Monthly Archives: August 2010

supporting our rural transport systems

A decade of the PlusBus is coming to an end, which is very sad news indeed; it is essential that we recognise the work of the PlusBus committee, who have put so much effort into this service over the past ten years. They have done a fabulous job of keeping this running and have successfully secured three rounds of Lottery funding in order to do so. It is incredibly sad that the committee feel unable to secure a fourth round of funding, particularly at a time when this, of all projects, really is the ‘Big Society’ in action. I am hopeful that the ‘Big Society’ agenda will, in the future, help initiatives such as the PlusBus in terms of breaking down bureaucratic barriers and helping to overcome the demands of the vast amounts of paperwork that have essentially contributed to the PlusBus’ closure.

Above all, this service demonstrates the very urgent need for better rural transport systems, such as the Fellrunner buses of the Northern Fells Group. Community groups in Upper Eden have, I know, been working very hard to try to secure alternatives. Efforts have been put into maintaining a one-day-per-week shopping service, and there has been much input from the committee and the County Council to maintain a service that works for residents. The Rural Wheels and Volunteer Drivers scheme will go some way to filling the void, and – within the Upper Eden Transport Forum – volunteers have already come forward to become volunteer drivers in our villages. GPs have been contacted to ensure that patients make their appointments, and the surgery in Kirkby Stephen has agreed to be flexible in admitting patients whose appointment may not necessarily coincide with the Rural Wheels timetable. These are common-sense solutions made by the community, for the community. The real loss will be the service that the PlusBus provides to and from the train station, but I am encouraged to hear that there are already discussions about the development of a shuttle bus service to and from the station; it is likely that this would be a seasonal service with Rural Wheels and volunteer drivers on hand to service the local community needs in getting to the station. This is without a doubt an issue of major importance, and I aim to put better rural transport high on our list of priorities for the entire constituency, and Upper Eden as a vanguard pilot area for the ‘Big Society’

Vietnam

with my father in vietnam

A week ago, Cumbria; next week, Cumbria again, walking along the Eden River from Mallerstang. But today I am in a provincial Vietnamese town with my 88-year old father. We have just been for a walk at 5.30 in the morning. The mist drifts slowly around the foot-hills and above the narrow fishing boats. Teenagers are kicking shuttlecocks back and forth in the air beside the ancient walls of Hue palace. As my father observes with a grin, ‘We must look like a pretty nutty pair.’ He is wearing a blue blazer (it is already 80 degrees) and his highly polished black brogues contrast with the mud on my boots. We cross roads slowly, arm in arm, as some magical protection against the never-ceasing flow of a thousand mopeds with drivers in what seem to be toy plastic helmets. In his left hand he carries a ski-stick. In my right I carry a bag containing his Boots instant camera and eight books on Vietnamese history, each page of which he has energetically underlined.

My father has a distinctive approach to towns, which involves walking, music, energetic conversations about the army, toys and white rice. Even in Penrith, he can be seen marching around in tartan trews, accosting brass bands, talking to Malcolm Temple in the George Hotel, examining the toyshop or dining at the Magic Bean. But in Vietnam, he enters a new dimension. He begins with a cup of tea at a street stall at dawn, using a dictionary to learn the local language. ‘Vietnamese,’ he assures me now, ‘is easy if you speak Cantonese and Mandarin.’ (I don’t: he does.) Then he investigates new forms of transport. He failed to persuade me onto an elephant yesterday and I dissuaded him from riding a motorbike. But, despite being told by me and everyone else that there were no boats, he re-emerged grinning on the prow of a motorboat.

Since he is 88, I try to make him rest. But in Saigon, while I was writing an e-mail to the Cumberland hospital, he slipped out and re-emerged two hours later, with a very red face, having just marched two miles back from the market in the midday heat, announcing ‘I don’t think much of this pace-maker’. He agreed to sit in the cool and have a beer for only half an hour before accompanying me forty miles outside the city to a battleground. There he clambered into the Vietcong tunnel system and, on the basis of his experience as an anti-tank gunner in 1944, he held forth on the weak points of a ruined tank.  In the evening, he discovered a toy-stall, selling a battery-operated toy mandarin and listened to a man playing a bamboo flute. We shared a bowl of white rice by a lake.

