Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023
Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.
This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:
On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.
This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.
He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’
After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.
It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.
Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.
His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.
As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that
We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.
When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether
these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.
At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.
But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.
We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.
Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.