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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.