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.

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Commons confidential: Old friend or foe?

Kevin Maguire's weekly dose of Westminster gossip.

Hoots, mon! The Scottish Nationalists are lining up behind Welsh Labour’s Chris Bryant to replace John Bercow when the Speaker vacates the big chair. The deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle remains the favourite to succeed Bercow, who is expected to survive the uprising by Donald Trump’s Tory Taliban though he is due to hand back the gown in 2018 or 2019, before the next election. But the Rhondda Roisterer isn’t hiding his ambition under a thistle, and is emphasising his Scottish links to court SNP MPs’ votes.

McBryant’s mother was from Glasgow, and one of his grannies was a Gorbals GP during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The clinchers may be the ownership of a kilt and his boasts that he once played the bagpipes.

So my snout predicts that unless Chorley Chortler Hoyle learns to toss the caber or replaces the mace with a skean-dhu, McBryant will have most Scottish votes in the sporran.

The Leave vote is strong among the Farages, as Nigel and his wife have opted to live “separate lives”. This has required Farrago to tweak his moneymaking repertoire. His stock jokes are “In the City, I worked hard every day . . . until lunchtime” and “Do you want to be dominated by Germans? I am!” – but since he parted from Mrs Farage (or “Kirsten the Kraut”, as she was called by Ukip’s Kipperosaurus), the German quip has been redundant. Perhaps Farage could recycle it with a French theme?

Tommy “Two Dinners” Watson loves his meat, but Labour’s deputy leader boasted that he made the ultimate sacrifice after encountering his teenage crush Chrissie Hynde on Andrew Marr’s Sunday sofa. The frontwoman of the Pretenders is a vegan and a supporter of the hardline animal rights group Peta. In deference to the rock legend sitting by him at breakfast, Watson ordered vegetarian sausages. I hear he counted them as two of his five a day.

In the lead-up to Ed Balls hosting his 50th birthday bash, I was instructed by a long-time friend of the former shadow chancellor on the code adopted to signify whether fans are pre- or post-Strictly. Foes jumping on the popularity bandwagon call him “a friend”, while comrades who stood by Balls in difficult days use “old friend” to describe themselves.

The junior defence honcho Harriett Baldwin, a product of the £35,280-a-year Marlborough College and the merchant bank JPMorgan Chase, raised MPs’ eyebrows when she described the Royal Navy’s proposed Type 31 frigate as being “in its pre-concept phase”. My matelot snout translated that as: “HMS Baldwin hasn’t a clue what it’ll look like.” Let’s hope this warship isn’t another navy equivalent of the Samsung Galaxy Note7 – some Type 45 destroyers overheat and stop working. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit