Vanity Fair Columnist Christopher Hitchens’ Analysis Of The British Election Next Week
HH: I am joined by Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, author of a brand new memoir, Hitch-22. Christopher, welcome back. When does Hitch-22 formally publish?
CH: It’s coming out, I think, on the 2nd of June, but it’s never too soon to preorder it on Amazon.com.
HH: No, it’s not, and perhaps on June 3rd, I can get you for a long hour’s conversation, and we’ll read it over the Memorial Day weekend. Looking forward to it, Hitch-22.
CH: That would be wonderful.
HH: All right, let’s play for the audience that which Gordon Brown got caught saying about a constituent today who had been querying him about immigration issues. Here’s what the prime minister said when he didn’t realize he was still on tape.
GB: Good family, good to see you again.
GD: Yeah, and the education system in Rockshire, we’ll congratulate it.
GB: Good, good, and it’s very nice to see you. Take care.
GD: Thank you.
GB: Thanks, take care. Good to see you all. Good to see you. Thanks very much. That was a disaster. Well, it’s…you should never have put me with that, with that woman. Who’s idea was that?
Aide: I don’t know. I didn’t see her.
GB: It was just ridiculous.
Aide: What did she say? I’m not sure if they’ll go with that one.
GB: They will go with it.
Aide: What did she say?
GB: Oh, everything. She’s just this awful, bigoted woman, said she used to be…
HH: This awful, bigoted woman, Christopher Hitchens, how much does it hurt Gordon Brown?
GB: (laughing) Oh, quite a bit. I got a wonderful e-mail about this earlier today, and about a tape, saying okay, how many mistakes can you make? First, patronize the voter, say how nice it is to see her, then insult her when you don’t know you’re still on the air, then very significant, he says who’s idea was that? His instinct is always to blame a subordinate, and he’s well known for this. And then fourth, he came out with an apology that was one of those apologies that makes it all much worse. So it’s, in microcosm, it’s a very good instance of the very klutzy style, to put it mildly, of the prime minister.
HH: Now what is the significance of, you know, I didn’t know that immigration was driving a lot of this election cycle. And I read the British papers every morning. What is it that the British people want on immigration?
CH: Well, I think you could put it very, very crudely, but not inaccurately, and say they would like less of it. I don’t think they want to undo such immigration as there’s been. I mean, Britain is in many ways a very successfully integrated country. But what people don’t want is the feeling that there’s no control over it. And recently, for example, the government admitted that it had lost the whole database of how many illegal people were in the country. There’s great concern about not just the immigration itself from, say, Pakistan, which is a major source of immigrants, but the fact that many of the Pakistanis who come, come from areas that in Pakistan are considered to be quite backward, shall I put it like that. And so there are people who now have been confronted suddenly with things like arranged or forcible marriages, honor killings, religious vendettas, things of this kind, that are very shocking. And the feeling is that they didn’t ask for it, but the political class gave it to the voters anyway. And actually, no party takes a very strong line against it. So all the party leaders are very aware that there’s a, I hate this cliché, but I’ll just do it, there’s an elephant in the room.
HH: Now Melanie Phillips and others have written about Londonistan, and she’s got a new book out as well. Is it anti-Islamic concern? Or is it immigration generally? The woman, Gillian Duffy, that he was caught out with, was talking about Russians and Eastern Europeans.
CH: Yes, that’s true. I mean, because of common market membership, including countries such as Poland, for a very long time, up to about a year or so ago, if you went past a building site in London, what you’d mainly hear was Polish or another Baltic, or perhaps Balkan language being spoken. But that, if you like, corrects itself. When there’s a recession, people go home, or when they’ve made some money, they go back to Poland. I don’t know what the lady’s main concern was, but if you wanted to know what mine was, say, as a frequent visitor to Britain and as someone who was born there, it’s the religious element. It’s the feeling that there’s an Islamization of certain communities going on that has led to demands for Sharia law in certain parts of the country, for example, echoed at one point by the Church of England itself, as if there could be separate courts for people of a different religion, things of this kind that are very disturbing. And no party seems other than tongue-tied on this question for fear of the accusation of racism. I should say there is a party in the election that’s been doing regrettably well, that actually is a racist party, called the British National Party.
HH: The BNP. Oh, goodness, that would be bad.
CH: Yes, their objection really is to the color of people’s skin, and the fact that they don’t have, I think they call it, the Anglo-Saxon genotype, or some such pseudo science.
HH: Well, that’ll be interesting, and hopefully they don’t get above a point. But we’ll see.
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HH: Christopher Hitchens, as I follow the British election, one day they’re talking about the Trident, the next day they’re talking about schools, then they’re back to the deficit, then they’re talking about the marriage tax. It seems like Jell-o, as do basically the three leaders when they debate with each other. How do you define this, and is it more formless than other British elections, or simply more of the same?
CH: No, it’s more formless, because of what had been until recently a third party called the Liberal Democratic Party, which incidentally headed by a man called Nicholas Clegg, Nick Clegg, who used to be my intern at the Nation.
HH: He was an intern at The Nation?
CH: He was an intern at The Nation. I didn’t know him very well, because I work in Washington, and he was my intern from the New York office. But anyway, he’s rather bright, rather smart, rather charming.
HH: How were his work habits?
