Hitchens’s Mail on Sunday column
A person wearing a face-muzzle, a baseball cap and socks adorned with the words ‘Hotter than Hell’ appeared at my side.
He or she (I had better be careful not to assign a gender) spoke sharply to me, like someone with power: ‘Why have you chosen to stand here?’ For a moment, I was taken in by the air of authority, but recovered myself and asked: ‘Who are you?’
To this I received no useful reply, but the person continued: ‘A lot of people would prefer it if you did not stand here.’
To which I replied that I was – for the moment – a free man and would stand anywhere I liked on the streets of my home city, thank you very much.
I had gone out on Tuesday afternoon in Oxford to observe the second of two recent demonstrations calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes.
It is probably because I used to be a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Washington that I feel I should take a close direct interest in events that are happening in my home town.
I can remember clearly taking part in Left-wing demonstrations, some of them pretty unruly, on these same streets more than half a century ago, when I was myself a revolutionary Marxist. I was fascinated to see how things had changed.
Basically, the causes I supported in the 1960s have won. Our 1968 protests were demonstrations of powerlessness, which is why they were rowdy. Today theirs are laps of honour.
On both recent occasions I’d fallen into perfectly civilised conversations with demonstrators, who had recognised me, knew I disagreed with them and wanted to talk about it. I’d also noticed what sort of people they were – overwhelmingly young, ethnically mixed, generally middle class.
And I was amused and a bit disturbed to see a rather stately middle-aged figure, with whom I’ve often had good-natured chats, transforming himself into a slogan-chanting, fist-pumping rabble-rouser. I am now not sure which is the real one, and which is the act.
Both demonstrations were supposed to be about the image of Rhodes, which, for the moment, still stands over Oxford High Street. But I don’t think they were really about that, for who can get genuinely worked up about a puny sculpture 50ft above the pavement that you have to crane your neck to see?
But for a short and amusing few minutes, last Tuesday’s event became a demonstration against me.
The last time I looked, nearly two million people had viewed the resulting internet video of me strolling along through some ugly shopping streets, being shouted at by a small mob at my heels. It has even been set to music by some wag. Experts have listened carefully to the shouts (the mob were mostly muzzled) and they seem to be yelling: ‘I don’t know but I’ve been told, Peter Hitchens gotta go!’
The camera was being held by someone deliberately walking backwards ahead of me, so it looks as if the crowd are pursuing me, but this is not quite right. I was on the pavement. They were on the road, and we were turning a corner.
Here’s what happened. I had followed the demonstration through the heart of Oxford on a strange, needlessly long route that took it not just into near-deserted city streets but along a totally people-free stretch of inner ring road. Oxford is especially empty just now. Both its universities are shut, and tourism has ceased to exist.
The small procession, perhaps 350 strong, had barely even disrupted traffic, as there was so little that afternoon. I think they were bored. They had run out of things to shout. Chanting ‘We are powerful!’ repeatedly into the empty air may have had the opposite effect to the one intended. I was certainly beginning to wonder when I might reasonably peel off and go home.
And then it became interesting again, for them and for me. A rather gaunt man, older than most of the marchers, caught my eye. He was giving me an intense, hostile glare, probably because of my refusal the week before to ‘take the buttock’ along with everyone else, which had got some public attention. I smiled back at him, as one does. It was then that he began the anti-Hitchens chant.
I cannot tell you how unworried I was. I have been on – and witnessed – demonstrations infinitely more volatile than this one. As a Left-wing teenager, I was in the midst of the ‘Battle of Grosvenor Square’ in March 1968 in which a protest against the Vietnam War ended in severe violence and many arrests.
I was in East Berlin in 1989 when the People’s Police charged freedom campaigners on the Schoenhauser Allee. I had no idea I could still run so fast. I was at a march for national independence in Vilnius, Lithuania, in January 1991 when the Soviet Army and later the KGB Alpha Group opened fire on protesters.
I sensibly lay down in the dirty snow. The madly brave Lithuanians stayed standing. By comparison, this was not so much a vicarage tea party as a croquet match at the Bishop’s Palace.
But others were worried. A nervous police officer beckoned me over for a chat. Amusingly, his concern was not the behaviour of the marchers, but what I was up to. What exactly was I doing there?
For the first time on British territory, I actually produced my press card and explained that I was a journalist. I assured him that I had a good nose for real trouble and would take to my heels at some speed if I thought there was anything serious in the wind. I could have said – as it was true – that I was a free person exercising my liberty to walk along the public highway. But this was no time to be making enemies.
I had the strong impression that he wished I’d go away, but knew he had no power to make me. I don’t think the police would have taken that attitude to a middle-aged conservative in polished black leather shoes in my long-ago demonstrating days.
Because in the 1960s the wild Left were still the outsiders, the weird nuisances with their funny ideas and their long hair, shouting their radical slogans. I remember it well. Now they have come into their own. Then, they wanted to communicate their ideas to those on the pavement as they passed.
Now they get angry if anyone on the street does not assent to their views. Then they regarded the police with something close to hostility. Now they see them as their protectors. (On Tuesday, I watched them actually ask the police to ‘keep an eye’ on a drunk who had been following the protest and annoying people.)
So I am not here writing about my martyrdom, or claiming to have been the victim of an intimidating mob. I have seen more intimidating hamsters.
But this is for certain: for a moment or two, my living figure was far more objectionable to them than Cecil Rhodes’s stone effigy. They wished that they were powerful, as they had claimed to be a few minutes earlier.
They had absolutely no desire to influence me or debate with me. I was an enemy, not an opponent, and so I should not have dared to be there. My actual existence infuriated them, and possibly so did my refusal to be scared of them.
They would have liked it if I could have been made to disappear or, as they put it, ‘cancelled’. The marcher who posted the video of the event on Twitter thought (and presumably hoped) it would in some way diminish me.
But enough about me. A far more striking event last week was the way in which Premier League footballers, reopening the season in empty stadiums, wore shirts emblazoned with the slogan of the new universal Left, ‘Black Lives Matter’.
All – along with the referee and match officials – also ‘took the knee’, the sign of obeisance to the new ideology. And each player wore an NHS symbol, emblem of the new state-worship encouraged during the Government-sponsored panic over the Covid-19 virus.
As far as I know, none of those involved had any qualms about this. But if they had done, would they have dared express them, if they wished to continue in professional football?
Would the world have praised their conscientious courage, or would they have been hosed down with claims that they were ‘racists’ and then ‘cancelled’?
You know the answer as you ask the question.
Who doesn’t think black lives matter? Who doesn’t value the NHS? But that is not what these displays mean. They are about particular ways of holding those views, ways which lead relentlessly to intolerance of dissent, to the enforcement – by threats to the livelihoods of dissenters – of a single set of acceptable opinions.
And, as I found last Tuesday, it is not enough to keep quiet. If you are suspected of thinking the wrong thing, they will come and cancel you anyway.
I now think this is just a matter of time. Prepare to be cancelled.