Peter Hitchens: One-way tweets
The self-proclaimed social democrat Peter Hitchens has 6,376 followers on Twitter – and yet he doesn't follow anyone. How very appropriate, says John Rentoul
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Wednesday 20 November 2013
Peter Hitchens is the Kanye West of British journalism. The American hip-hop recording artist follows only one person on Twitter: his fiancée, Kim Kardashian. Hitchens goes one better: he follows no one. His Twitter account says: "Following: 0." The singularity of Peter Hitchens is one of the reasons for his success in the crowded field of opinion. He is not very interested in other people's, but is always happy to be asked about his own.
As a columnist, he wins the race, against stiff competition, to be the most relentlessly negative about every change in British life since the 1950s, and the most hostile to any political parties or politicians. He is also easily the most famous person to claim to have been silenced by the suffocating consensus against which he rails. He has a full-page weekly column in the mass-market Mail on Sunday and is a frequent guest of the BBC's Question Time, but complains that we do not have free speech in this country because no one will review his books.
I have a confession to make. I like him. For a long time, I have read his column just to see how many of his five or six short opinions I secretly agree with. So, when, a few years ago, The Independent moved in with the Mail group, one of the many joys of Kensington High Street was the chance to bump into him in the marbled foyer of Northcliffe House or at the checkouts of the Marks & Spencer nearby. There, he goes to the operator tills while I go to the self-checkouts: he accuses me of putting people out of work; I accuse him of Luddism and the lump-of-labour fallacy.
On another occasion, a chance encounter in the office canteen, I said I was worried that if he dismissed all political parties equally it might be hard for some people to take him seriously. I was, if you like, Jeremy Paxman to his Russell Brand. Anyway, this led to Hitchens's claim to be a social democrat. He supports trade unions, state intervention in the economy, the welfare state and progressive taxation, he said. I welcomed him to the folds of the Blairite big tent, but I am afraid he was having none of it. He does not think that Tony Blair is a true social democrat. Typically, there is no one whom he would follow.
So it is not the case that Hitchens operates only in broadcast mode. He will engage in debate if you address him at the M&S checkout, or on Twitter, though he prefers to do so, often at some length, on his Mail Online blog. His name on Twitter, by the way, is @ClarkeMicah, a reference to a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle in which the eponymous protagonist joins the Protestant Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 and ends up questioning religious sectarianism.
I know he enjoys his image as "not a follower", but he ought to try following some MPs on Twitter. They might even cheer him up a bit. One of my favourites, Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP for Daventry, often posts jokes. Yesterday, he said: "Since my old English teacher's death, I've vowed never to use the conditional perfect tense again. It's what he would have wanted."
Go on, Peter, you might enjoy the company.
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