‘Dead author talking’: Blair loses debate with Hitchens

Munk debate

Former PM argues religion is ‘force for good’ but cancer-stricken Hitch wins

BY David Cairns LAST UPDATED AT 09:16 ON Sun 28 Nov 2010

TONY BLAIR has lost a highly-publicised public debate with the Washington-based British ex-pat journalist Christopher Hitchens, failing to convince an audience in Toronto that "religion is a force for good". The debate was given added intensity by Hitchens' manifest frailty – the bad-boy journalist has late-stage cancer of the oesophagus.

After the two-hour discussion organised by a Canadian charity set up by goldmine-owner Peter Munk, 68 per cent of the audience were opposed to the motion with only 32 per cent supporting the side taken by Blair.

Hitchens, dubbed a "dead author talking" by the Toronto Sun, was gaunt and hairless (above, right) after months of chemotherapy but remained as bellicose as ever. He told the Canadian press: "I arranged my chemotherapy around this so that I wouldn't be demoralised.

"I'm tired, but I'm not fogged as one can be, so that was the main consideration. This is what I do whether I'm sick or not." At one point in the debate, however, he was forced to take a break, saying "Do excuse me, sorry ... this sometimes happens."

With anti-war protestors gathered outside to reproach the former PM for his actions, moderator Rudyard Griffiths provoked gasps from the audience when he asked Blair if his religious faith had underpinned the series of decisions he made to take the UK into Iraq. Blair's answer was unequivocal.

"It was not about religious faith," he said "If you're a person of faith, it's part of your character — it defines you in many ways as a human being. But it doesn't do for the policy answers, I'm afraid."

He went on: "You don’t go to church, look heavenwards and say to God: right, next year the minimum wage — is it £6.50 or £7?." He repeated his often-used defence that he "genuinely believed [the invasion] to be right".

The debate remained good-humoured though it was with heavy sarcasm that Hitchens responded to Blair’s assertion that the peace process in Northern Ireland was an example of those of different faiths coming together.

Hitchens said: "It's very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting to bridge the religious divide in Northern Ireland, but where does the religious divide come from? Four-hundred years and more in my own country of birth of people killing each other's children depending on what kind of Christian they were."

Blair's best line was his observation that bigotry and prejudice are not "wholly owned subsidiaries" of religion. He added: "I agree in a world without religion, that the religious fanatics may be gone, but I ask you: Would fanaticism be gone?"

Whatever the religious gulf between the two men, they are united as proponents of the 2002 invasion of Iraq. Blair did not make the capital from this he could have – after all, Hitchens' unwavering support of that war arguably goes some way to back Blair’s assertion that even those without religious faith can have fanatical beliefs. · 

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