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In the Midst of the Culture War: An Interview with Peter Whittle by Robert Semonsen

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Interview

In the Midst of the Culture War: An Interview with Peter Whittle

Photo: Hungary Today

Some weeks ago, I had been at the Danube Institute’s “The Return and Transformation of Geopolitics” conference in Budapest when I crossed paths with a gentleman named Peter Whittle. As we conversed on the terrace of the opulent Lónyay-Hatvany Villa, which towers above the banks of the Danube and the city’s skyline, I learned that Mr. Whittle—an influential British author, journalist, the former deputy leader for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and founder and director of the metapolitical think-tank The New Culture Forum (NFC)—had traveled to Budapest to film a documentary which, among other things, examines Hungary’s illiberal democracy and explores why western liberals, on the Right and the Left, are hell-bent on demonizing and destroying it.

A few days later, Mr. Whittle was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss the New Culture Forum, the documentary film he and his team had been working on, his former career in British politics, broadcasting, and life as a writer in Los Angeles, as well as the rapid cultural decay we all see taking place across the U.S., the UK, and Western Europe.


INTERVIEW

Mr. Whittle, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I understand that you and your colleagues at The New Culture Forum (NCF) have been in Budapest for about a week now. What have you been up to? 

We have been making a documentary about Hungary leading up to the election, and the point of the film was really to examine why Hungary is demonized as it is, what Britain could learn from what Hungary is doing, and to look at what Viktor Orbán has been doing as he leads the country. We have been filming each day, we have done interviews, and we’ve attended the Danube Institute’s conference on geopolitics.

I have been here twice before, both times to visit the Danube Institute, and the NCF has done joint conferences with them in the past, and so we have a connection here. I love the place! I love what’s happening with parts of the Castle District where there is this attempt—it’s not just an attempt, it’s happening—to recreate beautiful buildings, basically destroyed by Communism, and I love that.

My feeling about the general political discussion is that it is far more open-minded. It’s just wonderful to be here in this kind of environment, if you come from a country like ours. Something that you said to me, Robert, that I found quite striking, was, ‘I felt like a fish swimming in poisoned water.’ I can absolutely see that, you know, when you are in London or New York, you are increasingly and constantly fighting in a very negative and hostile environment. It’s refreshing to come here and not to have to deal with that.

So, Hungary is not some kind of ‘authoritarian’ state, as the Western mainstream press would have us all believe?

No, I think the Hungarian government is trying to put conservative viewpoints into policy action—and I think these viewpoints would be enormously popular in Britain, particularly when it comes to migration, where there appears to be—despite all kinds of strong words—almost no will from the top to do anything about it. I love being here, and of course, I have not found it to be an ‘authoritarian’ state at all. There’s an election coming in three or four weeks from now, and I found a great sense of free enquiry going on. I hope that what is happening here will be, at some point in the future, seen as the beginnings of something observable beyond the borders of Hungary. 

Can you tell us a bit about the New Culture Forum?

The NCF was founded in 2006. We do reports, books, and events, obviously trying to influence public debate, and if possible, policy. The NCF has always been concerned with cultural issues, as opposed to economic ones. I would have to say, and I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but I feel vindicated in that now this is entirely what are our politics are about: cultural issues. So, we were pretty much there at the beginning, and it’s based in Westminster. I’d say it’s the foremost solely-cultural-issues think-tank in the UK. 

In 2019, we started a new channel, just a YouTube channel, and that really seems to have taken off. We have had seventeen million views so far, and our viewership is growing all the time. We do interviews, we host discussions, and we do documentaries like the one I am making this week in Hungary. We also have a very prestigious lecture that happens every year, which is called the Smith Lecture, and Douglas Murray was the first to deliver it. Nigel Farage, David Starkey, and Neil Oliver, who is a TV star on Great Britain News, have also spoken at it. When it comes to guests for our discussions, we have a mixture, and not so many politicians, because I generally find that politicians are often disappointing. We tend to have more journalists, authors, commentators, and we’ve had some artists too. The channel is hugely popular. 

What is the most imminent threat facing the West today, and can the ‘strange death of Europe’ be averted?

President Trump, in 2017, I think, gave a speech in Warsaw, and what he said there was absolutely spot on, whatever you think of Trump. He said, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” And I would say, that is the most important question for us. If you don’t care whether you live or die, if in fact, you lose all confidence in your civilization—more than that, if you actually start detesting it and you make sure that generations coming up also feel that—then you are finished. Ultimately, if you believe in your civilization, you can be strong. And I think the problem is that culturally Western civilization is now utterly weak. Just two days ago, the head of MI6, which is supposed to guarantee our security, came out saying that it’s terrible what’s happening over in Ukraine but we should carry on tweeting about LGBT stuff… you saw it, right? You just look at that, and you think, this guy is not just some lower minister in the Ministry of Education, he is the head of MI6… and… just what is going on?

