Christopher Hitchens night: a review

Stephen Fry, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Sean Penn and others unite to celebrate Hitchens.

"I'm not as I was," Christopher Hitchens poignantly remarked recently. Afflicted by oesophageal cancer and, now, pneumonia, Hitchens, who I interviewed for the New Statesman last year, was too ill to appear in conversation with Stephen Fry at the Royal Festival Hall in London last night. But rather than cancelling the event, the organisers assembled an extraordinary selection of Hitchens's comrades and friends to pay tribute to the great essayist and polemicist.

Richard Dawkins, Hitchens's fellow anti-theist, appeared on stage with Fry in London, and Martin Amis, his dearest friend, appeared via video link from New York, as did James Fenton and Salman Rushdie. The line-up also included actor Sean Penn (who Hitchens enjoys pool games with), former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham and novelist Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative intellectual (whether there can be such a thing is a subject for another occasion) William F. Buckley, whom Hitchens often debated on US TV show Firing Line. It felt like a hyper-intelligent version of Question Time.

Wreathed in smoke clouds and looking as if he had just climbed out of bed, Penn (beamed in from LA) opened proceedings, discussing the political significance of The Trial of Henry Kissinger - Hitchens's account of the former US Secretary of State's "one-man rolling crime wave" - until the satellite link failed ("God damn you Google!" cried Fry). Regaining his composure, Fry welcomed Dawkins on stage. Dawkins and Hitchens are often spoken of as one entity (Terry Eagleton christened them "Ditchkins" in his 2009 polemic Reason, Faith and Revolution) but the former made an important distinction between their approaches. While Dawkins's hostility to religion is born of his commitment to science and free inquiry, Hitchens's reflects his moral outrage at what Dawkins called "a tyrannical God figure" and what Hitchens has described as a "celestial dictatorship". In this regard, Hitchens's anti-theism is merely an extension of his anti-totalitarianism.

It was Buckley, who spoke recently of how Hitchens composed a Slate column in 20 minutes in his presence (as the late Anthony Howard, a former editor of the NS, told me last year, Hitchens can write at a speed that most people talk), who appeared next, recalling the moment Barbra Streisand "caught fire" at the Vanity Fair party hosted by Hitchens following the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was a reminder that Hitchens, whose extraordinary output is suggestive of a solitary, bookish figure, is a compulsive socialite and bon vivant. Fenton (introduced by Fry as "the greatest living English poet") , a friend of Hitchens's since Oxford and the dedicatee of his recent memoir Hitch-22, then read his remarkable poem 'The Skip', the first verse of which appears below.

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbors wouldn't mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find
With skips is-the whole community joins in.
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won't fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can't be fished to shift.

Lewis Lapham, who appointed Hitchens as the Washington editor of Harper's in 1986, spoke of how he was "the only journalist in Washington that would actually bite the hand that fed him", placing him in the tradition of Twain and Mencken. Rushdie, whom Hitchens defended so brilliantly during the fatwa, was up next, recalling some of the word games the pair used to play, the most uproarious of which is "titles that didn't quite make it", including For Whom The Bell Rings, A Farewell to Weapons, The Catcher In The Wheat, To Kill A Hummingbird, The Big Gatsby and Good Expectations.

It was Amis, now a Brooklyn resident, who appeared last, sagely guiding the audience through old photographs of Hitchens, including the unlikely sight of Hitch, a quintessential urbanite, holding a brace of pheasants on the Rothschild estate. He described his relationship with Hitchens as an "unconsummated gay marriage", adding that "Christopher, certainly some time ago, would have consummated it very happily".

But the most significant and poignant intervention came from Ian McEwan, who was watching the event live with Hitchens in Texas. "I talked until late last night with Hitch, we were discussing the non-communist left of the early 50s," he wrote in an email read out by Fry. "He can't run a mile just now but be reassured his Rolls Royce mind is purring smoothly."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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