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Rory Stewart

The former MP talks to Peter Phelps and Rowan Pelling about global conflict and the possibility of his return to front-line politics
Rory Stewart. PHOTO: FCDO - CC BY 2.0 DEED

As I read Rory Stewart’s autobiographical back catalogue in the lead-up to our meeting, it was hard to avoid moments of professional jealousy. In the heady end-of-history days of the 1990s and early 2000s I had, like Stewart, been drawn to the East in search of adventure. But while I’d gone about the anodyne business of helping (or so I thought) ex-Soviet Kazakhstan move to a market economy, Stewart had trekked 6,000 miles across western and central Asia, had a near-death experience in Afghanistan, and even – if you believe the rumours – served a stint as a British spook in the Balkans. That was all before effectively taking charge of an Iraqi province after the US-led invasion in 2003, setting up a charity in Afghanistan on behalf of the then Prince Charles, and – as you do – becoming a Harvard professor of human rights and global governance.

There’s less to be envious about, of course, in Stewart’s subsequent descent into despair over our political system and caste, chronicled in his latest book, Politics on the Edge. Both my co-editor Rowan Pelling and I were struck by the politically rare combination of unswerving idealism and honest self-criticism shining through the former cabinet minister’s account of his nine years as a Tory MP. And so, as we make our way through a burst of weak November sunshine to meet the politician-turned-podcaster at his London home, we’re perplexed that some reviewers have been less than kind, accusing him of false modesty and sour grapes.

“What isn’t valid is to do nothing and grumble”

Our bafflement deepens as we step across the threshold into a modest terrace house that lacks any of the ostentation its South Kensington address might suggest. The air of comfortable chaos, instantly recognisable to any parent of young children (Stewart has two boys with his wife, Shoshana), sets us immediately at ease. We find Stewart himself in domestic mode, finishing up travel arrangements for his elderly mother before clearing Lego and exercise books from the dining room table so we can sit down. He makes us all a cup of tea and asks about Perspective’s progress. As he and Pelling share condolences over the death of a mutual friend’s father, I’m struck by the contrast between this genuine warmth and sincerity, and his more restrained and sometimes slightly tortured public persona.

There’s an earnestness too, that’s refreshing. It’s not long before we’re down to business and discussing Stewart’s core argument in Politics: that the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, have developed a “death grip” over Britain, becoming “micro-managing and controlling, and… sick as institutions.” He writes of how the parties’ “compound of canniness and ignorance” serves the demands of their members, but not the wider public.

This “institutional malaise”, Stewart tells us now, is characterised by a shared obsession with “ideological projects” that have “less and less connection to what’s actually going on, on the ground”, and has only been exacerbated by the many challenges of recent years. “The more things go wrong, the madder they become.”

Does Stewart see a future for centrism at a time of increasingly extreme positions and polarisation, when – as he writes in his book – media headlines veer between being “unblinkingly hostile” and “absurdly enthusiastic”? He replies that renewal is needed, but will involve looking beyond the craziness of the Westminster bubble. We need to “think seriously about rebuilding confidence in the BBC, judges, the Civil Service… universities… and newspapers.” Then he deftly pivots to his belief in the need for greater decentralisation, a central theme of The Rest is Politics, the podcast he co-hosts with ex-Blairite spin doctor, Alistair Campbell.

“One of the answers to the problem is to make decisions at a much more local level,” Stewart tells us. Both Right and Left suffer from a “detached, centralised, abstract idea of the country”, he says, noting a surfeit of “clever-but-silly young people sitting in Downing Street, with very little understanding of what’s going on”, yet coming up with “bold ideas that don’t really capture the texture of things”.

He recounts an example from March 2016 when he was junior minister for national parks – reporting to Liz Truss as head of environment, before she became the notorious “prime minister of 49 days”. Truss asked Stewart to come up with a ten-point plan and Stewart clicks his fingers as he recalls his excitement at this “amazing opportunity” to “completely rethink national parks” and duly set out a schedule for the next 25 years. It was a chance to get “lots of other people around the table… really get into it… and understand what works and what doesn’t.”

His enthusiasm was crushed when Truss told him: “No, no, I want it for Friday, for the Telegraph. You’ve got to come up with it, or I’ll do it for you. You know, number one, let’s get young people into the national parks.” Sure enough, this became the first item in a slimmed-down, eight-point plan released shortly afterwards, reinforcing Stewart’s sense that politics has descended into a series of “silly one-liners”.

