Lynton Crosby, who ran Boris Johnson's 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Illustration: Dan Murrell/New Statesman
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Lynton Crosby, David Cameron and the old dog whistle test

David Cameron and George Osborne agree with Boris Johnson on one thing at least: the Tories should pay Lynton Crosby “whatever he wants” to become their election strategist. So what is it about this rough-tongued Australian that so appeals to them?

It is not hard to imagine the torrent of disparaging comment that will break over the Tories if they put Lynton Crosby in charge of their 2015 election campaign. Many on the left would take the appointment of this rough-tongued Australian as proof that the Conservatives had “lurched to the right”. Crosby’s willingness to campaign on the issue of immigration, seen in elections he has run in both Australia and the UK, would be cited as proof of a disreputable urge to play the race card. Placing him in charge of the Tory machine would be treated as confirmation of a general coarsening, with the leadership adopting a narrow, retrograde and ultimately hopeless strategy of appealing to white-van man.

Nor is Crosby without his critics on the right. Peter Oborne, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, lamented that even though his appointment seems “almost inevitable”, it “would also mean a terrible defeat for everything that Cameron has stood for”, amount to “a public recantation” of the more generous approach adopted by the Conservatives after their general election defeat in 2005, and look “deeply inauthentic”.

Yet one might say the trouble with the whole Cameroon project is that it has seemed inauthentic. The manner of its leading exponents has often been so tentative as to suggest that even they do not really believe in what they are doing. This problem was exposed with embarrassing clarity during the 2010 general election campaign, which appeared to be based on the premise that David Cameron is a nicer man than Gordon Brown. As soon as Nick Clegg looked, on first gaining access to the nation’s living rooms through the leadership debates, as if he, too, might be nicer than Brown, the Tories were in trouble. They had no idea what they wanted to say. Veterans of that campaign recount with a shudder how, if in the space of a few days you’d asked four members of the Tory high command – George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Ed Llewellyn and Andy Coulson – to tell you the theme of the campaign, you’d have got four different answers.

Cameron and Osborne know that if they allow such a debacle to recur in 2015, their political careers will most likely be over. They are therefore desperate to obtain Crosby’s services, even though he worked with Michael Howard on the 2005 campaign, which ended in failure.

Ferocious discipline

So who is this highly prized but, to the wider public, still largely unknown Australian? He was born in 1957 in Kadina, South Australia, the youngest of a cereal farmer’s three children. Farming did not attract the young Crosby. He took a degree in economics from the University of Adelaide and, after standing once unsuccessfully for election in his own right, began work for Australia’s main right-wing party, the Liberals, in Queensland, where he swiftly rose through the ranks. His métier turned out to be winning elections for other people rather than himself. He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times. John Howard, who as Liberal Party leader won four successive general election victories in the period 1996- 2004, did so with Crosby at his side as his campaign manager.

If Crosby is to come and work again for the Tories, he wants to be paid a huge sum of money, to compensate him for the lucrative lobbying work he would otherwise be doing. He also insists on complete control of the campaign, including the polling that will help to inform it. This would have to be transferred from Populus – the company co-founded in 2003 by Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s present head of strategy – to Crosby|Textor, the company set up in 2002 by Crosby and his business partner Mark Textor. My expectation is that these demands will be met, which will dismay some of those who believe they are already doing perfectly good work for the Tories.

Michael Ashcroft, who used polling by Populus for Smell the Coffee, his study of what went wrong with the Tory campaign in 2005, has recently used the Conservative Home website, whose parent company  he owns, to declare: “I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby . . . I do not think he is needed and would become a distracting influence.”

Crosby could still refuse to work for the Tories. He has been known to say he is not going to rejoin the team, but my guess is that when it comes to it he will be unable to resist the temptation. Would this be the disaster that some so confidently predict? Nobody can know for sure how a campaign will turn out, but it would be foolish to count on Crosby getting things wrong. In the autumn of 2007, Boris Johnson’s first attempt to become Mayor of London was floundering, with critics suggesting that his eagerness to tell jokes betrayed a flippant amateurism that made him unfit to run a capital city. Osborne prevailed on Johnson to let Crosby take charge of his campaign.

The jokes ceased. For journalists covering the contest, this was an unwelcome development. We found ourselves cut off from our most reliable source of colour. For months at a time, it was impossible to get near Johnson. Crosby was subjecting him and the rest of the Tory team to the kind of ferocious discipline that used to be inflicted on languid recruits at the Guards Depot at Pirbright.

Johnson’s most recent biographer, Sonia Purnell, relates how, at his first dinner with Crosby, the candidate was told: “If you let us down, we’ll cut your fucking knees off.”
    
Before writing this piece I asked Johnson what it had been like having his campaign run by Crosby. He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’”

There is a bracing realism to Crosby’s style. He does not seek to evade inconvenient truths with English politeness. But I put it to Johnson that it was a pity Crosby had forced him to stop telling jokes. “This is all hysterical nonsense,” he said. “The awful truth is that the electorate won’t take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously. If you don’t take yourself seriously they don’t think you’re taking them seriously.”