He was here last, 43 years ago, as a British diplomat during the Vietnam War. He argued strongly in 1967, on the basis of the pride he saw in the Vietnamese living around him in Hanoi, that the US would not win. He notices parallels which others can’t, in part because of his age. When he came to visit me in Afghanistan four years ago, generals were saying that we would win ‘as we had in the Malayan Emergency.’ But my father had been in Malaya, as an official, for twelve years throughout the emergency. ‘We’re not going to be able to win,’ he said, ‘because we don’t have any control over the Afghan government.’

But what I learn most is not about international affairs. It is about an approach to life: a sort of energy, which makes him reinvent himself daily even at 88. In the fierce heat and dust of the Imperial city he scrabbles around with his walking-stick to uncover a shard of porcelain. He no sooner arrives at a hotel but he is out again, on the streets, with a map, searching for a lost building. He tears through books, marking stories, noting new thoughts. Every evening he has a new story or connection to make between what we have seen and done.

Last night, we went for a swim. I don’t remember learning to walk but I remember him teaching me how to swim. I remember as a four year old admiring the freckles on his shoulders and the scar from a shrapnel wound in his thigh. They’re still there, as are his deep breaths and slow underwater breast-stroke and the way he emerges like a walrus from the water. ‘It is wonderful,’ he said, ‘to be in water. I feel old on land. I have to walk slowly, think about my balance. But here I am weightless. I can swim as fast as I always could, travel underwater as far.’ He stayed in the water ’til it was dark and I was cold. I watched from the side while he attempted, again, to swim the whole length without breathing. ‘No good,’ he concluded on the sixth attempt, ‘no good, but perhaps not bad for 88.’

House of Commons tribute Mclean

Rory’s tribute to his predecessor David Maclean, and speech on Academies Bill

Transcript

A man may not make a maiden speech twice. Due to a misunderstanding in Westminster Hall, I appear to have lost my maidenhood, so I apologise to the House. I would like to speak about amendment 71, but very briefly, with your permission, Mr Caton, I would like first to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Maclean of Penrith and The Border, and then bring my remarks back to this important amendment.

In Westminster Hall, I was unable to recognise the extraordinary service that David Maclean paid to this House over 27 years. I thought that I was stepping into big shoes, but I had no idea how large. I remember climbing up a snowdrift in December last year feeling like Scott of the Antarctic reaching an isolated farmstead to find that David Maclean, like Amundsen, had already been there before me, and repeatedly. As I have moved around over the past few weeks, I have seen the incredible care that he paid to his constituents. Every time I pick up a sheaf of documents, I can see that he has written no fewer than 11 letters of astonishing energy and specificity. During the debate over the past two days, I have often heard the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) ask people to answer the question. On the basis of the letters that I have seen, Mr Maclean answered the question repeatedly, and with vigour and honour. When asked, for example, about windmills, he did not simply say, like an ex-civil servant such as myself, “On the one hand, but then on the other,” but instead attacked the technology and the proposal and ensured that people organised as a social committee to oppose it.

Let me conclude on the subject of my predecessor by saying that his greatest moment was during the foot and mouth crisis, when, with his staff, which he and I would call a cromach, in his hand, he moved across our landscape, denuded of livestock, with funeral pyres burning on the border, and defended his constituency-the ancient constituency of the Western March, that ancient mediaeval frontier-like a warden of the Western March.

In relation to amendment 71, I have been charmed by the reasonableness of the hon. Member for Gedling. I entirely agree with him about the importance of special educational needs provision; I have personal reasons to do so. I agree also about some of the dangers that he has mentioned, such as the potential confusion between funding arrangements and the responsibilities defined within the Bill. He and the bodies that he cited are absolutely right to be concerned about special educational needs provision. I am no expert on the subject, so these comments are meant respectfully to him.

As I say, I am not an expert on education, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me, as the hon. Gentleman has already accepted, that many of the things for which he is pressing have already happened under clause 1(8)(a). Some of this-again, I am not a lawyer-seems declaratory in nature rather than necessary. The focus on recognition of the condition and the right of appeal is central, but with respect I would say that there is some confusion about the amendment, and that it would not achieve the purposes that he wishes. He has talked at immense length about his concerns over funding, quality, and the definition of low incidence special educational needs. Amendment 71, to my non-lawyerly eye, would not achieve any of those objectives.

