Late last night I got back from a trip to the Hay Festival where one of my favourite writers, Christopher Hitchens, was due to speak in a number of debates. One of the debates was about blasphemy, which Norman Geras has covered. The one I was lucky enough to participate in was The Economist Debate, chaired by Jon Snow, on “History will be kinder to Bush and Blair than to Chirac and Schroeder”. On the side of Bush and Blair were John Micklethwait and Christopher Hitchens, and on the side of reaction, sorry Chirac and Schroeder, were Roy Hattersley and Mark Leonard.
Christopher Hitchens prepares to kebab a Hattersley.
I’ll not repeat the debate since you can listen to it online at the Hay 2005 Archives already, but I thought I’d give a flavour of the debate and the speakers. It is probably worth mentioning that at the start of the debate a show of hands showed that the motion was opposed by the majority of the audience, although there was a not inconsiderable number of people for the motion. I sat three rows from the front, in a small oasis of hawks, although this did not attenuate the strong aroma of bruschetta in the marquee. I say hawks, since this debate was always going to be about Iraq and the War on Terror, and in the event the political problems of Chirac and Schroeder only mildly registered in the debate.
John Micklethwait tried to win over the audience with a critique of Bush, including the grin he gives when he can’t answer a question (cue automatic Guardian canned laughter), but then turned it around by saying that Bush had one big thing right – the policy of spreading democracy and freedom in order to increase security. In response, Mark Leonard, author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century seemed to be far more interested in pushing the thesis of his book, than arguing the motion. He argued the soft power of Europe would make more changes than American attempts to project its power. At one point he held out the carrot of EU membership or trading partnerships as a way to spread democracy. It seemed a weak argument, but he got lots of applause – pressing the right buttons is easy these days.
Hitchens spoke next, and was his usual rumbustious self, unafraid to challenge the audience.
Libya has capitulated. Did Libya capitulate to Kofi Annan? No. Did it capitulate to Jacques Chirac or the EU or Herr Schroeder. Not at all. He came to Blair and Bush and said I give up on the hunt for WMD. He had more than we thought, much more than we thought. All that toxic and fissile material is now under lock and key in Oakridge, Tennesse. I simply say that’s the best place for it. Through the investigation of that material we walked back the cat [...] to the AQ Khan Nukes’r'Us Walmart run by our ally Pakistan and we shut that network down. It went all the way from North Korea to Libya, it’s gone now it should have been gone before [...] and we’ve put Iran in the frame so that even Chirac and Shroder have to pretend that it’s an outrage that Iran has been lying and cheating on its inspections for so long and the North Koreans are nervous and their regime is beginning to crumble. What’s wrong with that? And the Iraqis have had the first vote in the history of their country. And the Lebanese have found the energy to force Syria to abide by a resoution, which I will admit with French help has passed, [...] that they will leave Lebanon, and I will tell you in two years times the Baath party will not be in power in Damacus, and there will be the beginnings of a democratic revolution of real citizens in Iran the likes of which you won’t be able to sneer at. That’s all gonna happen and there is no doubt in the minds of any of these people [...] what the catalyst was. It was the decision to declare something simple. Co-existance with totalitarian expansionist absolutist idealogies is not possible. Good I think, because it is not desirable either. That is the beginning of wisdom.”
Then came this man.
Is this Michael Meacher in disguise?
I have to thank Roy Hattersley for his contribution. In 1992, I was extremely bitter about the Conservative victory in the election. After hearing him in this debate, I have come to realise that a few years of John Major may have been a price worth paying for a Blair government. His speech was full of the glib canards of the Guardian letters pages and comments. Buttons were pressed, “illegal war”, “Project for a New American Century”; he had em’ all, and boy was he going to press them. Hitchens sat on the stage muttering to the audience “why are you clapping”, “why are you laughing” at the more ridiculous charges levelled at Bush and Blair by Hattersley. Before Hattersley spoke I still had some respect for him, but as he continued to spill out his garbled and ill-informed comment on international politics he slowly transmogrified into the Jar Jar Binks of British politics. Still, perhaps he was dazed by his football teams promotion. Micklethwait bluntly pointed out how Hattersley has become a reactionary afraid of change, while the US adminstration has become radical and is promoting change.
Other highlights include Hitchens on Galloway “he’s a pimp for facist dictatorships overseas, and an exploiter of religious sectarianism at home, and a guttersnipe and a liar. And I can add I hope you go to labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk. They’ve issued a challenge to me and him to meet in a public debate. He can pick the venue, he can pick the chairman, it better be neutral, and then we’ll see won’t we? “, and Hitchens’ response to the self-confessed Galloway fan whose opening gambit was “Christopher what’s happened to you, you’ve fallen so far. I mean you’ve started brilliantly attacking Kissenger years ago [...] and now you’ve ended up as an apologist for a bunch of murderers” and who eventually called Hitchens a “sepoy”.
My contribution was late in the debate, and wasn’t as fluent as it could have been, but was done on the hoof.
I want to quote Christopher from one of his books actually, Orwell’s victory in which he’s says that the intellectuals of the last century made a fatal accommodation with imperialism, fascism and also with communism, and I think the reason that Blair and Bush will come out well in history is that they are not making such a fatal accommodation with the “isms” of this century. And my point is that I see Mark Leonard and Roy Hattersley, they are like the Guardian’s letter page on acid, they are conflating opinions, and aims and objectives to groups in the world that, well, I mean Saddam Hussain was never going to join the European Union. Al Qaeda don’t care about global warning. I mean what planet are these people on?
At the end of the debate, the vote was taken again. The motion was lost, but Hitchens and Micklethwait had gained some support. In a debate with so many evidence-free assertations, and simplistic moralising about the US, even changing some minds was a victory of sorts.
Afterwards I got to meet Hitchens and got a copy of Love, Poverty, and War signed by him.