The cockney Siberia

The Thames Gateway development is the largest urban regeneration scheme ever attempted in Britain. I

Appendix 2, Figure A2.1 on page 98 of the delivery plan launched by Gordon Brown in September 2007 is called "Governance of the Thames Gateway". It is intended to encapsulate, in diagrammatic form, the structure that the government has devised to ensure the regeneration of an area that stretches 40 miles along both sides of the Thames Estuary, from Tower Hamlets in London to Southend in Essex and Sittingbourne in Kent.

The colour-coded diagram features a bewildering variety of government offices, inclu­ding the Thames Gateway Cross-Government Board, the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership and the Thames Gateway Executive. It attempts to illustrate, with a series of directional arrows, how these state organisations variously "influence, advise, direct or collaborate with" the equally bewildering number of agencies "tasked", in the government's language, with "delivering" the desired changes.

To those unschooled in the ways of government, it looks a mess.

Philip Cohen, formerly of the University of East London, is co-editor of London's Turning: the Making of Thames Gateway, published in 2008, which collects essays on aspects of the government's scheme. He calls it a "labyrinth": "You'll meet many lost souls wandering in those places." The Brentwood and Ongar constituency of the Conservative Party chairman, Eric Pickles, lies on the edge of the Gateway. He ought to be able to make sense of it if anyone can, yet he says the diagram is the Westminster version of a Sickert painting: "Look at it for long enough and you'll go mad."

Perhaps the complexity is not surprising. The Thames Gateway scheme, to develop the vast tracts of brownfield land that begin in east London and extend far beyond the city's borders, has been described as the largest urban regeneration project in the world. It is certainly the largest of its kind that has ever been attempted in the UK. "Not since the Great Fire of London will the capital city have been subject to such an enormous and concentrated process of change," writes Cohen in the introduction to London's Turning.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is in overall charge, but many other government departments, including those for health, education and transport, are also involved. The area covers 15 local authorities, home to some of the most deprived wards in England, and three regions of England. It is home to 1.6 million people at present, but planners believe it has the capacity to absorb half a million more: the government aims to create 160,000 new houses and 225,000 new jobs in the region by 2016, as well as the additional infrastructure, in the form of schools, hospitals and transport links, that will be required to support the communities emerging on the banks of the Thames.

There are six "strategic locations" - Stratford, Lower Lea and Royal Docks; London Riverside; Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich; Thurrock; Kent Thameside; and Medway - and five areas of "urban renewal" - Barking; Basildon; Erith; Sittingbourne and Swale; and Southend. There will be major investments in education, including two new universities in Southend and Medway, and £1.4bn has been allocated for new or improved hospital provision.

Even the government concedes that there is much to be done - as one of its recent "vision documents" notes, the Gateway consists of "rundown town centres, poor transport links and uninspiring business areas". Anyone who has driven down the blighted corridor of the A12, ushered eastwards by pylons and puddled wastelands, will have formed an even less favourable impression. The Guardian's architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has described it as "the cockney Siberia". Steven Norris calls it "the land that God forgot". Yet, as Ken Livingstone said in one of his last published documents as mayor of London, the city's economic centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, and the Thames Gateway is the place where London's "needs and opportunities meet".

Livingstone is not the first planner or politician to have noticed its potential. Already, the scheme to regenerate the Gateway is entering its third iteration. When it was conceived more than 20 years ago by Michael Heseltine and Peter Hall (professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), the emphasis was on providing transport links to create a "linear city" extending along the banks of the Thames. Under John Prescott, the priority changed to affordable housing, but according to Philip Cohen, Thames Gateway Mk III is reverting to a form closer to the original prescription, with an emphasis on public works projects. He says it is hard to identify a coherent plan and yet even if there was one, the events of the past 18 months would have made it hard to realise. "It's all predicated on the assumption that private development is very profitable and that private developers will be prevailed upon to pay for the necessary infrastructure," says Michael Edwards, one of Hall's colleagues at the Bartlett.

Since 1990, developers on most major schemes have been required to contribute to the cost of roads, parks, schools, hospitals and social housing under a provision known as a Section 106 Agreement. "It worked tolerably well during the years of the long boom when profits were staggeringly high, but now the boom is over, it's not producing anything," says Edwards. The government plan was to spend £9bn in the Thames Gateway between 2008 and 2011, in the hope that its investment would attract £43bn of private-sector money in the next 20 years. Edwards believes such figures have become unrealistic. "What worries me is that the profitable bits will get done, but the infrastructure and the social equipment won't be provided. We shall just get great splurges of speculative housing and a few retail parks, and it will have very poor collective facilities. It could be awful - a very poor-quality experience for the people who live there."

