The Conservative Conundrum - Why is Peter Hitchens so upset by The Amber Spyglass?


Peter Hitchens has written an article in the British newspaper Mail on Sunday which condemns Philip Pullman as the "the most dangerous author in Britain" who has "his own sinister agenda". You can find it here.

Do we need to rush to Philip Pullman's defence? Probably not. This is exactly the kind of response that Pullman was hoping for when he declared himself to be vehemently opposed to CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, he probably wishes that there were more articles like this one appearing in the right-wing and religious press. No wonder he is reported as having pinned Hitchens' polemic above his writing desk.

Philip Pullman is safe, then, and doesn't need our help. But why, of all the newspapers in Britain, was it the Mail on Sunday which chose to print anti-Pullman articles? The Times, The Express, The Daily Telegraph and the Sun are also right-wing publications, but they have not come out in such violent opposition to Pullman and his work.

The answer is, of course, political and it can be found in the fundamental contradiction which lies at the heart of the right-wing worldview.

There are two basic lines of thought here. The first is primarily libertarian in outlook. It's in favour of small government, low taxation, unfettered trade (in goods, services and ideas), market forces, self-reliance and the encouragement of mould-breaking entrepreneurship as the main source of wealth creation. It's at the heart of what we call free-enterprise capitalism, where money is the measure of everything.

The other line of thought is traditional conservatism. It is basically reactionary, fearing change which it sees as an inevitable lowering of standards. It likes hierarchies, order and structure. It looks back to a time (which may or may not have existed) when society was stable, with everyone knowing their place and keeping to it. It is the outlook of established wealth and those who see their best interests in supporting it. It prefers safety to speed, solidity to agility, nostalgia to novelty. In particular it regards itself as the natural Establishment, the political ground-state.

These two viewpoints are necessarily opposed; change versus stability, respect for authority versus wealth as the only viable indicator of status. The present Conservative Party in Britain is unable to establish itself as a credible opposition to the New Labour government precisely because it is unable to reconcile these two mindsets, leaving it at continual war with itself.

In 1997 a terrible thing happened to British conservatives. Tony Blair, with his modernised New Labour Party, came along and ate their lunch in the General Election of that year, coming to power in a landslide vote and in the process hijacking many of the beliefs and tenets which the Conservative Party thought were their own exclusive property. The libertarians saw Tony Blair adopt much of their rhetoric - he is a meritocrat, albeit one with a Public School education - while the traditionalists found themselves up against a committed church-going Christian. It just wasn't fair! They thought they were the natural party of government. The GOP felt much the same way during the Clinton years.

The puzzlement and resentment which this overwhelming loss (it was repeated in the following General Election) caused to traditional conservatives has had a terrible effect on the Conservative Party's self-confidence and prevented them from establishing the functional opposition which the New Labour Government needs to keep it on its toes. How could they do this to us? think the conservatives, recalling how Winston Churchill was forced out of power at the end of the Second World War. How could they (the electorate) be so ungrateful? The natural instinct in these circumstances is to blame, not yourself, but somebody else. If the conservative establishment is no longer in control, it must be because it has been usurped by a new, sinister establishment - the "Liberal Establishment" or "Liberal Elite", epitomised by the BBC, the Universities and the Arts. The term "Politically Correct" was invented (in America) to give a label to this "enemy within", as Mrs Thatcher once put it.

Where does this leave the right-wing press? The answer is that it has split along class lines, just as you would expect in Britain. The Telegraph is middle-middle to upper class. So is the Times. The Sun is directed at the uneducated working-class reader, leaving the Mail and its Sunday edition to cater to the upper-working and lower-middle classes which have long been the most anxious levels of society, vulnerable to slipping back into the working class but also aware of the possibilities of advancement into the middle class proper. The readers of the Times and the Telegraph are mostly well-educated and able to appreciate the arguments that Philip Pullman advances in HDM. The readers of the Sun don't care much about intellectual matters. But the readers of the Mail and the Mail on Sunday need a little guidance...

Now we can see where Peter Hitchens is coming from. He has an audience of socially insecure instinctive conservatives who are deeply suspicious of smart-alec lefties. "Why are all the intelligent people Socialists?" asks a puzzled character in Forty Years On, by Alan Bennett (a classic member of the Liberal Elite (Oxford, theatre, BBC), but also - and the English are like this - regarded as a national treasure by just about everybody because his work is so very understanding of what it means to be human). He sees a deeply loved book - the Chronicles of Narnia - under attack by an Oxbridge left-winger who is a regular writer for the liberal Guardian newspaper. All his protective instincts are aroused, and so he writes a piece which is half personal outrage and half cynical exploitation of his readership's prejudices. He's a journalist, after all, and he's got an editor to satisfy. But wait. He's got to be careful. While arousing the indignation of the traditionalists he mustn't make the mistake of attacking the libertarians. It was free market enterprise, after all, which made it possible for Philip Pullman to write and publish His Dark Materials in the first place. Hitchens mustn't appear to be jealous of the financial rewards that Pullman is reaping from his work. It's trades unionists who are supposed to be guilty of the politics of envy, not children's novelists. And so, stuck on the horns of a dilemma, he gives himself away and writes a weak and lazy article, one that's no threat to anybody, one that substitutes an appeal to emotion and prejudice for intellectual rigour.

The pity of all this is that His Dark Materials (and The Amber Spyglass in particular) badly needs an intelligent critique, just as the present British government needs an effective opposition. Just don't expect it from the Mail on Sunday.


To finish on a personal note. I've read, and been enchanted by, the Chronicles of Narnia. More recently I've read, and been enchanted by, His Dark Materials. Do I hate the Chronicles now? No, of course I don't. Do I think that there are flaws in the Chronicles, such as the Susan Pevensie problem that Philip Pullman gets so worked up about? Yes I do; I think that CS Lewis is wrong to deny Susan the possibility of ultimate redemption. That's one of the reasons I wrote A Gift of Love. Are there flaws in His Dark Materials? You betcha. Don't get me started...

At the end of the day it all comes down to the power of imagination, conveyed by the magic of storytelling. Both HDM and the Chronicles have magic and imagination and storytelling in spades, regardless of the beliefs of their writers. Can't we leave it there?