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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Nigel Farage is still King Ukip - but Paul Nuttall is learning fast

The new Ukip leader found his audience when he promised "Brexit means exit". 

It’s been a tricky week for Ukip, but you wouldn’t guess from the way Nigel Farage came to the stage at the party's spring conference. 

With the Game Of Thrones theme booming across the hall in Bolton’s Macron Stadium, the former leader strutted down the aisle buffeted by security detail and photographers, stopping to warmly shake hands and beaming all round.

It turned out that the grand old man of Ukip has no need for the leadership title which Paul Nuttall now wears - to his fanbase, he was already the star. 

But it seems like there may be room for both men at the top. The reception for each scaled dizzying heights of excitement in a hall pumped up on post-Brexit fervour.

First out was would-be UK Ambassador Farage, his ruddy cheeks aglow with the praise of US President Donald Trump.

Introduced by party chairman Paul Oakden as “a man who has changed and continues to change the course of history", the larger-than-life character of the Brexiteer-in-chief has only grown bigger in the last seven months.

“It’s remarkable to think that 2016 is one of those years that children will read about in history books in 100 or 200 years’ time," he declared. “They will read that 2016 was a year of political revolution. And it was all started by Ukip.”

Farage also clearly relishes the part that he has played, by his own declaration, in the election of Trump. In his speech, he touched on his own special relationship with the new Commander-in-Chief.

“People like myself or Trump have been held up to hold the most outrageous political views,” he said. He cited Chatham House figures suggesting more than 50 per cent of the population in eight European countries said they wanted a “total end to all immigration from predominantly Muslim countries”.

“Far from leading public opinion, we now find ourselves firmly on the left of public opinion," he declared. Karl Marx no doubt turned in his grave. 

Next up was present Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, who stormed onto the stage to the Lightning Seeds’ Marvellous, his face shining in the flashing lights of masses of press photographers.

Where Farage’s speech featured his own place in the sweeping political changes, Nuttall zeroed in more closely on manifesto affairs. He demanded that the government repeal the 1972 European Communities Act.

“We have nothing to fear, Project Fear has failed," he claimed. "Manufacturing is up, unemployment is down, we are the fastest growing economy in the G7.”

Nuttall also elaborated on a plan to slash Vat on everything from domestic energy bills to hot takeaway food "so we can return to the days when things were cheap as chips".

Where Farage and Nuttall had the same message, it was for Labour - Ukip is coming for you. 

“Ukip will eventually replace the Labour party as the voice of the patriotic people of Britain - starting on February 23,” Nuttall declared, referencing the Stoke by-election in which he is standing. Both men tried to present it as being in the bag.

He did offer an apology for erroneous information which somehow ended up on his website suggesting he had lost close friends at Hillsborough (he hasn't), but also claimed there was a smear campaign against him. 

Still, for all the discussion of policies and personality, the new leader clearly understands what the Ukip party members' catnip is. 

"We must hold the government’s feet to the fire and ensure that Brexit means exit," he said. The last lines of his speech could easily have been transposed from Farage, who has been chanting the same refrain for decades. 

“We want our country back and we’re going to get it,” Nuttall roared, and applause in the hall rose again.