The Phoney Victory
Peter Hitchens, IB Tauris, 2018
What is worse than being hated? Being ignored. Such is the philosophy of Peter Hitchens, who complained at a speaking event in his hometown of Oxford recently that nobody was reviewing his new book. The reason this peculiar volume has elicited little excitement from the press becomes fairly clear on first reading, with its prefatory note telling readers: ‘I don’t think anyone is going to be very keen to be associated with this book… for its awkward, melancholy, and unpopular tone.’ Those words of warning sunk in as I hewed my way through his turgid eleven-page timeline of the Second World War which forgoes the main body of The Phoney Victory. Awkward indeed, and it seemed Mr Hitchens had rather wrapped up the reviewer’s job for him before chapter one.
But first impressions, in life and literature, can be misleading, and though Hitchens Junior may somewhat lack his late brother’s capacity for rhetorical momentum, he makes up for it here with a more generous talent for modesty. Despite his self-effacement, Hitchens’ new book – a reappraisal of appeasement – is worth a browse. Not, that is, as a scholarly work, but a moral polemic, or should I say amoral?
The author’s ideal of a ‘Britain first’ foreign policy harks back to an age of Great Powers diplomacy – anachronistic even in 1939 – when decisions were made not on the basis of ‘values’ and cooperation, but the ruthless pursuit of national ambition.Morality and honour held little sway, to Hitchens’ delight – he writes affectionately of Lord Palmerston’s diplomatic shrug over the Schleswig-Holstein question of 1864. This anti-solidarity take on world affairs, particularly with regards to our immediate neighbours on the continent, has been described elsewhere as ‘eurosceptic.’ Hitchens shows a barely veiled contempt for Poland in 1939, and rues the British-French ultimatum of that September which drew us into the war.
Yet British Euroscepticism, often fondly memorialising the war, has precluded an Atlanticist alternative to engagement with Europe – we need only look to Messrs Rees-Mogg, Johnson, and Hannan to find the torchbearers of that position. Unlike them, Hitchens spits as much venom at our American cousins as he does our continental neighbours. Evading standard categories, this church-going Oxfordshire conservative’s attitude to British foreign policy is what I can only describe as a form of Anglican eschatology.
True to his catchphrase (‘this country is finished’), Hitchens has resigned himself to a national apocalypse, eulogising the last weeks of August 1939 as ‘Britain’s final days as a great industrial, economic, and naval power.’ The Kingdom of Christ on Earth will not be materialising here any time soon then; according to Hitchens, we have soiled Britain’s prosperity for the false religion of moral foreign policy, ‘the theology of the “Good War”’ as he terms it. He claims that the war’s ‘characters are nowadays better known than those of the Bible’, that the war is ‘our moral guide, the origin of modern scripture about good and evil’, that ‘the Crucifixion grows pale and faint in the lurid light of air raids and great columns of burning oil at Dunkirk,’ and that the Battle of Britain memorial flight ‘is a sacrament of some kind.’
Though largely baffling, this morose reading of our history is at least highly original. Unpredictable as ever, Peter Hitchens remains the only pundit of the British hard right whose column inches could not be filled by an algorithm.
Early on, Hitchens does give some warning of his choosy approach to research, admitting the events which he discusses ‘reflect my biases and preoccupations.’ This one-sidedness was even more transparent than expected, with Hitchens’ reading on the Second World War limited to a small coterie of historians who support – directly or indirectly – his argument. Thus, the near infinite chains of ‘ibids’ in his footnotes look like a printing error.
In support of his central thesis that the British people have an overly self-satisfied verdict on the Second World War, Hitchens draws heavily on a few instances of questionable behaviour by the Allies. The key problem with his analysis is that Hitchens quite haughtily assumes the public (also called ‘the uninformed’) are stupid. He describes the firebombing of Dresden, immortalised in popular fiction and film, as an event which ‘most British people are unaware of’, complaining that events significant to his argument ‘tend not to feature in the more popular versions of our national history.’ Given The Phoney Victory’s relatively short bibliography, the author might be advised to read a little more popular history, where he could find some adequate accounts of Dresden.
Despite this shortsightedness, Hitchens’ efforts are at times rewarding, in particular his absorbing examination of the Mers-el- Kebir incident, when British forces fired on French Navy vessels after the invasion of France, lest the ships fall into German hands. These valuable passages, though, still feel a little wobbly; Hitchens spasmodically withdraws from subjects of historical interest in order to make some Mail on Sunday style quip about the current state of the nation:
The pound sterling of 1940 was worth roughly 47 times as much as today’s feeble imitation.
Oxford, 63 miles from London, found itself housing hundreds of refugee Londoners, for two whole months, in an enormous suburban cinema, the Majestic, on the Botley Road (where a modern Waitrose supermarket now stands).
The readiness to accept the abortion massacre, the general coarsening of culture and the growth of callousness have at least something to do with our willingness to shrug off – or even defend – Arthur Harris’ deliberate “de-housing” of German civilians.
The arch-miser’s grumbles about inflation, gentrification, and abortion slightly subdue any impression of scholarly integrity. At times, Hitchens’ presentist arguments show some promise, for examples his contention that “the myth of the ‘Good War’” is the primary cause of our “modern wars of choice” in Iraq and Libya, but this line finds little nourishment beyond the introduction.
As The Phoney Victory progresses, the author’s haphazardly placed political asides become ever more forgettable. With shallow history and shallow politics, the two argumentative wings of Hitchens’ book are both flying light, weakening a book stuffed full of potential energy.
A sense of bathos pervades in the final paragraph, where Hitchens attempts a rousing conclusion about our present national troubles, rattling off an arbitrary list of disagreeable events: ‘as the Empire departed, Suez was followed by Profumo, Profumo by the cultural revolution and the 1960s and the European adventure which still has us in its grip.’ No elaboration on this febrile inventory is given, in a disappointing crescendo from the writer who self-describes as ‘I – a more than usually well-informed citizen.’
Art by Abigail Hodges