The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, was never associated with Tribune.
Indeed, in the 1970s, when he was a young journalist on the New Statesman and a member of the far-left International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), there was no love lost between him and this paper. He was with the competition – and his Trotskyist loathing of the compromises made by the traditional Labour left was reciprocated.
In 1978, after the New Statesman splashed a speech by Michael Foot from 10 years earlier on the front page, to contrast Foot’s critical attitude to the Wilson government of the 1960s with his supposedly shameless participation in the Callaghan government, Tribune’s parliamentary correspondent Hugh Macpherson wrote a column defending Foot’s achievements as a minister, warning against the left habit of treating any compromise as treason against socialism and attacking the Statesman for confusing the political circumstances of 1968 and 1978. In response came a blistering letter from Hitchens:
Many of us never thought of Michael Foot as a great socialist, and are therefore spared the pain of explaining his present conduct in those terms. But Macpherson's argument could be applied, without changing a word, as a defence of Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, David Owen or Roy Hattersley, all of whom deserve as much credit as Foot for the ‘achievements’ of this government.
Does Macpherson really think that the aftermath of Anthony Barber's chancellorship justifies support for, in no special order; the neutron bomb, the Shah of Iran, the Official Secrets Act, the 5 per cent pay limit, the savaging of social expenditure, the hoisting of unemployment figures, the deportation of dissidents and the burying of the Bingham Report? …
Like Foot's enthusiasm for Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, these are options, consciously and deliberately decided upon as matters of policy. Alternative strategies, to coin a phrase, were available in all cases and still are. If the mesmeric figure of Foot was not present among the ‘insiders’, this might be clearer to some people – which is why one assumes he is kept on …
Michael Foot's defenders seem entirely worthy of his political position – dishonest with an occasional whine from the left corner of the mouth.”As far as I’m aware, this letter, published in Tribune on 24 November 1978, is the only thing Hitchens ever wrote for the paper. I remember it well – the Tribune-Statesman spat was a big talking point on the Oxford student left then – and at the time I was on Hitchens’s side.
Hitchens remained a sworn enemy of Foot and a target for Tribune sniping until 1981, when Hitchens upped sticks and left the Statesman and Britain for the Nation and the United States. Relations warmed after Tribune ran approving reviews of Hitchens’s books in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took much the same position as him on the break-up of Yugoslavia, and I interviewed him for the paper in 1993. But we still never got a written word out of him.
Tribune and Hitchens were on opposite sides of the argument over the post 9/11 western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but never completely fell out. Mark Seddon invited Hitchens to put the case for military action to remove Saddam Hussein at the Tribune rally at the 2002 Labour conference, and Hitchens agreed. His speech was received in silence and politely applauded. In his memoir published last year, Hitch-22, Hitchens described the engagement as “my last appearance as a man of the left”.
I don’t think Hitchens ever completely ceased to be of the left, but that doesn’t matter. For all his faults and for everything that he got wrong (and there was plenty), his was a voice that was always worth taking seriously even when – particularly when – he was most at odds with the left consensus. He was the most accomplished literary-political journalist in the English language of the past 30 years, a brilliant stylist with an extraordinary range of interests and an unparalleled independence of spirit. He will be not be easily replaced.
With this issue Tribune celebrates its 75th birthday. The paper first appeared on 1 January 1937, and has been going ever since.
But it nearly didn’t make it. A couple of months ago it appeared to be on its death bed. Kevin McGrath, the businessman who had supported it financially since 2008, had announced that he was going to close it as a print publication and continue it as a website with an automated news feed. It was only after several weeks of negotiation that he agreed to sell it for a nominal sum to a new co-operative of staff and readers, the public launch of which will be announced in the new year.
It’s not going to be easy, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I’m sure we can pull through. Here’s to the next 75 years.