Peter Andrews, chief executive of the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation - one of two such bodies that have been created to implement the government's plans - concedes that raising private-sector funds is proving "challenging". The LTGDC, which is responsible for regeneration projects in the five London boroughs that fall within the Gateway - Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham and Tower Hamlets - plans to invest £150m in capital projects by 2011: £120m in public funds is guaranteed, but it will have to raise £30m by selling land assets; the yield from assets has been cut from £117m due to the collapse in property prices. "Two years ago, nobody could have forecast what would happen," Andrews says. "The credit crunch is impacting, and if we were writing our corporate plan now, we would probably look at things differently."

In one sense, the financial crisis has worked to their advantage: the LTGDC was set up in 2004, but, unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation, it didn't have land "vested" in it - it had to buy it. With the downturn, people have become more realistic about values. "We're able to acquire greater areas for less money - what we can't do is put our hands on our hearts and say we'll be able to recycle that money very rapidly."

However, Andrews says the market will recover sooner or later. He believes it is important to maintain a long view: the LDDC was set up in a recession in the early 1980s, and survived another recession in the early 1990s before it began to see the "true fruits of its labours". "Regeneration is a long-term process - it does not happen overnight, and you have to accept that you will have to go through one or two economic cycles."

The LTGDC is based on the ninth floor of an office block in Marsh Wall, and Andrews's office windows look out towards Canary Wharf and the half-built towers of other Docklands developments. It is clear that he regards the Docklands as a benchmark for LTGDC's work. Other people see it as a cautionary tale. Critics say that the development of the Docklands forced out local people and destroyed established communities, and there are fears that the same thing will happen in the Gateway. In some places, it already has.

The government has identified the construction of the Olympic Park and the adjacent development at Stratford City in Newham, east London, as one of the "four locations for transformational economic growth" that will drive the regeneration process; but some residents, such as the photojournalist Mike Wells, believe it is only an elite that will benefit. "Regeneration is something that is done by one social class to another social class," he told me, when we walked round the site of the Olympic Park. "The social class that does the doing says it's being done for the benefit of the other social class, but I take issue with that. Basically, they're moving one lot of people out and moving another lot of people in - people of a different class and income bracket."

The Manor Garden Allotments, which used to lie between the banks of the River Lea and the Channelsea River, in the northern area of the Olympic Park, are the best-known casualty of the park, but there are many others. Wells used to live on an estate called Clays Lane that was home to 450 people. It was the UK's largest purpose-built housing co-operative, designed to address the lack of housing for "vulnerable single people", and it was erected in 1977 on top of an old landfill site called the West Ham Tip. Each of its 57 shared houses and 50 flats faced in to one of ten courtyards - an arrangement that generated a strong sense of community, and a strong loyalty to the estate among its residents. They were sufficiently well organised to force a public inquiry to recommend the compulsory purchase of the estate, but it was dismissed by a high court ruling in July 2007, and the estate has since been demolished.

The area it used to occupy, off Temple Mills Lane, lies within the Olympic Village, on the site of the Olympic Park, although even before the bid for the games was won Wells regarded it as an anomaly: "You had a lot of not very well-off people living on a scruffy estate next to this multibillion-pound development, and I couldn't see it lasting - at some point, they'd have got rid of it and built another yuppie block of flats there."

As a photojournalist, Wells has documented the progress of the Olympic Village, and as an activist, he makes the case against it. He now lives on a narrowboat on the River Lea or the Lea Navigation, and he regrets the destruction of the two and a half square miles of London that lie inside the infamous blue perimeter fence. "It was one of the most fascinating areas of the city," he says. "It combined the most beautiful elements with the ugliest. It was so diverse.

“You could see a congregation of 10,000 arriving at the Kingsway International Christian Centre while ravers were leaving the clubs on a Sunday morning. There was everything going on there - rough sleepers, artists, entrepreneurs and religious people. There were meat-processing plants and scrap metal dealers. And yet the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency make out that there was nothing there. It's quite bizarre."

