Monthly Archives: April 2010

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SCENES FROM THE BRITISH ELECTION

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Article first published by Inigo Thomas in Slate on 30 April 2010.

In 1998, 25-year-old Rory Stewart, a former British army officer on a Foreign Office posting to Jakarta, Indonesia, took a month’s leave to walk through the jungle of Papua New Guinea. After three weeks inching through the forest, Stewart reached a village on the island’s southern shore. “One could walk from Paris to Berlin in that time with much more ease,” he later wrote. With more ease? Not many people can imply, without affectation, that the 550 miles from Paris to Berlin is a 21-day stroll.

After his Far Eastern posting, Stewart was made the British representative in Montenegro. Then he left the Foreign Office and spent two years walking from Iran to Nepal, passing through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, later writing a prize-winning book about his journey,   The Places in Between. Following the invasion of Iraq, he was appointed deputy governor of two provinces in southern Iraq and afterward wrote a book,   The Prince of the Marshes, which was critical of the chaotic postwar planning he witnessed. In 2006, he started the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul, Afghanistan, one of whose aims is to assist the city’s architects, masons, and artisans to rebuild the long-wrecked Afghan capital. He was made a professor at Harvard in 2008 and appointed director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. In 2009, he was selected as the Conservative Party candidate for Penrith in the north of England, and he continues to mark papers from his last semester at Harvard as he campaigns.

There isn’t anyone quite like Stewart. “It’s hardly unusual for a posh-Scot old Etonian ex-army officer with diplomatic experience to be parachuted in as a safe-seat Tory,” wrote the left-inclined, usually Tory-detesting Deborah Orr in a Guardian column last fall. “It’s more unusual for me to love him, though; to just simply adore and worship him. Stewart is a truly heroic figure.” Which might strike some as overblown enthusiasm, except Orr is not the only commentator to see in Stewart something they don’t see in others, regardless of their politics. “It would be easy to think that men such as Mr Stewart no longer exist,” said the Times two weeks ago in an editorial endorsing Stewart’s candidacy. “Westminster needs more politicians who know the facts on the ground, and know their own minds. Mr. Stewart is one of those.”

So why would Orr’s truly heroic figure give up academia, where he’s been in a position to influence and to sharply criticize U.S. and U.K. policies regarding Afghanistan? Why seek to join a much-tarnished branch of government? Why become a member of Parliament when free thinking is often subordinate to party line and when the scrutiny exerted by the British press is often akin to a public mugging?

“No one asked me that question in America,” Stewart says, when asked about his decision to become a politician. He’s speaking on a cell phone from the car that’s taking him to his next campaign stop. He talks about his decision to stand for Parliament less as a calling or a professional decision than the next thing he is going to do.

“It’s definitely that road,” I hear him tell his driver. He does know where he’s going. To familiarize himself with the constituency he hopes to represent, Stewart undertook another of his epic walks, traveling 300 miles over the sheep-dotted hills of Penrith. By his standards, the walk was short. It requires little imagination to picture this scene: Stewart knocks on a farmer’s door in the middle of nowhere and says he happens to be passing by—on foot—and he wants to be the farmer’s MP. The reasonable first reaction of that farmer might be: Isn’t this man mad? The second: Maybe he’s not.

Penrith is, by British standards, a huge constituency: It’s the largest in England, covering 2,000 square miles of hill country. Modern, multicultural, Twittering Britain it isn’t. Much of its population is offline and static—few people move in, few move out, and few refresh their browsers very often, because they don’t have high-speed Internet access. The surnames on the gravestones are much the same as those in the phone book. “It’s astonishing how many people are related to each other,” says Stewart. There are hundreds of small-holding farmers, many of whom live in isolated valleys: Twenty-five percent of the population is self-employed, which is double the national average. He says a lot of the constituents are solitary types whose main social activity is centered on the livestock auctions in Penrith. Pride in independent-mindedness is widespread. The phone connection breaks up; when he returns Stewart says cell-phone reception and Internet access is more reliable in Kabul than it is in the far north of England.

In a piece he wrote about Afghanistan last year, Stewart attacked American and British attempts to win over Afghans and to counter the Taliban. At fault, he said, was an obsession with the language of management; everything is perceived in terms of targets and whether they are met. Objectives are listed bullet point after bullet point, like ingredients for a shapeless recipe. There’s too much confidence among U.S. and the British forces in Kabul, Stewart argued; they’re too much persuaded by data-driven presentations and know less than they think. A year later, Stewart’s view appears to have been heard: In a New York Times report published earlier this week, a U.S. general was quoted saying that the managerial style had become a risky obsession: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Or bulletproof.

Not that Stewart perceives a sea change on the horizon. “The U.S. finds it difficult to accept that it will never secure legitimacy in Afghanistan,” he says. As for the United Kingdom, Stewart believes that under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and the Labor Party, the country has failed to have a foreign policy. “In the U.S. at least there’s serious discussion about policy, while in the U.K. there isn’t, and the difference is as striking as day and night.”

What’s true of Afghanistan is just as true of Penrith, according to Stewart. His potential constituents must face the fact that their local government, the Eden Valley Council, also perceives its objectives in terms of what it can manage and regulate. It’s this unnecessary intrusiveness of the state, Stewart says, that makes him a Conservative. Pettiness prevails, and to illustrate his point, he tells the story of a librarian who was told by the council that he wasn’t allowed to change light bulbs in the council-run library. Health and safety regulations mean that an electrician has to be called out from miles away. The agricultural college on the outskirts of Penrith is under threat of closure, Stewart says, because it’s said to be losing more than $6 million a year. What about its graduates, Stewart asks. Don’t they count for something?

Few local issues in Britain are as raw as the arrival of one of the big supermarket chains. Actually, it’s mistake to call it a local issue, because it isn’t. It’s a nationally known phenomenon. In Saxmundham, for example—a small town in faraway eastern Suffolk—a Waitrose supermarket opened several years ago; now Tesco hopes to build a second supermarket in the same town. For those who oppose the dominance of these stores on Britain’s high streets, the possible arrival of a second supermarket in Saxmundham is a disaster. What can the smaller shops do, other than close?

In Penrith, Sainsbury’s is hoping to open a new 55,000-square-foot supermarket. “There are haberdashers and grocers that have been in business since the 1740s,” Stewart says. There’s often too little public consultation. Bureaucrats in Penrith and in London hoard figures and sit on already made decisions, making it difficult for those without access to such information to make informed and substantive criticism.

Unlike the outcome of the general election, the May 6 vote in Penrith is pretty certain. Stewart may have Labor and Liberal Democrat rivals; there are candidates standing for the British National Party and the U.K. Independence Party, too. But the last time another party came close to ousting the Conservatives was 27 years ago. Stewart should win the election in this remote and rugged constituency, which some would call bleak.

“The hawthorns are just coming into bloom,” he says. “You must come and visit.” With his capacity to make the bleak sound good, it’s hard to think of anything else to say but: Why not.

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supporting farming in longtown

LONGTOWN & BEWCASTLE

The countdown to May 6th and this intriguing 2010 General Election is in its last phase and Rory has stepped up the tempo of his campaign accordingly.  Yesterday saw the team cover around 20 villages of the northern sector of Penrith & the Border, Rory meeting and greeting voters as he went.

The focal point of the day came when Rory gave conspicuous support for the farming community by travelling in a tractor driven by Roadhead farmer Steve Pattinson from the Sycamore Cafe in Longtown  to the Auction Mart.  There Rory distributed a letter to the farmers present promising to support the creation of a supermarket ombudsman, to work for a clearer separation between food production and the environment, to root for more honest labelling in food, to fight for more common sense and less regulation and to promise to focus  on a clear strategy to deal with the end of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013.  Rory also promised to continue his fight to save the Newton Rigg campus of the University of Cumbria.

 

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Roryandlamb

closing general election rally – penrith

MAYDAY!

Rory is holding his final General Election 2010 rally in Penrith on  Saturday at 10am.

 Please come to the Cornmarket and  support us.  We will have a brass band, banners, balloons and a clutch of supporting dogs.