CH: And very…fine. Fine by me. And very telegenic. And in the first ever television debate that the British have ever had, with all three candidates, he came from behind. And for a short time, I mean, distinguished himself brilliantly in this debate, was in the polls, the front runner. It was the first time the Liberal Party in Britain has been in the lead this century, I mean, sorry, not this century, in more than a century. And that’s meant that the thing is all over the shop, because his party, though it’s to the left of the Conservatives and to the right of Labour, is, for example, against building another generation of the Trident missile, the submarine-based nuclear deterrent that the British have, and is in favor of giving a general amnesty to at least a million or so immigrations, those who have already been there for a certain number of years, period of years.
HH: So if that issue gets legs and grows…
CH: …things of this kind. You never know, as you say, you never know quite in which direction, from which direction they’re coming.
HH: Now tell us a little bit more about Nick Clegg. I mean, let’s do a little TMZ here. When he was your intern, any saucy bits that we can put out there and earn rating scandals?
CH: No, believe me, no. Oh, Mr. Hewitt, sir, believe me, I’ve been asked this by a million newspapers already, and I don’t even want to say that I don’t remember him very well, because that might sound a bit of a squasher, and I don’t mean it to.
CH: I mean, we just worked in different offices. I would take him to lunch when I was in New York, but I didn’t get to know him well. I just thought he was a very bright boy.
HH: Well now, in terms of the Liberal Democrats, of course, it’s been a long time since Gladstone. Would you welcome their participation in a government, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well, there’s something in me that dislikes a duopoly in politics, whether it’s here or anywhere else, with you know, are you Labour, are you Tory, or are you red or are you blue. It is to many people a sort of meaningless question. And there is a three party mentality concealed within the two party system in Britain, and I think has been for some time. The problem is that I can’t think of a single real proposition that unites all the Liberal Democrats. It’s a kind of mushy middle ground party. It’s a feel good party in many ways.
HH: Well, in recent days…
CH: They took, it took what I thought was the worst possible line on the Iraq war, for example. On the other hand, it’s extremely, some might say even fanatically pro-European. In fact, if there’s one thing that probably does unite all its members, it’s a feeling that Britain’s destiny lies in the European Union, something that begins to look to many people less and less of a good proposition.
HH: Well given that position, and given the amnesty for immigrants, it seems that Nick Clegg is buoyed only by his ability in front of a television camera, and reminds us then of no one other than President Obama. Is the British electorate as gullible as the American electorate?
CH: Yes, Yeah, but you know…Yes, granted that, and I grant you that I think being telegenic can be a very bad sign in somebody, good on TV as you and I both are. The loser in this is David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, who staked everything in the last few years on being a charming, young man who comes across well on TV, and is good at image management. And now, he suddenly looks like yesterday’s idea of a new, young, charming chap. And there’s another newer, about the same age if not younger, charming chap who’s outbid him at his own game. And so of course the Labour Party are absolutely thrilled.
HH: What about the bench? I’ve had Liam Fox on the program for quite a long time…
HH: And he was very impressive. When it comes to bench strength in the other cabinet members that will come in with one of them, who do you favor in this thing?
CH: Well, the reason why I think that Brown, for all his unpleasant, the kind we just heard, is still in there with a chance. And I’ve always thought so, it was sort of a mistake to write him off, is that he and some of the people around him are in fact quite competent, and are quite tough-minded. And in a sense, as you could tell from today, don’t particularly care whether they’re liked or not. Amazingly, but it tells you something about the character of my country of birth, as soon as Gordon Brown was accused, believably, by former employees of being a bully, and someone who would literally smack people around in the office if they weren’t pulling their weight, his poll numbers immediately went up. You have to understand there’s a strong strain of sadomasochism in the British character.
HH: And so when all the smoke clears next week…
CH: Niceness is not enough.
HH: When it’s all said and done next week, how do you expect Britain to be governed for the next five years? Who’s going to be at the top?
CH: It’s very hard to picture any one of these parties now getting an overall majority in parliament, probably because I haven’t tried to explain, the incredibly antiquated rules under which the constituencies and districts are drawn. You can have a party get the majority of votes and still not get a majority of seats. But I don’t think any party’s going to get an overall majority of votes or seats.
HH: Well you know, they’ve got Nick Clegg out there saying we’ve got to abolish first past the post. He sounds like Lord Gray, a hundred and fifty years later. Does anyone care about that in Great Britain?
CH: Yes. Yes, they do. Some people care about it a lot all the time, a lot of people care about it some of the time, a bit, and every generation or so, or more, this is the second time I can remember it happening, an election result shows that there is, in a way, a demand for it, and that a party that gets a huge number of votes is very, very badly underrepresented in parliament, and that just seems unjust. The last time this happened was when Jeremy Thorpe was the Liberal leader in 1974. And that’s what put an end to the Edward Heath government, because the Labour Party hadn’t got a majority, either. The Liberals were able to say well, whoever’s won, the incumbent has definitely lost, which was true. If Brown doesn’t get a solid majority, then he’s definitely the loser, even if he gets the largest number of seats.
HH: And if Cameron does get this back, as the bounce shows, do you think he’ll be a decent enough prime minister, thirty seconds, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: He looks to me like a completely content-free Tory, which is a very bad thing to be.
HH: Content-free Tory. Christopher Hitchens, I look forward to talking to you soon. The new book, Hitch-22, available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere beginning in June, and of course, the interview will be here. Thank you, Christopher.
End of interview.