After London won the bid to host the Olympics, LDA officials conducted a consultation process in which they asked local people what they wanted to see in the Olympic Park. When Wells looked down the list of amenities on offer, including "riverside walks" and "quiet areas", he realised that almost all of them were already available in the area: it seemed the ODA and LDA were planning to destroy what was there and then re-create it, at vast public expense. Wells identifies the travellers' caravans parked beneath the concrete bridges of the A12 and the Eastway as the boundary between the real world and the fantasy land of the Olym­pics, and he says the park's surreal nature is encapsulated in the specially commissioned logo that adorns the fence - it has been designed at great expense to look like a graffiti tag. The actual graffiti on bridges and underpasses tends to express local people's attitudes more succinctly. "Fuck the Olympics," says one. "The Olympics equals exploitation," says another.

Further south, two Victorian warehouses face one another across the still, dark water of the Lea Navigation - Queen's Yard is still intact, but King's Yard has been demolished. "In ten years' time, all you'll see will be flats like these," says Wells.

He gestures at the glass-and-steel buildings that have recently sprouted on Fish Island, where the LTGDC is developing "a comprehensive plan for new high-quality, mixed-use and industrial developments". In the distance, the towers of Canary Wharf rise above the jumble of buildings and flyovers that obscure the river's southward course.

To Wells, such schemes as the Olympics represent an extermination of history. "We'll lose our connection with the past, with our ancestors and with our built environment, and we'll leave people floating in soap-opera land."

Dr John Marriott, reader in history at the University of East London, who contributed a chapter about the industrial history of Thames Gateway to Philip Cohen's book, agrees that "historical amnesia" presents a threat to the validity of future developments. He rejects the conventional wisdom that the Industrial Revolution, in the words of the historian John Hammond, passed "like a storm cloud over London and broke elsewhere". Marriott points out that there were large industrial concerns in Havering, Barking and Dagenham, such as the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company and the Woolwich Arsenal, which employed 75,000 people during the First World War.

Almost all of them were swept away by the process of deindustrialisation that occurred throughout the UK in the 20th century with the loss of markets in various corners of the empire. Ford is cutting back on making cars at its Dagenham plant, though it remains one of the world's largest manufacturers of diesel engines. Tate & Lyle is the last major concern in the area around Silver Town and Canning Town, and Marriott says that significant industrial sites have also been lost around Stratford and the River Lea, bought by compulsory purchase as the site for the Olympic Village was assembled.

Yet Marriott believes that you cannot create sustainable communities unless you draw on the area's history. "It's not a 'tabula rasa', where nothing exists, or has ever existed," he says. Woolwich thrived as a community, because of the existence of the Royal Arsenal and Siemens Brothers, which manufactured submarine cable. "These were not places that provided just employment for their workers: they provided a huge range of facilities as well - entertainment, recreation and housing. Planners have to have due regard for these historical experiences. If they don't, very bad mistakes will be made and my fear is that we'll end up with the Docklands writ large, where the historical communities and the memory of those historical communities are obliterated."

He is concerned that the emphasis appears to be on providing housing, both private and social, to meet the metropolitan housing crisis, without sufficient thought to what the new residents of the Gateway will do for work and leisure. "We have been told the regeneration process will produce thousands of jobs for local people, but I just cannot see it happening." He warns that the provision of transport links, such as Crossrail, which will connect the residents of the Gateway with the financial centre of Canary Wharf, may prove counterproductive. "In a sense, the best thing that you can do is make them stay in the area - though if you're going to do that, you have to provide them with work. Otherwise, it will become a huge dormitory suburb for London, which will be a disaster. It will be dead. People will live and sleep there, but for their work and entertainment, they will go elsewhere."

Naturally, it will not be the old, large-scale industries that will provide employment if or when the regeneration of the Gateway comes about: planners will expect information technology, the so-called creative industries and "green-collar" jobs to fill the gap.

The LTGDC is developing a creative industries quarter in Barking, and it has recently appointed a development manager and a team of architects to help create what it has called a Sustainable Industries Park on a patch of derelict land by the river in Dagenham. It hopes to create "the UK's largest concentration of environmental industries and technologies" on a 25-hectare site enclosed by the A12 on one side, and the smokestacks and jetties of Dagenham Dock on the other.