Indeed, Politics is essentially the self-portrait of a man in mourning for the loss of meaningful political idealism. He recalls a painful incident at a private business dinner he attended at the invitation of Michael Gove, where he was asked why he believed himself to be a Tory. “I said I believed in love of country, respect for tradition, prudence at home, restraint abroad. The table laughed.”

He recounts how Shoshana later asked him what he really cared about. He replied: “Bringing the country together again? Stopping the polarisation of Brexit against Remain; Scotland against England; young against old, north against south.”

The book reveals his dawning realisation of feeling like a fish out of water in a political world of “empty manifestos and platitudinous jargon”. His greatest fear was that he’d become little different to the “petty” and “obsequious” politicians around him, just as “grossly unqualified” and with his “own versions of snobbery, obsessions, envy and anxiety about promotions”.

Towards the end of the book, Stewart wryly accepts an admonition from his friend, the former Canadian Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, that he was perhaps naïve not to grasp that “politics is a team sport” and that its “prize… goes not to those who are ‘serious’ but those that are good at exuding confidence”.
Yet Stewart still comes across as an idealist and activist at heart, retaining much of the youthful energy that took him to parliament in the first place. In 2010, six years before the incident with Truss, he took advantage of the Tories’ brief flirtation with selecting candidates in American-style primaries to leapfrog a field of party toadies and take the Cumbrian seat of Penrith and The Border. This was despite the fact he’d never voted Conservative.

What advice would he give people wanting to make a difference now? “The first thing is to get involved at some level”, whether by joining a non-profit or a political party, or by being a local councillor or a civil servant. “There’s so much you can do in the broader way of engaging with politics,” he notes. “What isn’t valid is to do nothing and grumble.”

This head-down-but-chin-up sentiment speaks to the increasingly anachronistic idea of “service” that permeates many of Stewart’s pronouncements. He ruefully agrees, admitting the word sounds “a little bit Victorian”, but suggests it is still a valid ideal, and just needs a new language. The generation of British politicians who had served in World War II had a “vision of public service… deeply attached to the military”, he says. Likewise, “the old class system… was about a whole series of different people feeling they had a particular role.” It’s “a good thing” that time has gone, he clarifies. But “we need to reinvent what it means to be a citizen in a more modern way.”

“Politics has become a series of silly one-liners”

Also evident in Politics is Stewart’s closeness to his father, Brian Stewart CMG, who was a key influence on his ideas and inspired the courage he needed to hold the centre ground in an era of resurgent populism. The elder Stewart served in the Black Watch during the war and was both a senior diplomat and high-ranking intelligence officer afterwards; his portrait was the first thing we noticed on entering the house.

In his Tory leadership bid, Stewart applied his father’s maxim that “true courage was not the opposite of cowardice, but the golden mean, between cowardice and foolhardiness.” This underpinned both his rationalist approach to Brexit talks and his commitment to prudent public spending. Stewart’s moving written account of cradling his father as he died in 2015, aged 93, would have been apt for a recent Perspective issue that explored ideas of manhood. Instead, given his expertise and experience in the Middle East, our conversation inevitably turns to the horrors that were then unfolding in Gaza.

Stewart’s succinct podcast summary of the historical context to the Israel-Palestine war recently won plaudits on social media; he’s equally incisive now as he compares it with the Northern Ireland crisis. “You have these two communities with such deeply held, embedded, and inconsistent narratives,” he explains.
It’s clear he has deep empathy for “the innocent civilians on both sides being swept up in different ways” in Gaza. He acknowledges how, for many Israelis, the Holocaust “represents incontrovertible proof [that] anti-Semitism is… a genuinely lethal genocidal force”, justifying the need for a Jewish homeland. Equally, he recognises how, for Palestinians, this same phenomenon “is a colonial apartheid project [that] like the arrival of white Europeans in Australia or the United States” is based on the iniquity of “treating a populated land as though it’s empty.”

As ever, Stewart’s analysis is rooted in realpolitik: he is painfully aware that while we need history to understand the conflict, it can only be addressed with reference to today’s reality, not to what happened in 1919 or 1948. He ranks the chances of a wider conflict at just “five-to-ten per cent, because… nobody has much to gain by getting deeply involved there.” The challenge as he sees it is “to use this moment to try to restart a proper peace process,” and stresses that, for it to happen, we need to “focus a great deal on Israel agreeing to cease settlements.”

