have been on the front page, just as the story on page thirteen of The Telegraph about the scientific criticisms of Professor Ferguson should be on the front page, instead of page thirteen.
But, as I tweeted today, when I first went to live in Moscow, my new landlord, a professor of economics, taught me how to read [the Russian broadsheet] Pravda; he said, don’t look for the news on the front page, look for it near the back; and don’t look for it near the top of the story, look for it in the story vaguely related to something you’re interested in, and you will find it elusively and obliquely revealed. And that is increasingly the way things are happening here; you can’t find the news on the front page, it is buried elsewhere, and it’s not even directly stated because the people who are writing it are telling those few who can read the signals. I am lucky enough to be one of them.
M.C.: Indeed. On the measures taken by the police, which you have referred to there; we have seen in the last few days websites being set up by certain police forces for neighbours to inform on other neighbours…
P.H.: The Humberside portal.
The funny thing was, on Monday night, within about an hour of the announcement, I tweeted saying ‘well, informers will now flourish’, and some idiot presenter on LBC – what’s her name, Julia Hartley-Brewer – said ‘oh, so this is what it’s like on Peter Hitchens’ street, is it?’ Well actually no it’s not because I live among civilised people, but I know very well, because I am extremely familiar with history, that at times when authority is behaving like this then informing does become a major activity. It’s inevitable; people have lots of grudges to settle and it’s a very, very good way of doing it. It’s one of the many reasons why totalitarian societies are so nasty and corrupt. Arbitrary power flourishes, and arbitrary power means that informers and corruption flourishes.
M.C.: It said in The Times today (see also here) – I think it might have been in Humberside, actually – that the police had actually told residents to stop calling about individuals going on two walks a day because they were simply inundated by calls.
P.H.: I think it was another force that said that. But yes, it was striking that the Humberside portal was obviously not something that was going to have no public demand. I think it was the Northamptonshire Police who were saying, ‘actually, thank you very much; we are getting too many of these calls’. But once you get this kind of regime, it is a paradise for the nark.
M.C.: Do you think that these powers are going to be more long-lasting; people have said it’s only temporary, [and] when the lockdown is over, everything will go back to normality. Do you think we will return to normality…
P.H.: Well no.
M.C.: … or has this changed something?
P.H.: A number of our national institutions have failed us in this matter. Parliament did not in any way subject the government’s policy, or its special legislation, to proper scrutiny. The opposition did not oppose. Nobody used the courts; all these people who frenziedly used the courts in the European matter (I’m not saying they were wrong to do so)… there was no attempt by any human rights person to use the courts to say these powers were excessive, [or] to have them examined. The media have failed. I believe the police themselves have failed; they have acted very much as if they were a state militia rather than what they are, which is sworn constables, sworn to uphold the law rather than the power of government. That’s the reason for the officiousness of their behaviour, like the continental gendarme.
I can’t think of an institution that has not been weakened by this, and as a result it’s going to be easier for a government to do it again under some other pretext. Once you’ve got used to being told by the government you’ve got to stay at home then it becomes easier and easier for the government to do this. All they need is to declare something as an emergency and there you are; sometimes a permanent state of emergency.
People, actually, would be amazed if they knew (because people never read these things) what powers the government has to turn this country into a despotism. The Civil Contingencies Act (see here) is the most extraordinary document, which I have read with my mouth hanging open. How can this be on the statue book? But it is. When you can see what they can do with the Public Health Act of 1984 (see here), then maybe they don’t even need it. The Coronavirus Act (see here) gives the police and the authorities extraordinary powers, including a weird power to lock people act as insane on the say-so of only one doctor. Where did that come from? Who wanted that? The last thing the government generally wants to do is put people in mental hospitals because they have closed them all, so why are they more anxious to do it more easily now? It’s very strange.
M.C.: And another thing a lot of people have been commenting on – you mention that there are not as many places for these people to go – another point is that suddenly the police are on the streets, whereas before they hadn’t been. Where have they all come from?
P.H.: [From] where they were, which is in offices in offices, sitting at computer screens, doing whatever it is they do when they’re not making sexual harassment complaints against each other or going on diversity courses. The police long ago ceased to be a patrolling, preventative… force and became what Evelyn Waugh many years ago called a crime reporting bureaucracy. It’s quite rare for them to want to go out onto the streets preventatively but now they have something that obviously some of them rather excessively enjoy doing, it seems to me. One has to say on these occasions that, of course, most policemen are fine and upstanding citizens, and very nice people, but one does see an awful lot of instances of the other sort going on.
M.C.: Now obviously … these are emergency powers which have been brought in in response to an emergency, and the whole coronavirus – the rhetoric around it – seems to have been warlike, almost. The prime minister has been talking very much as if it is a war, and those who have argued against the government’s measures have almost been like the appeasers, it seems.
P.H.: Oh well this is the whole reason for my writing of my book on The Phoney Victory; this ridiculous obsession with the Second World War as the model for all moral and political conundrums.
It isn’t a war, it isn’t like a war, it bears no resemblance to war, but of course, poor old Al Johnson thinks that he is the new Winston Churchill, and no doubt imagines himself in some war and sending out squadrons of fighter jets to shoot down the coronavirus as it droves towards London.
These people are not very grown-up. The thing that you learn; actually, oddly enough, it was Dominic Cummings who said it best, you think before you have anything to do with politics that it’s like the James Bond films; there’s a room where all the really intelligent people are, and they’re deciding what’s going on, and when you actually get into real politics you find that there is no such room, there are no intelligent people. There is nothing there. The country is run by teenagers, which is why I find it so un-difficult to criticise it.