At the moment, it seems a distant prospect. A row of decommissioned London buses, parked side by side in front of a sea of scrap metal, stands near the entrance to the SIP; vast pylons, which will dictate the height and location of new buildings, run through the middle of the site. When I walked round it, on a cold, wet morning, it seemed irredeemably bleak and inhospitable. And yet progress is being made. In autumn 2008, one of the first tenants of the SIP opened for business opposite the scrap metal depot. Closed Loop Recycling is the first business in the UK to recycle plastic bottles into food packaging material.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has said it wants the Thames Gateway to be "an eco-region", and in November 2008 it published a 47-point plan that attempts to define the term. In one sense, the need for environmental controls is clear - given that 42 per cent of the land in the Gateway has been reclaimed from the sea, flood protection is a priority, and in October 2009 the Environment Agency published a long-term flood risk management plan, Thames Estuary 2100. Within the Gateway, the government hopes to improve the environmental sustainability of all new developments and maintains that the area can become "an exemplar for the UK and other countries, helping to answer many of the big challenges of development for the coming century".

It is an admirable ambition. However, the exact details remain unclear, and Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth warns that old habits die hard. "We've had a hard time making sure that the regeneration plans don't result in the whole place being covered in concrete. It's a very rich area, and yet there is a danger that these sites are being picked off because someone wants to build another identikit office or warehouse."

He cites the case of West Thurrock Lagoon and Marshes as proof that the forces behind the Thames Gateway regeneration are still "stuck in the mindset of pouring concrete and turning it in hard landscaping". In the early 1990s, the power station that used to stand on the grazing marshes in south Essex was closed down and wildlife began to colonise the site. In the next 15 years it developed into one of the richest nature reserves in the country. Yet, in 2006, a planning application was submitted for a warehouse and lorry park, and in November 2008 Thurrock Development Corporation approved the plan. An organisation called Buglife led a three-year campaign to save the site, but in January 2009, the Court of Appeal concluded that the decision to build on the land was legal.

The planned development will destroy more than half of the site, including the flower-rich lands on which many of the insects depend, and many rare species will be lost from that area for ever. Buglife is equally concerned by the recent decision to develop a vast patch of land on the Isle of Grain, in Kent.

“We're in danger of denuding the Thames corridor of some of its most precious habitats," says de Zylva. "These are the kind of things which will be important to communities when the process is finished, and they'll have to try and re-create them when they're gone."

Had Havering Council run a more effective campaign, the newest reserve for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, at Rainham Marshes, might have met the same fate as West Thurrock Lagoon. Rainham is where London ends: the border between the London Borough of Havering and the Essex Borough of Thurrock runs through the middle of the marshes, and on a clear day you can see Canary Wharf and the London Eye on a bend on the river 16 miles away. Other man-made structures define its immediate borders: the raised carriageways of the A13 seal the northern edge of the reserve and the Channel Tunnel rail link marks its western limits.

There are bright red and yellow shells of trucks and trailers stacked in a wrecker's yard in Purfleet Industrial Estate beneath the arches of the flyover, and the marshes are dotted with shipping containers - emblems of the Gateway vernacular - that have been turned into hides and education centres. To the south, a high sea wall prevents the tidal estuary reclaiming the low-lying marshes, and to the west, the flats and houses of the old Garrison Estate on the edge of Purfleet rise behind the RSPB's new visitor centre: a sleek concrete box on stilts, encased in a feathered skin of brown and yellow planks.

Yet despite its precarious existence on Londons's industrialised fringes, the area is rich in wildlife. It is home to 10 per cent of the UK's population of water voles, to insects such as dragonflies, beetles and spiders and a rich array of birdlife, including knots, dunlins, redshanks, lapwings, ducks and geese. The Thames Estuary is part of the east Atlantic flyway, and so migrating birds pass through twice a year, en route from the Arctic to the north Atlantic and milder climates in the south.

The RSPB estimates that at any one time in the peak period of January and February, the Greater Thames Estuary between Canvey and Rainham is home to 200,000 birds - which rises to 300,000 if you extend the area to a line between Whitstable and Clacton. The birds are attracted to the mud that lies on both sides of the sea wall. It has been estimated that each square metre contains as much food energy as eight or nine Mars Bars. "Without this area, they don't have fuel and they don't get home," says Paul Outhwaite, the RSPB's communications manager for south-east England.

The site was finally reprieved in 2002, though the board inside the door of the visitor centre confirms it was a complicated process - it lists no fewer than 23 separate bodies that played a part in creating the reserve. "It's symbolic of what a mess it has become," says Eric Pickles, who is a keen birdwatcher and a frequent visitor to the site himself. "There were so many fingers in the pie and no one taking the big decisions. It's a beautiful reserve and a beautiful centre, but I can't help feeling it could have been a lot simpler if we'd all been a bit more rational about it." He wouldn't object if there were two or three organisations involved, he says, "But once you get into double figures, something has gone wrong."

