Christopher Hitchens on the House of Commons scandal, Michael Steele, Dick Cheney and coming socialist health care
HH: And to lead off the program, columnist for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens, who is just back from London. Mr. Hitchens, what a marvelously inclusive scandal is underway in Great Britain.
CH: Almost too much so. It leads to the kind of populism that makes people say they’re all in it together, they’re all in it for what they can get, there’s no difference between the parties. You know the sort of talk.
HH: Yes, it’s going to benefit the greens and the right wing fascist parties, I think, correct?
CH: That’s the speculation. There’s the local election, although…rather elections for local authorities on the 4th of June, as there are elections for the European parliament, and it’s thought, I don’t know how the greens are supposed to do, but I’ve met a lot of alarmed conservatives who think that the fascist British National Party will get seats in the European parliament.
HH: Now explain to the American audience right now what exactly the British MPs of both Labour and Tory have been doing.
CH: And Liberal Democrat, and the social nationalists, and the lot.
HH: And the LD’s.
CH: Well, you’re not very well remunerated if you’re a member of Parliament in Britain, but you are, because you’re expected to have a home in your constituency, have some travelling expenses. You’re allowed to claim various things to sweeten the pill. And that’s all right in its way, but if you are, for example, I’ll give you a non-hypothetic example, if you’re a quite upper class Tory, and your name is Douglas Hogg, and you live in a castle which has a moat surrounding it, and you claim $4,000 dollars for cleaning this moat, you will look, and I hope feel, a bit of a fool when it’s published in the Daily Telegraph.
HH: David Miliband…
CH: That’s the sort of thing…
CH: …that’s been going on. The customer, the voters have been reading every day, and they’re actually very angry about it.
HH: David Miliband, foreign secretary, correct?
HH: Yeah, he spent thirty thousand pounds on repairs, decoration and furnishings for his 120,000 pound home in South Shields. And this goes on every, right up to Gordon Brown getting his cleaning done. This is…
CH: Well, and it’s going…you see, as it gets worse, because we think now that someone has sold the disc that has all the expenses on it, and the Daily Telegraph has them all, and it’s getting down to more and more tiny detail. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. Perhaps I can say, I hope you don’t mind, your readers, your listeners, your customers, who it might, some male MP has claimed for a box of tampons.
HH: This is the level of detail.
CH: Now I suddenly realized, you know, I didn’t need to know that before, but I haven’t been able to forget it since I was told it. Some female MP has a husband who isn’t an MP who has claimed for some online pornography.
HH: So if this…
CH: So you see, we’re going to know everything and more about these people, more than we need, it could be said.
HH: If it goes, if in fact the government falls…and do you think the government will fall as a result of this?
CH: Do you remember A Man For All Seasons? It’s just occurred to me to ask you.
HH: Yes, I do.
CH: Do you remember when the man sells out for Sir Thomas More?
HH: Yes, I do.
CH: And he does it for a small sinecure?
HH: Yes. He should have been a teacher.
CH: Yes. And the man does it for a small sinecure in Wales. And Thomas More, I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but he says to him, I can see, I can imagine selling your immortal soul and your friends and so on for, as it might be, a kingdom. But he said but for Wales?
HH: For Wales.
CH: For Wales. What’s amazing is how it’s always the same with corruption scandals, I find, how little people will settle for before their integrity is all gone.
HH: Some of this is criminal. A conservative whip, Bill Wiggins, claimed 11,000 pounds for phantom mortgage payments. That’s just fraud, that he and a couple of others are going to go to jail, I think.
CH: Yes, that’s fraud. That’s fraud…I’m glad you say fraud. For me, for it, to me, the charge of corruption, you have to be taking, which has been a word much flung around, you must be taking money as an inducement to do something you wouldn’t otherwise have done. You must be taking it backhanded. There’s no, as far as I know, not been any suggestion of that. It’s just snouts in the trough.
HH: And so what happens if, in fact, the government…who brings back a government? If their both parties are damaged, although Cameron apparently has, David Cameron, the leader of the Tories, has very, very clean expense sheets, according to the popular press in Great Britain. How do you see this playing out, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well, Cameron was the first to tell all his members, his conservative members, to go right back to their constituencies straightaway, leave London, go home, do what explaining you have to do, be ready to face the electorate. He’s in a stronger position for another reason, which is that he’s calling for an immediate election. He thinks this Parliament should be dissolved. It’s a hopeless Parliament. It’s discredited. Its speaker had to resign yesterday as you probably saw, the first time that’s ever been done to a speaker who’s supposed to be completely impervious to political pressure, for three hundred years. And he said our party’s willing to take the risk that the electorate will revenge itself on some of our members. Now the Prime Minister doesn’t have the courage to call for that.
