Hitchens's memorial: a reader

Another chance to read extracts from the writer's final interview with Richard Dawkins.

Four months on from Christopher Hitchens's untimely death, Vanity Fair is hosting a memorial service in his honour in New York. The line-up of speakers is predictably dazzling: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Christopher Buckley, Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, and physicist Lawrence Krauss.

A few weeks before Hitchens's death, Richard Dawkins, the New Statesman's Christmas guest-editor, travelled to Texas to interview him for the magazine. It was to be his final interview.

We will shortly be publishing their conversation online in full but for now here are some exclusive extracts from that interview as well as the best Hitchens-related content from the NS archive.

1. Preview: Richard Dawkins interviews Christopher Hitchens

Exclusive extracts from the writer's final interview.

2.Christopher Hitchens, the enemy of the totalitarian

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley reflects on Hitchens's place in Anglo-American letters.

3. The state of Spain

Hitchens reports from Madrid in 1976, following the death of Franco.

4. Being Christopher Hitchens

George Eaton's interview with Hitchens from May 2010 in which he remarked of David Cameron: "He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' and my answer is: 'He doesn't make me think."

5. Please, let's not do God

In 2009, Hitchens attacked Tony Blair's Faith Foundation, writing that Blair’s "new banality" rises "almost to Queen’s Christmas broadcast level".

6. Arguably, reviewed by John Gray

The NS's lead book reviewer writes of Hitchens's final collection of essays: "Coming from one of the greatest living writers of English prose, Arguably is the testament of a prodigiously gifted mind. To say that, during the past three decades, the world would have been poorer, duller and altogether a smaller place without Hitchens and his writings would be to utter a cliché of the kind he despises. It would also be true."

7. Christopher Hitchens: the New Statesman years

George Eaton talks to Hitchens's former New Statesman colleagues about his time at the magazine.

8. Iraq Flexes Arab Muscle

In 1976, Hitchens visited Iraq and wrote that Saddam Hussain had "sprung from being an underground revolutionary gunman to perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser."

9. Am I a dwarf or a horseman?

In a 2007 diary, Hitchens wrote of his fellow athiests Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins: "it's an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as these men. If there were seven of us, the clever press would call us dwarves. As we are a quartet, we are doomed to be called the Gang of Four or the Four Musketeers. My own nomination - the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse - is a bit cumbersome and I'd welcome suggestions."

10. Hitch’s Rolls-Royce mind is still purring

In November 2011, just a few weeks before his death, Hitchens's comrades and friends, including Martin Amis, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie and Sean Penn, paid tribute to him at the Royal Festival Hall in London. George Eaton reviewed the evening for the NS.

A young Christopher Hitchens outside the offices of the New Statesman, where he was hired in 1973. Photograph: Rex Features.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital