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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Tail docking is described as “barbaric” – so why did the SNP vote to bring it back?

The decision by the SNP to permit the docking of puppies' tails seems bizarre - until you consider the party's divided loyalties.

As Holyrood votes go, it probably doesn't get more emotive than the decision to lift the ban on tail docking - a procedure carried out on three-day-old puppies which involves crushing cartilage, nerves and bone without anaesthetic, and which campaigners have called "barbaric".

The reasoning is that these "working" dogs, flushing out animals to be shot on Scotland's vast hunting estates, can injure their long tails. The British Veterinary Association disagrees, saying the procedure inflicts significant pain and deprives dogs of a "vital form of canine expression". 

So why has the Scottish National Party, with its left-wing rhethoric and substantial block of left-leaning newer members, voted through such a deeply controversial proposal?

One clue is to be found in 2014-15 - not the independence referendum, but the push for land reform which followed it. The extraordinary concentration of land ownership in Scotland - around 430 families or companies own half of the private land - became a touchstone issue for independence campaigners. After September 2014, many transferred their enthusiasm to this issue, demanding a new bill that would kickstart land reform after a decade in the long grass.

This presented a real problem for the SNP. In its longheld tactic of appealing to both left and right, rich and poor, the land issue showed up the cracks. While the new First Minister made rash promises of "radical" reform in November 2015, her cabinet nevertheless included Fergus Ewing, a centre-right politician with links to the landed estates and rural lobby. 
 
Pictures of Ewing clad in tweed alongside gamekeepers at a PR stunt caused some of the party's new membership a twinge of unease. Unedifying rows over fracking, which highlighted Ewing's relationship with the Duke of Buccleuch, did not help. While much was made of the SNP's 56 MPs opposing fox hunting at Westminster, Ewing opposed a Scottish ban more than a decade before
  
Before the SNP made its unprecedented break into the Labour strongholds of the west of Scotland and central belt, the party's support was concentrated in the largely rural east. Perthshire, Banff and Buchan, Moray are places where people voted Tory in the past - and indeed, turned blue once more this June. Not that such a swing can be said to have come entirely from SNP voters. Nevertheless, it does highlights another side of SNP membership that is often forgotten about. "It's said that there are two SNPs," said Professor Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh. "An SNP voter in Govan is perceived to have a very different profile than another in Perthshire". 
 
This project to appeal to all Scotland - particularly noticeable during Alex Salmond's leadership - produces strange paradoxes, and this tail docking issue is just the latest. The rural lobby is strong, from gamekeepers' associations to hunting proponents to the powerful Countryside Alliance. The current government's proposal to reintroduce the practice didn't come out of the blue. As Green MSP Mark Ruskell explains, the lobbying began with the SNP's victory at Holyrood in 2007. The previous Labour-led "rainbow" parliament, with its seven green MSPs and six socialists, had introduced the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act, banning the practice of docking as well as fox hunting. 
 
"The gamekeepers were furious," Ruskell said, "And the first thing they did was to lobby the new Scottish government". Ten years later, their wish was granted. "The evidence was rejected by professional bodies, but they still went ahead. It's been spectacularly misjudged," added Ruskell. The power of lobby groups at Holyrood has repeatedly been raised as a concern by campaigners and parliamentarians alike, with last year's Lobbying Act cricitised as being far too weak to ensure real transparency. Pressure from gamekeepers and shooting groups, Ruskell said, influenced the whole way the evidence was put together. One report was simply a survey of self-selecting shooting estates, describing the frequency of tail injuries. 
 
For its part the Scottish government defended the move by pointing out that the rules will still be more restrictive than in other parts of the UK. Only a vet can make the decision to shorten tails - "no more than the end third" - and it will apply only to spaniels and hunt point retrievers. "We have seen enough evidence that some working dogs are suffering tail injuries to make the case for the law being changed", said a government spokesperson. "Scotland is a nation of animal lovers and we take the welfare of our pets, animals and livestock very seriously." 
 
Reaction from SNP members online has been fairly damning, with some talking of leaving the party - though others have defended the decision. The next big showdowns in Holyrood on animal welfare are likely to be just as emotive: the use of electric shock collars on dogs, and the prosecution of wildlife crime (or, how to deal with the fact that poisoned, bludgeoned birds of prey keep turning up on grouse shooting estates). The latter in particular will test, once again, the direction of a party split between appeasing a land management lobby, and meeting the high expectations of its newer members. 
 

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