The title of Rory Stewart’s ‘memoir from within’, Politics on the Edge, is ambiguous. It may mean that he, as a former MP and government minister, was of marginal influence, or that our political system is less robust than we like to believe. Both meanings could apply and both speak of his ultimate disappointment in our system.
Stewart is a walker – he has hiked in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as around Cumbria for his constituency, Penrith. His deeply disillusioned ramble through the corridors of Westminster began when he, as a former Scottish infantry officer, Eton and Balliol, was charged with the task of clearing up the mess left by the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The official story, he eventually concluded, was a fraud. We were not nation-building in Iraq after a famous victory. We were making fresh enemies through our arrogance and misbehaviour. He resigned in disgust and went to work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Afghanistan, where he discovered that small donations spent altruistically on useful projects could produce good results.
The US and UK governments, however, were not impressed by such minor successes. They resolved to transform the country into a modern liberal democracy and devoted mega-funding and military manpower to the destruction of the Taliban.
They set themselves time limits, yet it all ended in the humiliating withdrawal of 2021, when terrified Afghan helpers at the airport in Kabul had to resort to clambering over barbed wire to escape. The resurgent Taliban took back control.
Standing for parliament
These experiences convinced Stewart that the think tanks in Washington and London were not to be trusted. After a spell as a visiting academic, specialising in global affairs at Yale, an opportunity arose to stand for parliament in the UK. In 2009, 50 MPs resigned when the Telegraph published details of their claims for expenses, many of which were deemed questionable.
Stewart had no strong party allegiances. He was born in Hong Kong, son of a colonial officer, and in the past had voted for Labour and the Lib Dems. His family had ties with the Scottish aristocracy. He found a compatible home with the Conservatives, as the party which respected tradition, but he was a self-declared ‘centrist’, a One Nation Tory.
When he was elected, the party was ruling in coalition with the Lib Dems and Stewart served as a junior minister under David Cameron. He campaigned for Remain in the Brexit referendum but honoured the verdict. Under Theresa May he was appointed to senior roles and when she resigned he stood for the leadership of the party. But he refused to serve under Boris Johnson, feeling he lacked “seriousness and moral principles”.
Winning at all costs
The picture he paints of life at Westminster is a bleak one – of backbenchers in thrall to party whips, of bar-room conspiracies and cynical friendships. Stewart is a lively and humane writer, and his sharp sketches of Truss, Cameron, Gove, and Johnson will last longer, I suspect, than their official portraits in gentlemen’s clubs.
At the same time, his doleful peregrinations lacked a clear destination. Our democratic system was in a bad way – if it could be called democratic at all. It was pretentious, out of touch and held back by the thought that the first goal of a politician was to gain or stay in power. Everything was sacrificed to the winning of elections. Was that what democracy meant?
What is the alternative, he asks. Should we pay more attention to philosophers and lawyers? Should we streamline the system in line with the Internet age? He wonders if the party system is cracked beyond repair, with divisions shattering the old conformities. Could the political allegiances be patched together and is it even worth trying?
An illusion of power
Stewart tells how he mused, as he sat with the five other contenders for party leadership in a TV studio debate, “We will be taking responsibility … for the fifth largest economy in the world, and for a population larger than that of the Roman Empire at its peak… It is one of the most powerful jobs in the world.”
But now he feels that power is illusory. “Britain grows only half of the food that we eat, produces less than half of the energy we consume … We are in debt and borrowing more. A single misstep could destroy our currency, wipe out the gilt markets, spark inflation and drive much of our country to the edge of bankruptcy almost overnight.”
He describes how the first task of a government was to provide an efficient administration, one not unpopular with the focus groups. This was the narrow line that had to be trod. Ministers were shuffled from department to department, neither promoted on the grounds of their experience nor allowed to stay in post long enough to gain a deeper knowledge of their subject.
As minister for prisons, Stewart began by having to look up the history of Brixton in Wikipedia. But he made it his mission to visit every prison in the country and found out that many necessary reforms were actually quite small and doable – broken windows, scanners, and wire netting for instance.
Slogans and Brexit lies
But as in Afghanistan, he discovered that small successes don’t attract great headlines. Instead, an ambitious politician needs to talk tough and call for more imprisonment and longer sentences, disregarding already crowded cells and sub-Victorian sanitation. His allies were not among his colleagues in Westminster, but with the honest and over-stressed prison governors.
Ministers were politely treated by the civil service as the parliamentary spokespersons for policies researched and formulated elsewhere. They were not expected to think for themselves. Cutting the number of senior civil servants was an easy way of reducing public expenditure. In Tony Blair’s world of high modernity, they could be replaced by cheaper special advisers, fresh from university, with post-modern ideas and IT skills.
To compensate for their over-stuffed portfolios, he feels ministers placed too much reliance upon algorithms of public behaviour, coining slogans such as ‘Take Back Control’ to maximise their appeal to the imagined masses. When in doubt, they lied.
“After Brexit”, wrote Johnson in the Telegraph, “there will continue to be free trade and access to the single market.” “Taxes”, according to Gove and Johnson, writing together in the Sun, “will be lower and wages will be higher.”
Stewart walked his way into politics. He learnt what was happening at ground level before attempting to run the country. As one who spent even longer on the further political fringes (as an adviser on cultural matters to the Lib Dems), I recognise his frustration.
He campaigned for broadband in Penrith. So did I in the 1980s, for a policy to install an optical fibre cable network nationwide. He would like more political decisions to be taken at a local level. So would I, and so would most hard-working hacks who have ever stuffed a leaflet into a hostile letterbox. We know what needs to be done but cannot crack the constitutional code.
Facing up to reality
Since the Thatcherite revolution, the nature of government has changed. The political orthodoxy, shared by the parties, has been to outsource national services to the private sector, keeping a semblance of control through such bodies as Ofwat, Ofsted and Ofcom. This is popular with freedom-loving CEOs and central governments, who retain their power at arm’s length, with results we are currently experiencing.
The Day of the Oligarch has dawned.
There may be grounds for hope. But Stewart’s memoir depicts a system so delusional and self-obsessed that it cannot be altered with one or even several elections. The scandal of the sub-postmasters, the pollution of our waterways, the farcical Rwanda policy, the clapped-out NHS, the backtracking on climate pledges and the disregard of international treaties all indicate that we can no longer be saved by our unwritten constitution. We must stop cheating.
The edges are crumbling, and time is running out.