In fact, if one listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, one heard him focus repeatedly on the word “mechanism”. He is very interested in process, and on that we have a philosophical disagreement. Instead of beginning from where we are and what academies are actually doing, and accepting that the Bill will improve rather than decrease the performance of academies in relation to special educational needs, he is obsessed with central processes. He seems to believe that local authorities are the ideal mechanism.

Reading the amendment carefully shows that it is not really as the hon. Gentleman implies. It is an attempt to do things that have nothing to do with the law. A lot of what he talked about from the Dispatch Box would be absolutely right for him to consider if he were the Minister, such as the importance of considering funding arrangements and ensuring that definitions are in place, but a lot of the detail of the amendment is about administration, not about the law. The purpose of the law is to define the objective, which, broadly speaking, is to delegate.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not like the word “delegation” and is not comfortable with it. He is not, as he suggests, simply asserting the importance of special educational needs, nor even the necessity for a process or a mechanism. He is setting out a specific process and mechanism, namely local authorities. His amendment repeatedly requires the Secretary of State to assess all the current local authority provision and the support that it provides, and to focus in that assessment on any funding requirements attached to that.

That is a classic example of what was wrong with the previous approach. Instead of focusing on a special educational needs outcome with which we all agree, the hon. Gentleman is attempting to micro-manage the process with a preference for the local authority.

With respect and much gratitude, I thank the Committee.

NFU FRINGE EVENT - CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE NATIONAL FARMERS UNION

the young farmers of cumbria

I first met the Cumbrian Young Farmers on a charity bike ride, last Spring. Steve Pattinson of Kinkry Hill and I were moving between pubs on a hot afternoon and I was puffing up the hill on a tiny bike without gears. We came round the corner to the Black Lion at Hethersgill and found two hundred people, waving banners and toasting each other in the street. I had been told as a new MP to avoid compromising pictures. I wasn’t sure whether that included being photographed being kissed by three girls in furry cow costumes. It was a great introduction to the crowd and I have seen many of the people who were on that bike ride again at farms from Bewcastle to the Howgills, at the Northern Field day, at the Cumberland, Skelton and Penrith shows, at the marts, and in the street. And I have promised to do the entire cycle-ride in 2011, although not with a pint in every pub.

I am setting up a Young Farmers’ advisory committee. We will meet regularly to talk about the future of farming in Cumbria. Our focus will be on Cumbria’s unique needs. I am a real admirer of the NFU and would like to see it fight even harder in government but it is forced to represent farmers right across the country. And clearly a fenland Barley Baron has very different interests, views on subsidies and policy than a hill-farmer in Bewcastle. Even within Penrith and the Border there are vast differences between dairy on the Solway plain and commons above Dufton. I am hoping that the Young Farmers’ group will help me to understand more and more about those different needs, so that I can fight our corner in government. Farmers know more, care more and understand more about land management than any quango or civil servant. Government has to learn how to learn from farmers and benefit from their depth of experience, their passion and their commonsense. They have to learn to listen.

We can all see things which need to be done immediately: making sure the milk ombudsman has real power; and challenging daft new regulations like the EID tagging for sheep. And we can see things, which government can do to improve rural services from roads to broadband.   But the most important fight, I believe, is going to be the CAP renewal in Brussels in the next two years. We must make sure that Cumbrian voices are properly represented in that process. So I will be working to persuade every DEFRA minister to visit Cumbria, will be going to Brussels myself and will be talking continually to groups like the Young Farmers’ advisory group to make sure I am carrying the right message.

Being an MP is a great honour. And on a bike ride, very enjoyable. But I will, of course, only be any good at the job if I listen and learn from the right people. I am immensely grateful for all the time that Cumbrian farmers have put into teaching me. I intend to work very hard to make sure their advice becomes policy.