Londoners reckoned Johnson was serious enough to elect as their mayor in 2008, and to re-elect for a second term in May this year when Labour had been well ahead in the polls. Some of the credit for turning Johnson into a professional belongs to Crosby, though Labour prefers to place all the blame for defeat on its candidate, Ken Livingstone.

Blow your own foghorn

Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.” One cannot help being struck by this rare example of Johnson agreeing with something that Cameron and Osborne want to do. The appointment would be popular on the Tory back benches, which assume Crosby would treat the Liberal Democrats far more roughly than Cameron has done. In the mayoral elections, he proved expert at harvesting Lib Dem votes for Johnson.

But what about Crosby’s first campaign for the Tories in the general election of 2005? To begin with, things went well. On 26 March 2005, Andrew Grice, in the Independent, wrote of Crosby: “Since the pre-election campaign began in January, he has helped the Tories to set the political agenda for a sustained period for the first time since Black Wednesday in 1992. He is credited with turning a rusty party machine into the Rolls-Royce it was in Margaret Thatcher’s heyday.”

But in his book The End of the Party, Andrew Rawnsley gives the liberal intelligentsia’s view of what happened next: “After a slick start that worried Labour, the heavy emphasis the Tories put on immigration made them look opportunistic, monomaniac and unattractive to centrist and floating voters. In a well-timed speech in Dover [delivered on 22 April 2005, Tony] Blair charged his opponents with seeking ‘to exploit people’s fears’ and skilfully punctured Howard’s posturing on the issue. ‘The Tory party have gone from being a One Nation party to being a one-issue party.’”

Michael Howard won 33 more seats than the Conservatives had got at the previous general election, but only 0.7 per cent more of the vote. He managed to scandalise the intelligentsia without gaining large new support from Labour voters who were indeed worried about immigration. Crosby denied after the campaign that he had used a “dog whistle” to send surreptitious messages: “It was more like a foghorn.” Whatever instrument it was, few voters obeyed its instructions.

Rupert Darwall, a former adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont who worked for Crosby during that year, said the campaign “didn’t come off because the Conservatives didn’t have an economic policy”. There was a boom, and Gordon Brown’s reputation as chancellor was still intact. Like Johnson, however,
Darwall has the highest respect for Crosby. “I’ve never come across such a good manager,” he told me. “He inspires the people working for him. He selects people he trusts and he doesn’t micromanage. The irredeemable sin is screwing up and not telling him.”

On being asked what economic policy Crosby would wish to pursue in the 2015 campaign, Darwall said: “He would reconfirm the view that getting control of borrowing is crucial. Normal people don’t buy the Keynesian thing that to get borrowing down you have to borrow more. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would have a very hard time. I think Lynton Crosby would be a nightmare for Miliband.”

When I protested that commending deficit reduction for month after month with workaholic discipline sounded dull, Darwall replied: “It is disappointing for the media. It is not disappointing for the people who work in the campaign.”

Crosby’s partner Mark Textor has expressed their contempt for much of what appears in the media. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald this summer, he argued: “Most is borderline trivial, certainly irrelevant. But that has never discouraged the commentators.”

One of John Howard’s strengths, in the victorious campaigns he waged with Crosby’s assistance, was his ability to say things that antagonised the Australian intelligentsia but appealed to ordinary Australians. In 1996, Howard defeated the Labor leader Paul Keating, an eloquent figure much admired by the intellectual elite, by appealing instead to core Labor voters who became known as “Howard’s battlers”. Howard carried conviction by choosing what looked like big challenges – a major tax reform, for instance – and sticking with them rather than cutting and running. His opponents will never forgive the ruthless way he exploited the question of immigration in the election of 2001. Howard was not charismatic, but he convinced voters that he had the Australian national interest at heart.

Senior Cameroons hope Crosby can work out how to appeal to the “strivers” identified by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last month. These Tories recognise that one speech does not constitute a campaign, and are confident that Crosby has the professionalism needed to construct the latter. A close observer compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge, nor even whose job it is to do the washing-up.

Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.

Crosby naturally refused to talk to me before I wrote this profile. He said he is not running for anything and is sick of being misrepresented by British journalists. I did, however, manage to have an enjoyable and illuminating talk with him last December, when I was updating my biography of Boris Johnson. It was clear that he had a keen understanding of his candidate’s strengths, and of the need to stop Livingstone from turning this year’s mayoral election into a straight Labour-Tory fight. Johnson did not emerge from that campaign as a horrible right-wing extremist, but as a person some Labour voters in London felt comfortable about supporting.

At the end of our conversation, Crosby presented me with a Boris Johnson campaign mug. I remarked that when I got it home, my wife, who is a Labour councillor in London, might well smash it. He thereupon gave me a Boris Johnson umbrella, saying as he did so: “This’ll really piss her off.”

Here is a man who delights in provoking Labour. The cleverest way to oppose him might be to be very nice about him. I am not sure he would know how to deal with that.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
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“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.”