A conversation follows on the wider range of global conflicts, from Ukraine – “it’s a massive historical mistake to underestimate the defensive capacity of Russia”, he says – to Myanmar, which he calls “horrifying”, and Yemen: “very, very sad”. At Perspective we’ve done what we can to highlight forgotten wars, and we’re impressed by the breadth of Stewart’s knowledge of the many regions where fighting is taking place: “Many bits of South Sudan. A lot of Eastern DRC. Central African Republic. A lot of Sahel.” It depends, he says, on what your definition of war is, noting that “repression in Iran remains terrifying”, and “you don’t want to be driving around Somalia outside Mogadishu.” He speaks with the quiet confidence of the well briefed, and it strikes us that Stewart’s old boss David Cameron, who has just been appointed foreign minister when we meet, would be well advised to put aside their past differences and pick up the phone.

Global conflict is one of three issues Stewart is most concerned about. The second is climate chaos, which he focused on as an MP, and – proving he is anything but yesterday’s commentator – the third is the opportunities and challenges of AI. In the only name-drop of the interview, he tells us the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, reprimanded him for his negativity over climate issues by telling him, “We made more progress than anyone thought possible in Paris,” and that temperature increases were likely to top out at around two per cent. Recent climate reports suggest this was a wildly optimistic assessment, but Carney’s comments made an impression on Stewart because “the normal experience in politics is nobody wants to do anything until it’s absolutely bang in their face.” And that’s his fear with AI: “People won’t do anything until robots are literally wandering down the streets.”

In addition to his Asian trek, Stewart has traipsed across hundreds of miles of British countryside, particularly in Scotland and the Borders. You sense he isn’t often found sitting still, and even as we talk, he’s jumping to his feet to reheat the kettle and to answer an urgent message. This restless energy seems to fuel his ability to find connections between topics that are usually treated separately. Discussing food security, and the impact on prices from our reliance on imports from Russia and Ukraine, Stewart puts it in the context of Britain’s overall approach to environmental policy – our propensity to focus on energy and food production while ignoring consumption. As an example, he cites a proposal to rewild the Lake District, which would have the knock-on effect of needing to import more lamb from New Zealand. “There is something very, very odd,” he sighs, “about the way we essentially offshore our problems onto other people.”

“One of the answers is to make decisions at a more local level”

Throughout our conversation it’s impossible not to be struck by Stewart’s refreshing lack of dogma; his main political conviction seems to be “common sense”, a word he finds “powerful”. Stewart points out that (as a result of their origins as a party from both nineteenth-century Whig and Tory traditions), it used to be de rigueur for Conservatives to be “a bit suspicious of very abstract grand ideas”. He’ll no doubt find it ironic that, in a recent example of doublespeak coming from Westminster, the same “common sense” label has been adopted by the cluster of right-wing ideologues now gathering around the ousted Suella Braverman.

As the interview draws to a close we realise none of us is enthused by the choices facing Britain at the next general election. Is Starmer likely to do anything about citizens’ assemblies, proportional representation or devolution? “Not at the moment, no,” Stewart replies, labelling the Labour leader as a “Blair tribute act… Blair without the flair”. So, will we find ourselves forced to vote negatively by choosing the “least-bad” leader? Stewart nods in agreement: “Like trying to work out which portaloo to select on the last day of Glastonbury.”

We all laugh, a welcome moment of levity lifting us out of a conversation that, we all admit, has been unavoidably depressing. There’s just time to ask if by any chance Stewart will put aside his podcast microphone and take to the hustings again as a candidate? This elicits a genuine grimace from Stewart, who doesn’t rule it out in the longer term, if only he can “develop enough of a rhinoceros hide” to deal with an occupation he finds particularly “bruising and peculiar”. For now, he says, the very idea of it “fills me with horror”.

I sense that Stewart’s remembering his ruthless political execution by the party machine during his bid to stop Boris Johnson from becoming prime minister in 2019, despite being the candidate who’d captured most support from the wider public. It’s a precise reflection of the current lack of reasoned, respectful, and reality-based debate, both in parliament and on social media. It’s this warped public discourse that Stewart most wants to change, which is keeping from us from having the sort of leaders we need, instead of the ones we deserve.

Rowan Pelling and Peter Phelps are co-editors of Perspective

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December 23 / January 24, People

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Nuanced and yet broadly informed as ever. Thank you. It’s enthusing to see Rory Stewart back in the centre of UK media, despite, or maybe due to the loss of a mandate.

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