 

Richard Holbrock

Tribute to Richard Holbrooke, Huffington Post, 20th December 2010

Last January, Richard Holbrooke called my cell phone at midnight, although we were both in DC. He had been Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan for a week and he wanted to quiz me on Afghanistan. After each reply he paused and then — just as I suspected he was texting someone else — growled “okay so what do we do?” “How can you prove that?” “What do we do about Pakistan? Iran? Russia? Karzai?” An hour later, he said “You’ve lost your argument against the 17,000 troop increase. But Petraeus is asking for another 40,000 in September and if you think that’s wrong you should say so.” He encouraged me to model myself on a general who had spoken against Vietnam in the Pentagon. He concluded, “I am sitting you next to Secretary Clinton at dinner. Say exactly what you think. If you don’t, I never — ever — want to hear you criticize the policy again.” And then he hung up, I guessed to call someone else.

I was left, standing half-to-attention in my boxer shorts at the end of the bed unsure what had just happened but prepared to do almost anything he asked. The energy of this man, thirty years older than me, at one in the morning shook me. But it was not his alertness, nor the charm of his sustained attention, nor his flattering comparisons, which captivated me. Nor was it even his revelations (I had thought that a decision on 17,000 troops was a month away and had no idea a further 40,000 was remotely likely). I was suspicious of his encouragement. But I was conquered by his contradictions. He was listening intently to someone with whom he disagreed and giving a platform to someone who argued against his own position. He wanted to transform the Pakistan, the Afghan and the US government — while I argued that it was impossible. He felt Afghanistan was vitally important and that we had a moral obligation to continue: I, that we had no moral obligation to do what we couldn’t do. But he poured his energy into me and gave me, I felt, a charter to fight against the Afghan policy.

Leaders are often detached from policy. They are hesitant to invest as much, emotionally or intellectually, particularly in this costly bewildering war, as it demands. Perhaps because they feel stuck with it, they have little desire to examine its foundations. They prefer writing objectives to rubbing their faces in the intractable stuff of Afghanistan.

Europeans and Afghans imply it is someone else’s responsibility. American politicians can bend to military advice; generals can radiate optimism and blame politics. But Holbrooke seemed to want to both expose the truth and take full responsibility for the policy. He wasn’t interested in tinsel triumphs. He had a real historical imagination, displayed in his surprisingly modest and scrupulous account of his role in the Balkans. I had heard him assess the weaknesses of early twentieth century Arabists with the insight, the fondness and sparks of envy that one might apply to a childhood friend. And he was aware of history’s questions — the kind of questions he posed of Vietnam — How important was it really? Did it make sense? Could it be done? And believing that it did and it could, he wanted to give space to those that disagreed.

I was unsettled by him, as much as charmed. And yet, when I try to understand what it might mean for a man to have a “destiny”, it’s Holbrooke, I think of: taking responsibility for a position and the truth of that position. And I think of his final line to a young foreigner, with whom he disagreed, “Say exactly what you think. If you don’t, I never — ever — want to hear you criticize the policy again.

Rorynatgeo

The Irresistible Illusion, London Review of Books, July 2009

We are accustomed to seeing Afghans through bars, or smeared windows, or the sight of a rifle: turbaned men carrying rockets, praying in unison, or lying in pools of blood; boys squabbling in an empty swimming-pool; women in burn wards, or begging in burqas. Kabul is a South Asian city of millions. Bollywood music blares out in its crowded spice markets and flower gardens, but it seems that images conveying colour and humour are reserved for Rajasthan.

Barack Obama, in a recent speech, set out our fears:

The Afghan government is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people. The economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency . . . If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can . . . For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralysed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people – especially women and girls. The return in force of al-Qaida terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.

When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.

It conjures nightmares of ‘failed states’ and ‘global extremism’, offers the remedies of ‘state-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’, and promises a final dream of ‘legitimate, accountable governance’. The path is broad enough to include Scandinavian humanitarians and American special forces; general enough to be applied to Botswana as easily as to Afghanistan; sinuous and sophisticated enough to draw in policymakers; suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail; and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted. It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable. It does this so well that a more moderate, minimalist approach becomes almost impossible to articulate. Afghanistan, however, is the graveyard of predictions. None of the experts in 1988 predicted that the Russian-backed President Najibullah would survive for two and a half years after the Soviet withdrawal. And no one predicted at the beginning of 1994 that the famous commanders of the jihad, Hekmatyar and Masud, then fighting a civil war in the centre of Kabul, could be swept aside by an unknown group of madrassah students called the Taliban. Or that the Taliban would, in a few months, conquer 90 per cent of the country, eliminate much corruption, restore security on the roads and host al-Qaida.

