Calm down, old boy: Laurie Taylor interviews Simon Heffer
Telegraph thunderer Simon Heffer reveals to Laurie Taylor what it’s like being right
Simon Heffer was in fine form in his Telegraph column on 1 October. “Having written about politics in Fleet Street for 25 years,” he announced, “I should, I know, be shocked by nothing. However, occasionally one witnesses hypocrisy of such stomach-turning proportions that it is impossible even for those most brutal cynics to remain unaffected by the wickedness before them.”
What on earth was it that has prompted such an intense reaction? New revelations about the compilation of the dodgy dossier on Iraq? The discovery of confidential emails from David Cameron to members of the Taliban?
None of these. What was exercising Simon that particular October morning was the sight of Harriet Harman applauding Ed Milliband’s remark about the wrongness of the Iraq expedition when she had voted for the war. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant sight but probably only Heffer in full stride could have deemed Harriet’s misplaced and, yes, hypocritical wish to show support for Labour’s new leader as one of the worst examples of political wickedness in the last 25 years.
But as I grudgingly recognised in accepting the editor’s suggestion that I go up to Cambridge to interview the old curmudgeon himself, there’s far more to the man than can be gleaned from an occasional reading of his Telegraphic thunderings.
He is, as he made clear in a column he wrote for New Humanist back in 2005, a lifelong atheist. “As far as I am concerned, there is a scientific explanation for everything attributed to something called ‘God’… I am an atheist because I am a rationalist.” And I also know from the books he has written that he finds no problem in combining such unequivocal atheism with a belief that religion could still play an important part in restoring a sense of order and continuity to a country that he passionately believes is in serious need of both such qualities.
This year Heffer is to be found ensconced in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, his alma mater, where he conducts the occasional seminar in between writing a new book on the causes of war. As I wait to meet him in the sunlit quad I can’t help wondering if he lambasts his students in the way he does his Telegraph readers. And if so, what happens to any undergraduate who gently suggests that there is perhaps another side to the topic under discussion, who dares to mention that matters might be a tad more ambiguous or multi-layered or complex than Heffer has allowed?
Heffer almost seems to have expected the question. He leans back comfortably in his chair and tells me that there’s really no problem. “When I talk to students I’m appealing to a different audience than my readers. Because a lot of them are there because they think they ought to be there rather than because they want to be there, I’m seeking to persuade them. Whereas my readers have paid money to read me. They’ve bought the newspaper, and they know exactly what they’re getting. As a journalist it’s my job to put bricks through windows. I have opinions and I’m paid to express them. A lot of people have opinions and don’t get the chance to express them or are afraid to express them, and so I’m doing a bit of social work on their behalf. Have I moderated? No, I think that what I write is what I believe, but I would express myself differently in a newspaper from the way I would express myself in a seminar room.”
Even though he’s made me feel very welcome I still feel somewhat apprehensive as I turn to my list of questions. Part of my concern is the need to keep my liberal opinions to myself so that the interview doesn’t turn into a predictable argument, but I also feel the need to watch my language. Heffer’s latest book Strictly English is an enormously readable thesis about how an ability to speak and write Good English not only separates the educated from non-educated but also tells you about the logical capabilities of the reader or speaker.
Perhaps, I suggest carefully, we might begin by exploring an apparent paradox, his capacity to combine a thoroughgoing atheism with his respect for religion and specifically the Church of England as the custodian of traditional values.
“I’ve got a slightly bizarre view of the Church of England. I’ve been an atheist since I was six years old but I don’t have a problem with anyone else being religious. I don’t like militant atheism. I don’t like people who think that those who are religious should be herded into concentration camps. I hate illiberal religious people but I also hate illiberal atheists. And I do see the Church of England as having once been a really important cultural force in this country. I remember Enoch Powell telling me that he went back to church in 1949 after 20 years of atheism precisely because he felt that cultural pull. He was walking down a street in Wolverhampton and heard the church bells calling him. And then sitting down in the back of the church he thought, ‘This is part of my understanding of the culture of this country.’”
But did that mean that Powell had found God or that like you he was turning to religion as a way of connecting with English culture?
“That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I talked to Enoch a lot about God. There was a period in his middle age when he genuinely did believe in God. He told me this story about when he was 47, that would have been in 1958, and he was digging in his allotment one Saturday morning and worrying about death, as we all do, when he felt a hand on his shoulder and it was God saying, ‘Don’t worry, old boy. It’s going to be all right. You will be looked after.’ But then I had conversations with him towards the very end of his life when he told me that the closer he got, the more ill he became, the harder it was to believe.”
I’m not too surprised by the readiness with which Heffer invokes Powell in this context. He’s written a long biography of him and still acknowledges him as the principal source of his own political ideas.