Rory will deliver his final election address from the back of a tractor-drawn trailer,           before he is driven round the centre of Penrith when he will call on onlookers and residents to come out and vote on May 6th.

Do join us.  For any last minute information, contact the campaign team on 07754 163941.

Roryandlamb

Cumbria valley

more on william hague visit to kirkby stephen 30th april

RT HON WILLIAM HAGUE TO VISIT KIRKBY STEPHEN

 

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet and Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Richmond, the Right Hon William Hague is to join Rory Stewart on his campaign to win the seat of Penrith & the Border this Friday 30th April.  The pair are to join forces in Kirkby Stephen where William Hague will address an outdoor rally from 5-5.30pm in the Market Square before proceeding to an informal gathering at the Black Bull pub in Nateby.  (5.45pm-6.30pm)

 

William Hague has been a staunch supporter of Rory’s since Rory first stepped into the political forum, saying of him before his selection at Penrith:  “Rory has great experience of world affairs, is a gifted communicator and an appealing character.  We should jump at the chance to have such a high quality individual become a candidate.  He is a rare person in many ways but it is even rarer for someone like him to want to be an MP.   I recommend him without reservation.”

 

Still in his 40s, William Hague is often referred to as the ‘elder statesman’ of the Conservative Party.  He is renowned as a sharp, witty and incisive speaker, his grasp of national and international affairs admired by journalists, politicians and businessmen the world over.  He has represented his constituency of Richmond since he was elected to Parliament in a by-election  in 1989, succeeding former Home Secretary Leon Brittain.  At the last election, he won the seat with a majority of 17,807.

 

Of William Hague’s offer to help him on his campaign, Rory Stewart said:  “William is a great representative of rural areas and the conservative party, and a friend and personal inspiration to me.  William’s Richmond constituency is our neighbour and he instinctively understands our rural communities. He supports our battle here in Penrith & the Border to preserve and promote a unique way of life.  He will fight alongside us to  preserve our villages, our farms, our landscape and our local businesses and services, to create affordable housing, roll out high-speed broadband, cut red-tape and bring back common-sense. I am delighted to be able to welcome a politician and a Conservative of William Hague’s stature to Kirkby Stephen. “

william hague rally kirkby stephen 30th april

STOP PRESS

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet and Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Richmond The Right Hon William Hague  has agreed to come and address a rally in Kirkby Stephen this Friday 30th April from 5-5.30pm.  From there, he will proceed to the Black Bull pub in neighbouring Nateby.  For more information, please contact the campaign team on 07754 163941.

RS

A SINGULAR MAN – EDITORIAL

Article first published in The Times on 16 April 2010.

Not all politicians are the same after all. Scholar, soldier, diplomat and author, Rory Stewart could not be farther from the typical party apparatchik. As we continue to identify candidates who merit support, regardless of their party, Mr Stewart has surely earned our endorsement.

It would be easy to think that men such as Mr Stewart no longer exist. Still only 37 years old, he has been the governor of a province in Iraq, walked across Afghanistan (which resulted in a bestselling book), and most recently was a professor of human rights at Harvard University.

But Mr Stewart has swapped the cloistered world of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the wilds of Penrith, where he is standing for a safe Conservative seat. Unideological, socially engaged and jargon-free, Mr Stewart perfectly embodies David Cameron’s plans for a “Big Society”.

Mr Stewart’s most admirable quality has been to seek preferment from the Conservative Party while publicly disagreeing with its leader’s position on Afghanistan. This paper does not altogether share Mr Stewart’s scepticism. But Westminster needs more politicians who know the facts on the ground, and know their own minds. Mr Stewart is one of those.

There are broader reasons to feel optimisitic. Our age of ultra-professionalism, sadly, makes a virture of narrowness. A hinterland is regarded as dangerously close to dilettantism. No wonder many MPs know little about life outside the political classes. Mr Stewart, in contrast, has already touched a remarkable range of constituencies — from war zones to academia. It is to be hoped that he will soon add another, the constituency of Penrith & The Border.