Is it a matter of maladministration or something else? 

I think it’s probably more that they just don’t think anymore. The British historian David Starkey said recently that we have just stopped thinking. People aren’t sitting around discussing ideas anymore.

Let’s talk about your time in UKIP. The party won two seats in the London Assembly in 2016, one of which you held. Can you tell me what that was like? I imagine you came up against some stiff opposition. Were you able to exert much influence on the body?

I got involved in electoral politics, because I wanted to, and it was on the particular issue of Brexit, so I joined UKIP, and I became quite prominent in UKIP, deputy leader of the party, then on to the London Assembly. It was interesting, actually, because then people do ask you what you are going to do—and it is not enough to just sit and analyse. And, in fact, you have to be really rigorous with yourself. When you are in electoral politics, you don’t get general questions like that, it is much more local, but at the same time you do have to say what you would do, how you would solve this or that problem. It was a very important exercise for me, but it is a different mental outlook entirely—I think that is why people who get involved in politics often have a very different outlook from that of people who commentate.

The London Assembly is a pretty toothless body, right? It’s there to scrutinize the mayor, but it is also there to scrutinize the various things that the mayor oversees. So, in my case, I was on the Police and Crime Committee, which I think is one of the most important roles, and so I could then scrutinize the chief of the Metropolitan Police. If you had the right questions to ask, it was a very good platform for parties like UKIP. We held only two seats, however. It was a very good platform to get the message out, but in terms of power, there is virtually none. It was interesting because I had some very fiery exchanges with Sadiq Khan. One exchange concerning the tearing down of statues went viral. You know, Sadiq Khan is a political opportunist as much as any other politician. He then announced a new sort of review body to look at all of London’s statues, street names, and memorials. I was incensed by this. And so, when it was the mayor’s question time, I just said it was outrageous. But, to answer your question, City Hall was like the mother ship of the kind of ‘Woke’ ideology. So, it was a bit like working in the BBC, really.

I then left UKIP in 2018. When we went into the 2017 election, the party was not exactly wiped out, but it almost was. It went from four million votes to six hundred thousand. The chief reason for that was, people thought, well, Brexit had been done, so, essentially, the party’s primary objective had been fulfilled.

There was a period in UKIP from about 2015 to 2017, two years, really, when it was just fantastic to be involved in it. UKIP under Nigel was like a force of nature, really. It was full of the right people who had no other reason to be there other than the strength of their convictions. Certainly, you weren’t going to get any social advantage by being in this party. You weren’t going to get any professional advantage. You were not going to go up what Disraeli called ‘the greasy pole of politics.’ It was not like the Tory Party or Labour, where you can have a lack of principles and be there simply because you wanted to become an elected politician. That was never the case with UKIP, it was entirely different, because you would believe strongly in various issues, chiefly Brexit, and therefore you had some very good people in it. So, I am very pleased that I had my time there. 

Are there any national-conservative parties that you have your eye on in Europe, and if so, which ones inspire you? 

Fidesz seems like a very interesting party, and it is the one I have grown to know the most. I went to a big conference of the Swedish Democrats some time ago. In regards to Fidesz, there remains a question of whether it can exist independently of Orbán. How much does it rely on the personality of Viktor Orbán? It’s a bit like this, similarly to President Trump. Is there such a thing as Trumpism that someone can take over? How much does it rely on the personality of Viktor Orbán? I just don’t know.

What do you think national-conservatives and people on the Right, across Europe, Britain, America, and elsewhere, should be doing to oppose so-called ‘woke-ism’ and the forces of globalization, in a meaningful way? Should they be engaging in the metapolitical realm as you are doing quite effectively with the NCF?

That is a tough question. You know, the thing is, the level of demoralization and sadness from the kind of public feedback I get from emails is absolutely astounding. And this happened during the BLM assault last year… People just wonder what is happening, and what we can do. Well, we started a campaign, Save Our Statues, which has had some success. There was a conference last year, organised by the Institute of Ideas. It was all about things such as censorship and boycotting. For example, when it comes to corporations, on an everyday level, you should just stop buying products from corporations that mouth off, like Ben and Jerries—and there are more and more companies behaving in this way—just don’t buy the stuff, don’t use it, and eventually they will stop, because they are in it just for the money, really. That’s just a very small thing, but I think boycotting can be extremely effective. 