“He provided me with the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience. It was in 1976 and I’d started an A level course in economics. And Powell, of whom I was then only vaguely cognisant, came on television talking about how the government controlled the supply of money and how the reckless expansion of money under Heath had brought about the mess we were in and how the Labour Party had compounded it by not reducing lending and borrowing. This to me was what the French call un moment de revelation, I just thought ‘He’s right.’ My teacher slipped me a copy of his speeches from the ’60s and said, ‘Ignore all the crap about race relations and read the stuff about economics.’”
Perhaps even stranger than Heffer’s reverence for Powell is his attempt in another book to resuscitate Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian moral and political philosopher whose convoluted prose, mean-spirited life and proto-fascist ideology – Hitler was a great fan – have made him something of a detested figure among contemporary critics. But as with Powell, Heffer finds much of interest in his attitude to religion. He was, in a more religious age, prepared to describe himself as non-Christian, to declare his disbelief in miracles. In Heffer’s view, Powell and Carlyle, for all their faults, both display one great attribute. They both have what he calls “a sense of conviction and fanaticism in the best sense of the word. Enoch had a fanatical belief in his own logic and Carlyle had a fanatical belief in his own rectitude.”
But didn’t it matter that that these convictions had led both authors into some strange places? Was he prepared to overlook their nasty racism simply because they displayed a sense of conviction? By this criterion, surely Hitler and Stalin could be admitted to his pantheon of heroes?
“I think I would make a distinction between people who are good and people who are evil. I would never be attracted to Hitler or Stalin because I regard them as being profoundly evil.” He is, however, prepared to admit political opponents on the grounds of their consistency of character.
“I’m a huge admirer of Tony Benn. I don’t agree with him on an awful lot of things but I think he’s a man of huge integrity.”
It’s not difficult to see how this respect for conviction and integrity has led Heffer to despise contemporary politicians and all their ways. He doubts whether he would now describe himself as a Tory after witnessing Cameron’s obsession with image management and his readiness to push “real issues of governance to the margins”.
“By the time Thatcher was removed I realised that political parties were really rather dirty things full of people who had no principles.”
By this stage of the interview I’d become used to the way in which Heffer falls back upon the idea of firm principles whenever he wishes to separate the sheep from the goats. But from where, I asked, did he derive his own moral principles?
“It’s quite simple. My father said to me 45 years ago, ‘Treat other people as you’d like them to treat you.’ That’s very straightforward. Much of it is coincidental with Christianity. I wouldn’t want to go and murder anybody because I wouldn’t want to be murdered myself. I try to be honest. It’s as simple as that. It’s giving people the treatment you expect back from them”.
I suggest to him that some of his readers might be surprised by this stress upon the importance of empathy as the basis of morality. He hardly seemed to extend such empathy to homosexual unions.
“What worries me about civil partnerships is taking it a step on the road towards something called ‘marriage’. Being married and bringing up children within a marriage is a very different kettle of fish to a partnership. Marriage has a very special status in our society and I don’t think it should be encroached upon.”
But wasn’t this an example of how his empathic moral principle, his readiness to allow others to live their own lives, broke down when such forms of living conflicted with his views on the fundamental importance of tradition and continuity and order?
“Look, I’m fundamentally a liberal. What people do in their private lives is up to them but I think we all have to accept that some things we do in our private lives have an impact on the rest of society. I think, for example, that we get divorced too easily in this country. Similarly, I have no religious hang-up about abortion but I do think abortion has become a form of post-coital contraception and when I see the phrase ‘the holocaust of abortion’ I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration. I’m also an advocate in certain cases of the death penalty. I am astonished that people who feel someone who has committed a really abominable crime shouldn’t have the death penalty whereas a child in a womb who is viable should have the death penalty. I find that a bizarre contradiction.”
By this point of the interview I’d begun to recognise the peculiar way in which, almost at the flick of a switch, Telegraph man constantly intrudes upon Heffer’s otherwise rather thoughtful, academic persona. Perhaps after years of getting well paid for throwing bricks through windows it’s simply not possibly to pass up an opportunity even when the nearest window to hand is one that looks out upon a sunlit quad.
So I’m fully expecting at least a half- brick in my direction when I wonder, as a final question, if he positively gets off on provoking outrage.
“You can seek to persuade people. You can say, ‘Look this is what I believe and I would argue that you might be better off believing that than what you believe at the moment.’ But I don’t think any of us has a monopoly on rectitude. I don’t. So when I hear people say, ‘You believe in God, therefore you are wrong, and there is something bonkers about you,’ I think, ‘Well, yes, maybe there is, but they have a right to do it.’ And this to me is why this is such a wonderful country. I wouldn’t dream of having the bad manners to insult Islam, but I do wish that when people do have the bad manners to do it by drawing representations of the Prophet Muhammad, the people who are insulted would just say, ‘I don’t care what you think. I have my beliefs, I’m getting on with them,’ rather than launching a jihad. I just wish that we could all calm down about religion.”
Simon Heffer's Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why it Matters is published by Random House