On the question of the effectiveness, by the way, of the government’s measures, I have a parable, or a metaphor, if you like, of what is going on.
M.C.: I’d be pleased to hear it.
P.H.: [A] patient has pneumonia. It’s quite serious pneumonia, he goes to the doctor and the doctor says ‘gosh this is very serious; I have never seen pneumonia like this. I tell you what, there’s a really successful new treatment for this being practised in China which I propose for you,’ and the patient says ‘well what’s that?’ And he says, ‘well, I’ll amputate your right leg’. And the patient says ‘really?’ … ‘Yes, this is an emergency. This is incredibly serious, your pneumonia, and the only way you’re going to get rid of it is if I cut off your right leg.’ So the patient signs a consent form rather reluctantly, but agrees to do it, and the doctor performs the operation successfully and cuts off his right leg. After he has recovered from the anaesthetic and woken up with one leg, after a few days the pneumonia clears up, as it would have done anyway. The doctor says ‘it’s fantastic, see. I cut off your right leg and pneumonia has gone. But you’ve still only got one leg!’ And there’s the problem. We’ll come out of this; the coronavirus will go, after whatever toll it takes, and who can at the moment say what that will be. What will undoubtedly be the case will be that the economy will have been severely damaged, and our liberty will have been permanently wounded.
M.C.: Which is rather a price to pay.
P.H.: And the government will claim that the damage it did to the economy and the wounding of liberty which it undertook will have achieved the defeat of the coronavirus, and… the same media of people and the same politicians who have accepted this lying during the crisis will continue to push it afterwards. And those of us who think differently will have an endless struggle to persuade people this isn’t so, or that it might not have been so. What will really be needed after… is an extremely thorough and independent inquiry into the whole action, but whether anybody will hold such an inquiry, or how long it will take? Giving the inquiry into the Iraq War and the results of those, one doesn’t leap in optimism. I don’t know, but it just seems to me that this is the danger; that when it ends, they will say ‘oh well the lockdown worked then, that’s fantastic’, so they just prepare themselves for the next lockdown.
The other thing is; you know what the origin of the term ‘lockdown’ is by the way, don’t you?
M.C.: I don’t actually, no.
P.H.: Well it’s what is done in American prisons when the convicts arrive, I think.
P.H.: Basically they just lockdown all the cell doors so they won’t get out. It is something done to convicted criminals in a prison, not to free people in a country.
M.C.: Which is why you have preferred to use the term ‘house arrest’, haven’t you, because you find [lockdown] to be too elusive?
P.H.: Well lockdown revolts me because; do people really consider themselves to be convicted prisoners in this country? Are we to be treated like that?
That reminds me of the extraordinary announcement of a few weeks ago, which I still think was not picked up enough on, when it was proclaimed that Her Majesty’s prisons were shortly to be equipped with devices which enable them to apply airport-style security to the prisoners… I could barely say it with a straight face, and yet I have said it to people and they say ‘yes, what?’ And I say, ‘well, prisons are going to be toughened up by getting airport-style security. The thing which has been done to you for years, an entirely innocent person trying to travel innocently from one place to another, having your testicles scanned and being treated as if you were an obvious terrorist, is now finally going to be done in prisons, which we all know are full of drugs and knifes and all sorts of other things which shouldn’t be in there.’ Doesn’t this say something quite important about how our society is back-to-front? And they don’t see it.
Every time I have to go through an airport, I have to hold myself in with the most immense self-discipline, either from bursting out laughing or from protesting against the way in which I am being treated, whilst people are shuffling along around me as if they think it is perfectly normal…
That’s the problem. People get accustomed to being serfs, and as you get accustomed to being a serf, you become a serf. They really are going to have to stop singing Rule Britannia, ever, anywhere, ever again.
M.C.: Quite. And ‘mother of the free’ as well, from Pomp and Circumstance.
P.H.: Well you can be the mother of the free, and yourself in chains I suppose. ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ seems to me to have definitely gone out of the window. Slaves seem to be what an awful lot of us actually want to be. People are scared of freedom, I think.
M.C.: Whilst we are slaves, Mr. Hitchens, and are stuck in our houses or now, if we can put a slightly positive twist – if at all possible – what would you recommend people do at this time? What might we read, for example, in order to help pass time by a little?
P.H.: … I have been rereading lately most of the ‘Flashman’ books [by George MacDonald Fraser], in which I can wholly forget the present in a brilliant evocation of the past, and it’s the most clever way of learning history ever devised.
Or I would say read two Nevil Shute books which occur to me; ‘On the Beach’, which describes the gradual closing down of a great civilised city in Melbourne for reasons which I won’t go into, but you will learn them if you read the book. And ‘Ruined City’, which is… a brilliant, brilliant book about a man who revives a shutdown ship-building town in the 1930s, and the reason why he does this, and the description of what long-term economic recession and unemployment does to the health of the people is extraordinarily powerful and memorable.
And then I would probably read one of the John Wyndham science fiction fantasies about a very advanced [and] civilised society suddenly – and for some wholly unexpected reason – shutting down around you, ‘The Day of the Triffids’, and… ‘The Kraken Awakes’, which are most powerful in evoking this, and which are always well worth reading but under the circumstances, I think would have a certain extra power because, as I say, [of] the way in which they describe a civilisation going wrong under forces which people seem to think they can’t control, and, in many cases, defended by governments which increasingly don’t really know what they are doing.
M.C.: Well, there are some good suggestions there; thank you very much for those. Thank you.
P.H.: My pleasure.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.