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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The Conservatives' social care woes are real

The "dementia tax" has made waves in the marginals - and not in a good way.

Will the dementia tax cost Theresa May her house? That's the gag in Morten Morland's cartoon in the Times this morning, which depicts a pair of elderly voters angrily remonstrating with the PM outside Downing Street. To make matters worse, that paper reports that the plan may may fall apart anyway due to other problems in social care. "Care crisis threatens to scupper May reforms" is their splash.

I was out and about in Bath, Newport and Gower this weekend and it was clear to me that the Conservatives' social care policy has made waves in the marginals and not in a good way. That's not just my impression, either. As Denis Campbell and Rowena Mason report in the Guardian, Conservative candidates are uneasy about the reaction too. The blame game is already underway, with Conservative sources telling the FT's Jim Pickard that the plan was rushed through at the last minute without consulting the Cabinet.

That the polls are all showing Labour closing the gap with the Conservatives. That might just be noise - Labour tends to peak a few weeks out from an election. In 1997, they were polling at or above 50 per cent at this stage in the race, they got 43 per cent. In 2001, they were again hovering around the 50 per cent mark and then got 41 per cent. In 2005, they were on 40 per cent and ended up with 35 per cent. In 1987 they were at 35 per cent and ended up with 30 per cent. In 1983 they were at 35 per cent and got 27 per cent. But that pattern doesn't always hold and it might not this time either.

The Conservatives' big hope is that in the final weeks they will unleash everything they've dug up on Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle, turning around the polls. First up: the Labour leader's dealings with the IRA in the 1980s. Corbyn's refusal to condemn the IRA's bombings exclusively - he instead said he condemned "all bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA" - on the Sophy Ridge programme yesterday is picked up in today's papers. "Corbyn engulfed in IRA furore" is the Telegraph's splash and "Corbyn's kick in the teeth for IRA victims" is the Mail's.

Will it work? Maybe. The Conservatives' poll ratings still have a way to fall before they have genuine cause for panic and the historical trends still point to them improving on their current position in the polls and significantly increasing their strength in the House of Commons.

But the difficulty for the PM is that that her victory, if it comes, looks less and less like an endorsement for her ripping up of Conservative heresies and more and more like a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn.

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

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