Labour's preferred attack on pensions is going nowhere

The hated 3 per cent charge hidden in last year's spending review is non-negotiable and unions know

Coming as it does the day after George Osborne's Autumn Statement on the economy, today's strike by public sector workers feels in many respects like a broad rejection of the government's entire austerity agenda. That feeling is exaggerated by the Chancellor's decision yesterday to pay for some of his growth-boosting plans by capping public sector wages. Even if inflation falls back from its current high levels that will feel like a cut. The move will be widely interpreted by strikers as a provocation.

There is, of course, a specific dispute at the heart of today's action - the government's proposals to reform public sector pensions. There is also, within that specific dispute, a detail that is often lost in reporting, which is the distinction between reforms set out in the report by Lord Hutton, subsequently watered down in negotiations, and changes introduced in last autumn's spending review. The Hutton proposals are the basis of the deal that has been offered to -- and rejected by -- unions. But many public sector workers are just as aggrieved by a mandatory surcharge on their employee pension contributions averaging 3.2 per cent that was in the small print of the spending review. That was seen by many as a pre-emptive attack on pensions rushed through before negotiations on a long-term settlement even got under way.

Labour is keen to emphasise the surcharge for precisely that reason. It was imposed by the Treasury without discussion and looks and feels like a smash-and-grab raid. There is some disappointment at the top of the party that unions have not pushed this point further. But privately unions say they see no point going after the 3 per cent charge as they know this is a battle they cannot win. They are right. I was told recently by a cabinet minister with good knowledge of the pension negotiations with unions that the surcharge is non-negotiable. It isn't even on the table. That is precisely because it is contained in the spending review. That document has acquired hallowed status in the government - it is the agreement on which the coalition's whole commitment to fiscal discipline is based. Ministers from both governing parties see it as the measure that, more than anything else, bought the country long-term respite from any pressure from financial markets that have punished other indebted governments in Europe. (Whether or not this is a real danger -- or was a danger in autumn last year -- is an entirely different point.) The fact is, whatever disputes might arise within the coalition, there is absolute agreement that the spending review is closed and must not be re-opened. It is the emblem of fiscal credibility.

There is also, I suspect, a certain psychological element in play here. Negotiating the spending review was an early test of the coalition's staying power. It came at a time when many people still thought it implausible that Lib Dems and Tories could realistically stay in government together for long. The fact that it happened at all has created a certain esprit de corps in the quad - the coalition steering committee of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. They all know that revisiting the spending review would sabotage the political solidarity that is the glue holding the coalition together.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.