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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.