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.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A hard Brexit is the best way to keep Scotland in the UK - here's why

Theresa May knows she has the upper hand. 

Conventional wisdom says soft Brexit is good for the union. If Theresa May steers the UK out of the EU but retains access to the single market, maybe a bit of freedom of movement it would make many Scots – the majority of whom voted to stay in Europe – think twice before voting Yes to independence.

After all, they’d be turning their back on some access to the EU for an uncertain future as an independent country who would still have to negotiate it’s way back into the club.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

The reason Nicola Sturgeon is hell bent on keeping Scotland’s access to the single market is because a hard Brexit is bad news for the independence cause.

Never forget that while the SNP may claim to be Scotland’s party it is in fact a single issue movement focused on one goal only – independence.

If Sturgeon is opposed to the increasingly likely scenario that sees the whole of the UK crash out of Europe swapping single market access for full immigration controls, it’s because first and foremost it’s bad for her cause.

For if there is to be a hard Brexit, Sturgeon would have to sell the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, joining the EU and being confronted with not just border posts for anyone wanting to travel south but tariffs for anyone wanting to trade with England.

She’d have her work cut out.The UK is a significantly more vital trading partner for Scotland than the remaining 27 countries of the EU. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK outstrip what it sell to Europe abour four to one, and it’s estimated that while 250,000 Scots jobs are tied to the EU, a million more rely on being in the UK.

It’s why Sturgeon for all her fighting talk is trapped. If there is to be a hard Brexit she needs to get Scotland out of the UK before the reality of that dawns. That’s looking like a two-and-a-half year window.

But the polls are stubbornly static.

She can’t have another referendum unless she knowns she’s going to win it. For to lose two votes on the same subject – and her draft legislation published last week suggests she’s going for the same question but banking on different arguments – would provide a definitive answer, closing the issue down for a generation for real this time and begging questions not just about what next for the SNP but what’s the point of the SNP.

With Yes still hovering around the 45 per cent mark in current polls Sturgeon needs to add a good 15 per cent before she can consider triggering indyref2.

Now, some of her supporters point to the last independence campaign when support for the proposition rose from a historic position of around 25 per cent to 45 per cent by polling day. They claim the same can be done again.

But that was a long campaign and Sturgeon does not have the time, never mind the fact that most of the soft Yes vote has been hoovered up now and convincing those that remain will prove much harder. 

And, according to my Number 10 source, Theresa May knows all this. 

That’s why she can dismiss Sturgeon’s bleating. Why she can sit around the Cabinet table with her as she did yesterday and, despite promising respect, actually give her short shrift.

May’s in the stronger position on this one. She’s newly installed, and confident that she can go to the country and win at will.

Sturgeon’s overseeing an increasingly tired SNP administration (albeit, like May, there is no credible opposition to speak of). If she doesn’t deliver independence it’s not just her political career but the future of her entire party that would be pitched into the balance.

Unlike David Cameron, May has no specifically Scottish special adviser and her dismissive tone towards Scotland has led some to speculate that she doesn’t get it or doesn’t care.

Quite the opposite. 

Whatever other drawbacks, hard Brexit brings it is the most sensible position to take if your number one priority is keeping Scotland in the UK.

In the absence of any evidence as to what else her strategy may consist of, perhaps that is May’s game.