Christopher Hitchens: a New Statesman reader

Selected articles on, and by, the essayist from the <em>NS</em> archive.

1. Being Christopher Hitchens

In the 2010 NS interview, Hitchens offers his opinions on politics and religion, and has this memorable line on David Cameron: "He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' and my answer is: 'He doesn't make me think.'"

2. Hitchens on Saddam - in 1976

The Iraq wars shaped Hitchens' thinking in dramatic and unexpected ways, with his pro-intervention stance alienating many former allies. But in 1976, on a trip to the country, Hitchens was optimistic, observing that Iraq "has a leader -- Saddam Hussain -- who has sprung from being an underground revolutionary gunman to perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser".

3. Am I a dwarf or a horseman?

In this 2007 diary, Hitchens defends Blair over Iraq, and ruminates on nicknames. Writing of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, he notes: "it's an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as these men. If there were seven of us, the clever press would call us dwarves. As we are a quartet, we are doomed to be called the Gang of Four or the Four Musketeers. My own nomination - the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse - is a bit cumbersome and I'd welcome suggestions."

4. Please, let's not do God

In 2009, Hitchens got stuck in to Tony Blair's Faith Foundation in his inimitable style. He attacked "Blair's new banality, which rises almost to Queen's Christmas broadcast level".

5. Hitchens vs Foot

In 1978, a row broke out between Michael Foot and Hitchens, over the publication of extracts of one of Foot's speeches. After Foot accused him of "drool[ing] a steady flow of malicious tittle-tattle into your columns", Hitchens responded witheringly: "Mr Foot is entitled to his ad hominem remarks, though to be accused of fakery by him is like being sold hair tonic by a man as bald as an egg."

6. Arguably, reviewed by John Gray

The NS's lead reviewer argues that Hitchens "has the mind of a believer" in maintaining his convictions. He adds: "To say that, during the past three decades, the world would have been poorer, duller and altogether a smaller place without Hitchens and his writings would be to utter a cliché of the kind he despises. It would also be true."

7. Scotland: nation or state?

In 1975, Hitchens visited Scotland to take the temperature of the nation -- and to describe the inexorable rise of the SNP.

8. Hitch-22 reviewed by Terry Eagleton

It's fair to say that Eagleton was not a fan of the polemicist's memoir, offering some of the faintest praise ever committed to paper: "If one can swallow one's vomit at some of this, there is much in the book to enjoy."

9. Hitchens' Rolls-Royce mind is still purring

George Eaton reports on the remarkable tribute by Ian McEwan, James Fenton and Martin Amis to their friend at the Royal Festival Hall in the autumn.

10. "Never be afraid of stridency"

In what would be his final interview, Hitchens sat down with Richard Dawkins to discuss their "common cause", atheism. He also provided an analysis of his own ideological journey: "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."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.