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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Theresa May wants to help "just managing" families? Start with the 14p stealth tax

The rise in housing costs is the equivalent of a hike in income tax for poorer working families. 

Judging new governments‎ is hard. Without decisions taken, let alone results delivered, we are left to judge the early months of an administration by the purpose that ‎motivates it. On this measure, how does the first three months of Theresa May’s Government measure up? 
 
First and foremost of course this Government is about delivering Brexit. But, just this once, let’s leave Brexit aside – after all, that’s a choice made by the British people, not May. ‎Instead, let’s consider the second pillar of her government – an intention to focus support on "just-managing families". This is a group she has broadly described as working but not well off, with low incomes, but not the very poor who are reliant on benefits. 
 
So who are the roughly 6m low and middle income families that fit this description? Five in six of these families have at least one member in full-time work, with nearly four-fifths of those workers earning less than the typical worker’s wage of £21,000. And while they represent a third of the workforce, only a minority are in professional jobs and they are half as likely to be graduates as those on higher incomes.
 
These families are also doing the vital (and expensive) job of reproducing Britain – 40 per cent have kids. As a result tax credits do matter to this group – averaging £3,500 a year for just managing families with children.
 
If that is who "just managing" families are, how exactly are they managing in 21st century Britain? Badly is the short answer. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Pay

First, this part of Britain has seen no income rise in the last decade. While individual households will obviously have received some pay rises during that period, a like for like comparison of families in this group over time shows a lost decade of growth – typical incomes for the group in 2014-15 only just surpassed the level in 2004-05. Now, most of Britain hasn’t seen strong income growth over this period, but this group has been particularly badly hit by the combination of a slowdown in earnings growth in the mid-2000s, big falls in incomes following the financial crisis, and cut backs to tax credit support in recent years.
 
These changes have overcome the boost to incomes that the fast employment growth of recent years has provided, or the signature tax cuts of the last parliament. After all, for many of this group, their ability to boost their incomes is severely constrained by the fact that they only keep 27p of each additional pound earned if they pay tax and receive tax credits. 

2. Housing

Second, living standards are also about outgoings. Housing is the biggest expenditure that families face. It’s hard to overstate how damaging the impact of rising house prices, falling home ownership and thus soaring housing costs has been. 
 
These families are now spending almost a quarter of their income on housing, up from 18 per cent in 1995. To put this catastrophe in perspective, for a dual-earning, low-to-middle-income couple with children, it’s the equivalent of a 14p income tax rise. If a government openly announced a policy like that, there would be riots on the streets, but it is successive governments’ failure to see homes built that lies behind much of these families' status as "just managing".

3. Savings

Third, what do overall spending patterns by low and middle income families mean for their ability to save? This is a key determinant of a families’ sense of whether they are just managing, or making progress. On average, these families actually spend 101 per cent of their income each week, with nearly half going on the basics of housing, transport and food. The result is that most report having no savings or assets at all and two-thirds of families have savings equivalent to less than one month’s net income. This matters a lot when it comes to how families manage difficulties, be they large unexpected bills (a broken washing machine) or reduced income (less hours at work).
 
So the last few years have not been easy ones for just managing families. Squeezed incomes, soaring housing costs, and difficulty getting your head above water to put any savings aside – all are good reasons for the new Government to look very long and hard at what is going wrong in what our country offers. It is a worthy focus for the new Government. But it is not an easy one. Just as with Brexit, we’ll have to wait and see what policy substance the Government has to address these major challenges. After all, it is worth remembering that Gordon Brown entered Downing Street promising an agenda focused on Britishness and constitutional reform. A financial crisis and expenses scandal later, that agenda had fallen by the wayside.
 
But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to try to do. Both substantively and politically, a focus on just managing families is the right response to the state of Britain today. This is not least because, in the end, Theresa May and her ministers will not only be judged by the Brexit they deliver, but the Britain they build.
 

 

Torsten Bell is director at the Resolution Foundation. Prior to that, he was director of policy for the Labour Party and worked in the Treasury, both as a special adviser and a civil servant.