When it comes to the other ways one can be involved, then it is more difficult. With the NCF, I try to make it a means of association for people who have similar views and feel the way we do. That is why we have events during which, basically, people come together purely because they are all on the same side, to different degrees, but nonetheless all on the same side. For example, if you are considering what, in the long term, would be the best way for any party or any pressure group to exert influence, the best you can do is to try to push, in our case the Tories, as much as possible. That’s what happened with UKIP. It started off as a pressure group that stood for election. A bit like the Tea Party, maybe, in the U.S. After a while you can become powerful enough to have an effect. A perfect example was indeed Brexit, where the growth of UKIP in the polls—we got to 23%—started to really worry the Tories. UKIP won the European elections in Britain. If you have a movement, with people getting involved, which starts to register in opinion polls, then others will take notice. Only if you are threatening their vote, of course. That is the only time they begin to take note. So that is the way to do it. What is needed now is to have a coordinated and coherent movement. And we don’t have that as yet in Britain.

You lived in Los Angeles for five years back in the 1990s, if I’m not mistaken. Can you tell us a bit about the time you spent there?

I lived there for some time, from 1999. My background, though, was always London. I was going back and forth often. The U.S. has always figured so strongly in my imagination. I was a film critic for twenty years, for example. I have always adored America. My career, before the NCF, was always in the media. I was a producer and director of programs for mainstream TV in Britain—documentaries, things like that. I was also a writer, engaged in cultural criticism, really. Before I went to live in Los Angeles in 1999, I already knew it well. I was thirty-eight, so it was quite a late time in my life to do that, I suppose, but I loved it. I became very fond of the place.

And what was your impression of California and its people? 

If you are interested in architecture, for example, and design, it is a great place. I met some very good people, and we became fast friends. I was all set to be there for life, but I found myself becoming a little bit homesick, and that was the reason I decided to return to Britain. Initially, I never thought I would come back. I was mainly working as a journalist then.

You were working for the LA Times?

Yes, but I was freelancing. And with The Times in London. I didn’t write a single thing before I was 41. I went home, and this guy at a Scottish newspaper asked if I fancied writing a short column from Los Angeles. The money wasn’t bad. You know, people used to be paid in this business! And I said, yes, why not. And when I was there, I also went to the LA Times and said that I was an Englishman and asked whether they’d like my perspective on the Oscars, or something like that. They obviously liked what I did, because I ended up doing loads of work for them, and I loved it. I ended up being pretty much a full-time print journalist for the next six or seven years. But, as I said, I started to become homesick, and then my father became ill, and so I wanted to return home. I had also met somebody romantically in London, even though he was French. He was still living in London. I suppose, all those things combined caused me to return. I remember being at a dinner party in LA with some friends, and the whole conversation was about degrees of celebrity, and real estate, and at that point I remember thinking: “I have had enough.” But I remain very fond of the place. Still, I wouldn’t want to go back now.

I assume, then, that you’re aware of what has become of many American cities? Do you see any hope that this trend can be reversed? 

I went to LA the last time two years ago, and nobody, absolutely NOBODY, supported Trump there. I remember, before, it was not like that. I am sure that I would not be very happy there. But I’m afraid that I would feel the same way about lots of places in America now. I just feel that what I went to America for still exists in pockets—you can find it—but it’s not the overarching dominant culture, and I find that heart-breaking. I remember the musical composer Stephen Sondheim, who died last year, I just remember thinking at the time: that whole kind of culture I can’t see continuing. He was like the intellectuals’ favourite musical writer. He wrote things such as Company, and Sweeney Todd. On Broadway, who would do that now? Could anyone do that now? Everything seems to be about imposing an ideology; the arts in particular, be they in Britain or America, are killing themselves. This is all a source of sadness for me. But, with time, this shall change. 

I will tell you why you should be hopeful. In the 1970s, in Britain, people thought our country was a joke. It was called the sick man of Europe. It was forever having strikes. It was in terminal decline. It was kind of… tacky, and you would have thought it was inevitable decline, and the Tories adopted that attitude, until along came this woman called Thatcher, and it really did change. By the time she left, there were lots of things that were not right, but basically those things about Britain were no longer the case. So, in other words: things can change. But it is easy to become depressed, because the difference between then and now is that the problems are all-encompassing, they are everywhere, everywhere you look, and also, you can’t get away from it all. You can’t get away from politics now. That wasn’t the case then.

And if you oppose it, you risk losing everything, don’t you? 

Exactly. And people don’t want to be ostracized. I don’t just mean losing a job. In fact, this is what Hungary is fighting against— this kind of imposition of ideology on every aspect of life.

Robert Semonsen is a political journalist based in Central Europe. His work has been featured in various English-language news outlets in Europe and the Americas. He has an educational background in biological and medical science. His Twitter handle is @R_Semonsen.

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