Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens to face off over religion

Writer and former prime minister to debate role of religion in Toronto.

Despite his recent diagnosis with oesophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens (who I interviewed earlier this year) has continued to debate religious figures, most recently Tariq Ramadan, across the United States.

Now he's due to face the Vicar of Albion himself, Tony Blair. Blair has agreed to debate Hitchens in Toronto on 26 November (the event will be streamed live online) on the motion: "Is religion a force for peace or conflict in the modern world?"

Hitchens was an ardent supporter of Blair's wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, but he has long opposed what he describes as the former prime minister's "sickly piety".

On Blair, he said: "He couldn't do it while he was prime minister, but he went 'over to Rome' as soon as he could. Very bizarrely he did this at one of the most conservative times for the Catholic Church, under one of the most conservative Popes".

"I've never had the chance to sit down and talk it through with him ... It's not like I'm going to be arguing with Pat Robertson. Mr. Blair's a much more complex person than that," he added.

Whether Blair, who hasn't done much jousting since his Commons days, is battle-ready remains to be seen. But either way, one suspects that the encounter will be more respectful than the famous duel between Hitchens ("a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay") and George Galloway ("a sub-Leninist, East End carpetbagger").

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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