Not all the proposed developments have met with opposition from environmental groups. Outhwaite says the RSPB has abandoned its "thou shalt not" approach and he commends the work of a firm called DP World, which plans to convert the former Shell refinery at Shell Haven into a port called London Gateway - the largest container port in Europe. Shell Haven Refinery, which stopped production in 1999, occupies one of the largest brownfield sites in the UK, with two miles of river frontage and 1,500 acres. DP World plans to expand it by reclaiming yet more land from the Thames.

The port is another of the government's four areas of "transformational economic growth" - the other three being the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and the Ebbsfleet Valley, the proposed location for Mark Wallinger's 50-metre-high sculpture of a white horse. DP World says it will create 12,000 jobs in the short term and 36,000 in total. The company suspended the project last year during a "global business review" prompted by the economic crisis that struck Dubai, but on 5 January this year, the Prime Minister visited the site to mark the start of construction. Outhwaite is pleased that it is going ahead. He says it is a good example of the way the Gateway should work.

The package of measures designed to compensate for the habitats that will be lost in creating the port includes plans to establish two new areas of tidal mudflats - one in Essex, near the port, and one in Kent, on the other side of the Estuary - by making breaches in the sea wall. "If you're going to break the cycle of self-reinforcing environmental blight, then you have to have quality development in a natural environment that makes the most of what you've got in terms of open space and wildlife."

The task of integrating the various elements of the existing landscape has been entrusted to the architect Terry Farrell, whose international practice is responsible for Thames Gateway Parklands Vision, one of the many glossy documents the scheme has produced. In practice, the vision consists of such commonsensical ideas as a continuous estuary path, new river crossings and a green grid of bridleways, footpaths and cycle routes. The RSPB is developing other sites in north Kent and south Essex, and the LTGDC is attempting to develop its own green grid by opening up the southern portion of Rainham Marshes in phases before 2023.

The resulting amenity, which the corporation is planning to call Wildspace, will be the biggest public park to be created in London for over a century - 645 hec­tares, or twice the size of Hampstead Heath. Ultimately, Farrell hopes to develop it into a "new kind of national park", which will run from the mouth of the Thames to the limit of the tide at Teddington, in Middlesex, leaving 60 per cent of the land on both sides of the river untouched.

Peter Andrews says the LTGDC had a number of conversations with Farrell, but these didn't add much to the corporation's plans: "I don't want to sound arrogant about it, but we'd already got ours pretty well worked through, and I don't think Terry has changed what we have to do in any way. The greater concern was areas outside London that weren't so well thought through. You're trying to improve people's lives, whether through trying to create jobs or better housing, and inevitably it is very complex."

He was disappointed when the plan for the Thames Gateway road bridge, which would have connected Beckton and Thamesmead, was cancelled in 2008. "Maybe it's a British disease: it was in the Abercrombie report in 1943 and we're still talking about it." Andrews argues that strong political leadership is essential, and cites Michael Heseltine's commitment to the Docklands as an example.

In the short existence of the LTGDC, Andrews has already worked with four secretaries of state and half a dozen ministers. Continuity is hard to come by, though the Conservatives insist they would not cancel the scheme if they were to come to power, as developers are already committing funds in difficult circumstances.

In fact, Pickles's successor as Tory shadow secretary for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, says that the scheme is more important than ever, because it can be used to maintain a skills base in the housing industry and provide a stimulus as the country begins to emerge from recession. She would institute an audit to ensure the money was being spent properly, and offset the growing sense that the scheme is what Pickles calls "a Whitehall farce". They want to change the perception that it is dominated by planners who insist on putting up "little ticky-tacky boxes, without regard for the people who live there".

In a sense, such prescriptions are bound to be self-defeating: it is hard to remove one set of hands from the tiller without replacing them with another, equally deadening set of hands, and there are some who believe that all planners and politicians and their glossy brochures have become a hindrance to development.

“I think it's sometimes the people on the ground who have the real vision," says the RSPB's de Zylva. "So much attention and effort and money goes into these grand documents, but the people in the local communities know what they need and they don't need another high-profile architect or urban visionary to tell them. We go from one 'visioning process' to another and you're never quite sure what's going to come out of it at the end." His advice for everyone involved in the regeneration process is simple: "Listen to what people want and then give them a chance to express it."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Show Hide image

“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

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 “extremeright 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.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright 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. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD 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.

CH 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.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”