Ravenstonedale

kirkby stephen and alston meetings

 

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I have now done two hustings/candidate debates.  The first was in Kirkby Stephen on Monday, the second in Alston on Tuesday, and the third will be in Penrith tonight.  Tonight’s event will finish fittingly enough just before the national debate on television between the three leaders.  They are very, very strange events.  Important.  Useful.  Indeed perhaps, more important than ever before.  But still strange.

Who knows exactly what the audience of Kirkby Stephen were expecting.  They were sat in an ornate and galleried Methodist meeting hall: some in the stalls and some in the upper circle facing a long table on which sat we three candidates.  Were they aware that each candidate had brought their “agent” with them?  What did they make of the fake newspaper which the Liberal Democrats had been distributing?  (A fascinating, pantomime document called the Penrith and Border Gazette with a series of articles praising the Liberal Democrats in the tone of an objective journalist).  In an American Presidential debate, the experts are very concerned about which order the candidates sit omn and in which order they speak but I assume none of us were up on such niceties. Then, what did Peter the Lib Dem candidate or Barbara the Labour candidate think when they walked into that room?  None of us have stood for Parliament before.  None of us have had to perform in that way in front of an audience on behalf of our parties.

I was impressed by the questions which had been compiled by Churches Together.  Eight questions of unusual sensitivity and sometimes almost philosophical depth.  Their emphasis was on how parties would approach the poorest and most vulnerable people in society and how we would tackle the role of religion in society and define the ethical status of the war in Afghanistan.  The questions from the audience were both blunter and livelier and because the chair held us to a very strict 60 seconds of response, we were able to fit in 20 different questions (on my estimate).  We were asked how we would weigh our relative loyalty to the party and to the constituents, how we would encourage marginalised people to vote, how we would tackle the problems of agriculture and the supermarkets, prison, debt, pregnancy, immigration, and education.  Perhaps the most heated section was over Europe complete with a heckler from the gallery.

I felt that we could have perhaps more audience participation of that sort. It was very striking that different people took different approaches.  Barbara’s answers I thought reflected her time in local government.  She very sadly was losing her voice and I felt had some difficulty being heard, but she was particularly effective on issues of deprivation and poverty.  Peter very skillfully brought questions back to his own personal experiences and the many professions he has had.  His opening speech somewhat to my surprise tackled international issues and in particular energy.  He came across as strongly pro-European Union and compared Britain to “the grumpy person in the club who is always complaining and who no one listens to”.  He part blamed the war in Iraq on George Bush “watching too many cowboy movies”.

It was a two hour debate and led into over an hour of discussion and coffee with participants, completing for me at least a full day in Kirkby Stephen, where I had visited many businesses, including printers, framers, a pet shop, the antique shops, local cafes and the Post Office.  A couple of people stopped their car to wave good luck.  I had an intense half hour with a man who was very angry about the direction of the country and said he was likely to vote for the BNP.  I told him that we were unlikely to agree.  The most picturesque part of the afternoon was an open air hustings in the pub garden at Ravenstonedale surrounded by 35 people on wooden benches in a warm, spring sun.  We talked in very precise detail about the challenges in Kirkby Stephen, ranging from footpaths to the community center, discussed the structure and budgets of parish councils and explored ways to give genuine power to local communities.  Kirkby was at it’s very most beautiful, as was the whole Lune valley.

Gaudium

web chat with news & star

Earlier I took part in a web chat with News & Star readers where the following topics were discussed:

  • affordable housing
  • bureaucracy
  • broadband
  • MP’s expenses
  • and many other topics…

You can read the full chat on the News & Star website (opens in a new window).

NAG

nenthead, alston and garrigill

13 April 2010, Nenthead, Alston and Garrigill

By Will Clegg, member of the campaign team

Today we visited Nenthead, Alston and Garrigill, mountain villages in P&B’s northeast that stand testament to the importance of our fight to defend local services and promote the distinct needs of rural communities.