HH: And so does he suffer as a result by comparison?
CH: Yes, I would think so, because he looks very much, Gordon Brown, for a start, has never been elected prime minister. He was elected only by the Parliamentary Labour Party as a caucus when Tony Blair resigned. He’s never led his party in a general election. He’s been asked to say whether he might not like to do that now, perhaps to confirm or deny his credibility, or reconfirm it, I mean to say, not deny it. And he’s reluctant, obviously, to undergo this most crucial test for a Democrat.
HH: Well, I’ll continue this conversation with Brooks Newmark, member of Parliament, Tory, next hour. But I’ve got to while I’ve got you, Christopher Hitchens, since you have served, you’ve been served by both the British health system and the American health system, which is preferable? And do you like the way that national health insurance is coming at us, or national health care is coming at us in the U.S?
CH: Well, as for a system in the United States, I don’t know what it is. You take your chances. There are a lot of people in the system who aren’t covered at all. They just hope they don’t get ill. There are people like myself who have private insurance from their employers, and it’s usually pretty good, and you can shop around among doctors, which is the bit that I like about it best. I only underwent the British socialist system when I was young when it was very good for me, because I came from a family that didn’t have much money, and everything was for free to a certain minimum. And a lot of it was preventive. I mean, before the War in Britain, there used be millions of children with deficiencies, third world diseases, you know, rotten bones, rotten teeth, not vitamins. That’s why the system was imposed, because when they conscripted the working class in 1940 to fight against Hitler, they had to turn about a third of them away as unfit. And they thought good heavens, what’s been going on? How is the country so unhealthy? So a certain minimum was imposed – free cod liver oil, orange juice, spectacles if you couldn’t see, teeth if you couldn’t eat.
HH: Well, I don’t think the Democrats are pushing cod liver oil, but they are pushing socialization.
CH: No, but I mean, there are people that live in third world conditions in the United States, you know, I mean, who are afraid of getting ill. And I never forget how that might feel. And also, I feel that the children of these families should be getting black currant juice and orange juice and so on, the cod liver oil if only through the schools.
HH: But we just passed the SCHIP. We just insured them. We expanded the SCHIP program dramatically. We’re no longer talking about poor children. We’re talking about you and me. You and I would be forced into this program. The engineer sitting on the other side of the glass, everyone walking around Manhattan would all be in this program. Do you think that’s a good turn for the economy and for the country?
CH: No, I don’t think so from what I’ve been able to read about it, and I was, before I was in England, the last trip I made was to Canada where there wasn’t anyone who didn’t say look, if you’re really, really sick, you should think about drifting south.
HH: All right, let’s talk about Michael Steele.
CH: Just as many people here can’t get their prescription drugs without getting them from Canada. So remember, some of this does cut both ways.
HH: Let’s talk about Michael Steele, because you indicated to Generalissimo you were watching him with great interest this week?
CH: Yes, I just can’t believe how lame the guy is. And I feel like so sad for him. I wonder why he keeps doing it to himself.
HH: What exactly has triggered this?
CH: It was his attempt to say that, of course now I’m spoiling the commission that I gave to someone earlier today, because just in case Mr. Steele’s listening to me, I was wanting someone to come up to him and ask him without preparation what is your favorite speech or article by Edmund Burke, because he said that he was one of those conservatives who based everything on the three great gurus – William Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Edmund Burke.
HH: Could he cite Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biography?
CH: Well, I don’t think so.
HH: Well okay, let me ask you…
CH: I don’t think so, and also everyone gets this wrong, or most people do in the United States. I mean, people think of Burke as an English Tory. In fact, he was an Irish Whig.
CH: And in many ways, a much, much, much more radical than any Tory, and in many ways, also much, much, much more reactionary, so it seems to me if someone who was doing that was trying to square the circle.
HH: But a friend of the revolution. We’ve got about a minute. Do you welcome or do you oppose…
CH: No, no, a friend of the Colonists, and he wrote, helped Jefferson write the last reminisce chance against the King for the Colonists, but I don’t think he was a friend of the Revolution.
HH: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I misspoke.
CH: …or advocated independence, no.
HH: But with a minute left, do you welcome or do you oppose the return to the lists of Richard Cheney?
CH: Oh, I mean, I think it’s a very good thing to see someone put up such a fight on what is obviously to him a matter of principle. And it’s clearly had an unnerving effect on many people. You might look at a column Richard Cohen wrote for the Washington Post last week saying all right, Cheney’s challenge must be met. Let’s see these memos that he says prove him right. Maybe, maybe this did help up against our enemies. I mean, that’s the kind of argument one wants to be having.
HH: Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, always a pleasure.
End of interview.