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Never giving ground

The editor of the New Statesman reflects on the life and legacy of Christopher Hitchens.

In his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman (and a worldwide internet sensation), Christopher Hitchens, who died from cancer on 15 December 2011 at the age of 62, spoke of how the one consistency for him, in his four-decade career as a writer, was in 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 ultimate totalitarian was God, against whom (or the notion of whom) he was raging until the end.

Hitchens himself was many things: a polemicist, reporter, author, rhetorician, militant atheist, drinker, name-dropper and raconteur. He was also an absolutist. He liked a clear, defined target against which to take aim and fire; he knew what he wanted to write against and he did so with all the power of his formidable erudition and articulacy. He was an accomplished and prolific writer, but an even better speaker: his perfect sentences cascaded and tumbled, unstoppably. He was one of our greatest contemporary debaters, taking on all-comers on all subjects, except sport, in which he professed to have no interest at all.

Born in 1949, he remained a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised by the countercultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. (He reminded me of Philip Roth's David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talk-show star, libertine, hypercon­fident scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.) The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists, a forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, agitating at demonstrations by day and romping with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night.

He remained a member until the late 1970s and continued, long after that, to defend the Old Man, as he and the comrades called Trotsky. If there was a parliamentary road to socialism, he didn't seem much interested in it in those early days, though towards the end of his life he claimed that the British Labour Party was "my party".

After university, Hitchens worked for the New Statesman under the editorships of Anthony Howard and Bruce Page. He was operating then very much in the shadows cast by his luminously gifted friends and fellow NS staffers Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and James Fenton. Other friends, including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, were also beginning to establish themselves as unusually ambitious writers of fiction. Yet there was a feeling among that group of clever young men - with their smart book chat and bolshie political opinions - that the Hitch, as they called him, was a powerful intellect and journalist but a mediocre stylist. "To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work," Amis once wrote of Saul Bellow in what served as a self-description and statement of intent. Amis had his own exalted style from the beginning; Hitchens, certain in his opinions but less so as a stylist, took much longer to find his.

“Islamofascists"

Amis, in Koba the Dread, his 2002 book about Stalin and the British left's historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that his old friend began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in "burnish and authority", only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.

My view is that Hitchens was liberated as a political writer long before the fall of the Berlin Wall - through moving, in his early thirties, first to New York and then to Washington, DC. There, after some early struggles, he found his voice and signature style, contributing to Harper's and the Nation and, later, as a well-paid deluxe contrarian, to Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.

I once had a drink with him (everyone seems to have had a drink with Hitchens) in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the then Conservative MP George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh's old Academy Club in Soho, central London, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. He sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling sentences as he recited from memory large chunks of W H Auden's poetry. I felt battered by his erudition - can you keep up! Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave - and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and fluency. He was engaging, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.

An absence of doubt defines his later work. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (cleri­calism, God, pious moralising of all kinds), self-righteous indignation ("shameful" and "shame", employed accusatorially, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or to accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style and his fearlessness.

Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis's Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double act. (Their relationship was a kind of unconsummated marriage, Amis said recently, though Hitch would have happily consummated it at one stage.) Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, "the most influential writer of his generation", as he liked to put it. He wrote in the High Style, after Bellow, and declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and quick-fire columns and was not averse to using ready-made formulation. Even in his final interview, with Dawkins, he described himself as a "jobbing hack". "If I was strident, it doesn't matter . . . I bang my drum."

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a belligerent supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror. He supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends at the Nation.

At last, he had found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichaean, he denounced "Islamofascism", a catch-all term that was so loose, generalised and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al-Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hezbollah - in spite of their different origins and sociopolitical circumstances, they were all "Islamofascists".

Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack.

How will he be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returned again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus ("What would George do?"), are false. He had no equivalent to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Homage to Catalonia. He was not a philosopher and made no original contribution to intellectual thought. His anti-religious tract God Is Not Great is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time.

Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style as a speaker - as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly; the itinerant, sardonic man of letters and indefatigable raconteur.

In the introduction to his final book, the essay collection Arguably, Hitchens wrote that since being told in 2010 that he had as little as another year to live, his articles had been written with "full consciousness that they might be my very last". This was, he wrote: "Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another . . . it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending."

How to live

One is reminded here of Duke Vincentio's remark in Measure for Measure when he urges Claudio, who has been tricked into believing that he is about to be executed:

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.

What the duke means is that through acceptance of and resignation to death we may find a kind of peace and a deeper knowledge of what it means to live, or to have lived, well.

Claudio replies:

To sue to live, I find I seek to die;
And, seeking death, find life: let it come on.

The culture no longer throws up a Christopher Hitchens. Today, he has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.

A J Liebling used to say that: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." He could have been describing Hitchens, whom death may have silenced but whose essays and books will continue to be read and who, through the internet and YouTube, will continue to be watched and listened to, as he went about his business, provoking, challenging, amusing and stridently engaging with the ways of the world, always taking a position, never giving ground. The Hitch, the only one.

This is an edited version of articles published on newstatesman.com and the Daily Beast and in the Financial Times

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...