The village of Garrigill is one of Cumbria’s most remote, with around 200 permanent residents. A row of stone houses frames a picturesque green, and the community is served by a post-office and shop that have changed little in over 50 years. Yet the community’s future is threatened because the George and Dragon, the only pub for 3 miles, has been boarded up since last October. The building has served as a pub since the 17th Century and remains a viable business today. It is the only pub in the village, providing an important local meeting place. Given that Garrigill is on the Coast to Coast cycle route, the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail, its economy depends heavily on tourism. Since the George and Dragon closed, websites have advised tourists to avoid Garrigill due to a lack of facilities. This is tragic. Garrigill’s B&Bs and holiday cottages have lost 90% of their business, and the village’s shop and Post Office now face pressure to cut back on services and potentially shut down. Until the George and Dragon is re-opened, Garrigill’s future remains bleak.

In Nenthead the community was primarily concerned about the future of Alston Cottage Hospital. In 2008 the community fought for the facility’s future.   A delegation travelled to Westminster where they received an assurance that the hospital would be maintained. However, NHS Cumbria recently decided to cut the hospital’s capacity from ten to six beds while also making the facility inaccessible on evenings and weekends. This policy has been implemented in defiance of the very low cost and very high benefit associated with maintaining a small number of additional beds in rural hospitals. It also fails to account for the very high cost of ferrying patients excluded from ‘consolidated’ cottage hospitals back and forth from what are often less-suitable facilities in Penrith, Hexham and Carlisle. Above all else, the case of Alston Cottage Hospital highlights that even if we save services in the short term, our work remains incomplete so long as technocratic elites continue to centralise without considering the specific needs of individual rural communities.

Alston Primary School is an extraordinarily focussed, happy place, and it supports the village school in Nenthead with which it is federated. Alston’s economy has endured many challenges, remaining vibrant and robust. Today, Total Post employs 15 full-time local staff who manufacture and sell post-handling equipment across the world. Bond’s Precision Casting (formerly Precision Products) employs 60 full-time staff from within a 5 mile radius. Although British iron foundries are often considered ‘sunset’ industries, Precision Casting produces pump-components of a very high-quality, 70% of which are for direct export. As such, the facility is well positioned to weather the national recession crippling British firms elsewhere.

Alston’s high street has a long history of closure and renewal. A shop that once sold flowers now sells hardware instead. The local bakery has won awards due to the quality of its products, benefiting from regional acclaim. The community’s Town Hall now hosts a well-stocked, modern library, while Sarah Bisson provides local youths with motivation and hope through her dedication to the Alston Youth Café. Cybermoor Ltd, a local social enterprise, ensures that Alston benefits from some of the fastest broadband in Britain, filling a gap that BT failed to service due to the costs of its bureaucracy and red-tape. Nonetheless, challenges remain. On the one hand, Alston is without public transport links to other villages, limiting the opportunity for young people to gain jobs outside of the town. On the other, inflexible planning laws prevent local production facilities from expanding, blocking well-paid jobs that would benefit the community. Despite barriers such as these, Alston’s innovative community is optimistic about the future, and is well positioned to exploit the twenty-first century so long as insensitive, irrelevant regulations are pushed out of the way.

rory_tatasteel_final

gathering at blencow

Friday, 9 April 2010, Gathering at Blencow

Hi, I’m Will, an Australian friend of Rory’s, who accompanied him on Friday to meet local farmers and business people from in and around the Blencow area. We were introduced to representatives of local organisations, and Rory gave a brief speech. Although we discussed many issues, British agriculture was by far the major concern. Farmers wanted a future government to raise the profile of food production in British public policy and argued that the British government needed to distinguish between agricultural and environmental policy by re-establishing an independent Department of Agriculture. They also wanted the government to lobby for British farmers within the EU, stressing the need to cherish British farming, not tangle it in red tape. They argued that public policy should be attuned to the specific needs of rural communities.

Farmers and local business people were also concerned about the power of the six large supermarkets. Shockingly, over 7,000 dairy farmers have disappeared from Britain in the last 15 years, largely because of a long-run decline in farm-gate prices driven by supermarkets. Livestock farmers highlighted the danger supermarkets pose to rural auction-marts, which are threatened by producers selling directly to retailers. They welcomed the Conservative Party’s promise to create a strong, independent Supermarket Ombudsman, as well as the Party’s determination to ensure reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.