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

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why is Theresa May wasting time and money on the Article 50 case?

The Prime Minister has wasted time, money and weakened her position for no good reason. 

The question of who has the power to pull the Article 50 trigger – the executive or the legislature – is still rumbling at the Supreme Court, but yesterday’s vote renders the matter somewhat otiose. 

461 MPs voted in favour of a motion supporting the government’s timetable for triggering Article 50, with just 89 dissidents, with 23 Labour MPs and Ken Clarke joining Caroline Lucas, the nine Liberal Democrats and the SNP in voting against the motion. 

“MPs hand May 'blank cheque' for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s splash. “Hooray! MPs say yes to EU exit” roars the Express. “Victory for PM: Commons backs May on Brexit” is the i’s take. “Day MPs spoke for Britain” is the Mail’s splash, while the Guardian goes for the somewhat more sedate “MPs back government timetable to trigger Article 50” below the fold.

But that doesn’t mean that the deliberations of David Neuberger and the rest of the Court don’t matter. If the Court rules that Article 50 does represent a loss of rights not provided for in the referendum, that requires a vote of the legislature – and that means both houses of Parliament and an full Act of Parliament. 

It’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court could rule that Article 50 does entail a loss of rights BUT that the legislature had already weighed in by voting to have a referendum – Neuberger described this as the “hole” in the claimants’ case – but the whole affair raises questions of Theresa May’s judgement. It’s not clear what the government has gained by appealing a judgement rather than seeking parliamentary approval. It is clear that the government has wasted both money and time on the court case, when a parliamentary majority was always at hand.

There's a bigger risk to the PM, too. If the Supreme Court judgement limits executive power further, or rules that not only Westminster, but the devolved legislatures, must also vote on whether to pull the Article 50 trigger, the PM’s pugnacious manner could put Brexit – and her premiership – in some jeopardy. 

TROUBLE AHEAD

Speaking of the PM…Theresa May is interviewed in today’s FT by George Parker and Lionel Barber. Among the topics: why she gave George Osborne the push, whether or not she’s a “control freak”, and why she once compared herself to Elizabeth I. 

But the striking moment is the brief appearance of the old Remain-backing May, with her warning that the nations of the EU27 “don’t want to see others looking to break away and to vote to leave in the way the UK has done” making the negotiations over Britain’s Brexit deal trickier than many – including May herself – are often willing to admit publicly. 

DERAILING GRAYLING

Chris Grayling is under fire after the Evening Standard’s Pippa Crerar revealed that he blocked Sadiq Khan’s takeover of London’s suburban railways not in order to look out for passengers, but to keep his grubby Labour hands off it. Bob Neil, the Conservative MP for Bromley, demanded that Theresa May sack the Transport Secretary at PMQs yesterday. Over at CityMetric, Jonn is very angry about the whole thing.

SO, EVERYONE, THEN? 

Another Theresa May interview, this time with Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth in the Spectator. She has some sharp words for the Civil Service, accusing officials of trying to second-guess her and to quantify everything. Particularly exercising her: Whitehall’s attempt to quantify what the “just managing” she wants to help means in terms of income (£18k-£21k).  She says it means anything from “holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet”, to those worried about job security, to homeowners “worried about paying the mortgage”.

SLING YOUR HYKE

Polls are open in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, an ultra-safe Conservative seat that voted to leave the European Union by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. But all attention is being focused on the battle for second and third place, with Ukip expecting to steal second from Labour. Meanwhile, Labour fears they may be pushed into fourth by the Liberal Democrats.

OUR STEEL, SAVED?
A deal has been struck to save the steelworks at Port Talbot, with Tata Steel commiting to keep production there running, provided that workers agree to close off the pension scheme they inherited from British Steel to new workers. “Tata and unions agree rescue plan for Port Talbot steelworks” is the FT’s splash.

MATTE-OH

Matteo Renzi has officially resigned as Italian Prime Minister after two-and-a-half years, the fourth-longest serving PM in the history of the Republic. 

DFID CONSULTANCIES

Private consultancies working in international development will be forced to disclose their fees and salaries, Priti Patel has vowed after a Timesinvestigation into the millions spent on consultancies by the department. 

SEE? IMMIGRATION CREATES JOBS

The Home Affairs Select Committee will launch an inquiry into public attitudes to immigration today. Committee chair Yvette Cooper says that it will be “a different kind of inquiry, looking outward at the country, not inward at the government.” MPs will tour the country talking to the public about the issue. 

DOMINIC, AGGRIEVED

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General, has called on Theresa May to dissociate herself from the Mail’s “vitriolic abuse” of judges in the Supreme Court case. Anushka Asthana has the story in the Guardian.

CAMERON, INC

David Cameron has set up a limited company to manage his speaking engagements and private ventures in retirement. He has also sold his memoirs, albeit for what is believed to be a lower fee than that secured by Tony Blair for The Journey. Michael Savage has the story in the Times.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Christmas is coming! And the Christmas sandwich is already here. The NS team – including our editor – share their thoughts on the best and the worst.

MUST READS

Britain is heading for the hardest of Brexits, says Charles Grant

Julia wonders if Brexit has transformed British politics just as Scotland’s referendum did

Labour and Tory MPs alike fear what Brexit could unleash, says George

This originally appeared in today's Morning Call: get it in your inboxes Monday through Friday - sign up here.

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