Preview: Richard Dawkins interviews Christopher Hitchens

Exclusive extracts from the writer's final interview.

Exclusive extracts from the writer's final interview.{C}

Update: Christopher Hitchens has died of oesophageal cancer at the age of 62. This was his final interview.

As we revealed earlier this week, this year's New Statesman Christmas special is guest-edited by Richard Dawkins (copies can be purchased here). Among the many highlights is Dawkins's interview with his fellow anti-theist Christopher Hitchens, who began his Fleet Street career at the NS in 1973.

The great polemicist is currently undergoing treatment for stage IV oesophageal cancer ("there is no stage V," he notes) and now rarely makes public appearances but he was in Texas to receive the Freethinker of the Year Award from Dawkins in October. Before the event, the pair met in private to discuss God, religion and US politics. The resulting conversation can now be read exclusively in the New Statesman.

I'd recommend pouring yourself a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label and reading all 5,264 words but, here, to whet your appetite, are some short extracts. As they show, though physically frail, Hitchens retains his remarkable mental agility.

"Never be afraid of stridency"

Richard Dawkins One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a "Catholic child" or a "Muslim child". I've become a bit of a bore about it.
Christopher Hitchens You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.
RD I will remember that.
CH If I was strident, it doesn't matter - I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You've educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.
Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It's the shame of your colleagues that they don't form ranks and say, "Listen, we're going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements."

Fascism and the Catholic Church

RD The people who did Hitler's dirty work were almost all religious.
CH I'm afraid the SS's relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.
RD Can you talk a bit about that - the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?
CH The way I put it is this: if you're writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word "fascist", if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with "extreme-right Catholic party".
Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It's not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

Hitchens on the left-right spectrum

RD I've always been very suspicious of the left-right dimension in politics.
CH Yes; it's broken down with me.
RD It's astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.
CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian - on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do.

A

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leadership contest in crushing victory

The Labour leader increased his mandate from 2015. 

Jeremy Corbyn has stormed to victory with an increased mandate in his second Labour leadership contest, with 61.8 per cent of the vote.

The Labour leader won 59 per cent of the member vote, 70 per cent of registered supporters' votes and 60 per cent of affiliated supporters' votes.

His triumph confirms for any remaining doubters the party's shift to the left - in 2015, he had won 59.5 per cent of the vote.

Owen Smith, the challenger, received 38.2 per cent of the vote. He was reported to have conceded defeat moments before the official result.

The turn out was 77.6 per cent, with 506,438 valid votes cast. 

Both men ran on a similar platform of opposition to austerity and zero-hours contracts, but Corbyn commanded the support of the majority of grassroots activists and party members.

In his victory speech, he struck a conciliatory note, thanking volunteers on both teams and telling Smith: "We are part of the same Labour family."

He said: "I will do everything I can to repay the trust and support, to bring our party together."

Pledging to make Labour an engine of change, he urged party members to "wipe the slate clean" after a summer of sniping and work together.

"We are proud as a party that we're not afraid to discuss openly, to debate and disagree. That is essential for a party that wants to change people's lives for the better," he said. 

Noting the party had tripled its membership since last spring, he urged members to take Labour's message into every community, and said the party had a duty of care to its members: "Politics is demeaned and corroded by intimidation and abuse. It's not my way, and it's not the Labour way, and never will be."

Smith, by contrast, stepped forward to represent disaffected Labour MPs, who were unimpressed with Corbyn's campaign during the EU referendum and feared he was unelectable. 

Corbyn's victory will at least temporarily quash any rival leadership bids, but it nevertheless leaves the leader with a headache. 

After the vote for Brexit, a wave of resignations emptied Corbyn's shadow cabinet, and he has not succeeded in fully refilling it. He now faces the choice of building bridges with the parliamentary Labour party, or going down the more radical route of reshaping the party itself. 

Much hinges on the decision of the National Executive Committee on whether to allow elected shadow cabinet positions, which could potentially offer a way back in for anti-Corbyn MPs. But if such elections extended to grassroots members, this could also end up isolating them further.