It is tempting to assume that economic growth will not make Afghanistan into Obama’s terrorist haven or Brown’s strong democracy but rather into something more like its wealthier neighbours. Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan were at various points under the same Muslim empires. There are Persian, Turkmen, Uzbek and Tajik populations in Afghanistan, and the Afghan Pushtun are only arbitrarily divided by the Durand Line from their Pakistani kinsmen. The economies are linked and millions of Afghans have studied and worked in Iran or Pakistan. There are more reasons for Afghanistan to develop into a country like one of its neighbours than for it to collapse into Somalian civil war or solidify into Malaysian democracy. But Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan present a bewildering variety of states: an Islamist theocracy, a surreal mock-tribal autocracy, a repressive secular dictatorship, a country trembling on the edge of civil war, a military dictatorship cum democracy. And it will be many years before Afghanistan’s economy or its institutions draw level with those of its neighbours.

Pakistan, which is often portrayed as a ‘failed state’, has not only the nuclear bomb and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence but also the Friday Times and the National College of Arts. Progressive views are no longer confined to the wealthy Lahore elite: a mass commercial satellite television station championed a campaign to overturn the hududordinances, which conflated adultery and rape; 1500 women were released from jail as a result. There is no equivalent in Afghanistan of the Pakistani lawyers’ movement, which reinstated the chief justice after his dismissal by Musharraf.

Every Afghan ruler in the 20th century was assassinated, lynched or deposed. The Communist government tried to tear down the old structures of mullah and khan; the anti-Soviet jihad set up new ones, bolstered with US and Saudi cash and weapons supplied from Pakistan. There is almost no economic activity in the country, aside from international aid and the production of illegal narcotics. The Afghan army cannot, like Pakistan’s, reject America’s attempt to define national security priorities; Afghan diplomats cannot mock our pronouncements. Karzai is widely criticised, but more than seven years after the invasion there is still no plausible alternative candidate; there aren’t even recognisable political parties.

Obama’s new policy has a very narrow focus – counter-terrorism – and a very broad definition of how to achieve it: no less than the fixing of the Afghan state. He presents this in a formal syllogism. The final goal in the region is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

A necessary condition of the defeat of al-Qaida is the defeat of the Taliban because if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban . . . that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.

Such efforts are hampered by the nature of the Afghan economy and government. We must implement a counter-insurgency strategy, which includes the deployment of 17,000 troops [to] take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east but also adopt a more ‘comprehensive approach’, aiming to promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government . . . advance security, opportunity and justice . . . develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.

Finally, Afghanistan cannot be addressed without addressing Pakistan:

To defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognise the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Or, in the pithier statement made by Obama last October:

In order to catch Osama bin Laden we have to win in Afghanistan and stabilise Pakistan.

Obama, then, combines a negative account of Afghanistan’s past and present – he describes the border region as ‘the most dangerous place in the world’ – with an optimism that it can be transformed. He assumes that we have a moral justification and obligation to intervene, that the US and its allies have the capacity to address the threat and that our global humanitarian and security objectives are consistent and mutually reinforcing.

Afghanistan was ‘the right war’. In Iraq, one could criticise the breaking of international law, the lies about weapons of mass destruction, the apparent corruption of contractors, the anarchy in Baghdad and the torture at Abu Ghraib. But the intervention in Afghanistan was a response to 9/11, sanctioned by international law and a broad coalition; the objectives were those of self-defence and altruism. Al-Qaida has killed and continues to try to kill innocent citizens, and it is right to prevent them. It is also right to defeat the Taliban, to bring development and an effective legitimate state to Afghanistan, and to stabilise Pakistan. The elected Afghan government and the majority of the Afghan people support our presence. And the international community has the capacity to transform the situation.

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state. Even if the invasion was justified, that does not justify all our subsequent actions. If 9/11 had been planned in training camps in Iraq, we might have felt the war in Iraq was more justified, but our actions would have been no less of a disaster for Iraqis or for ourselves. The power of the US and its allies, and our commitment, knowledge and will, are limited. It is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban. The ingredients of successful counter-insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya – control of the borders, large numbers of troops in relation to the population, strong support from the majority ethnic groups, a long-term commitment and a credible local government – are lacking in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus will find it difficult to repeat the apparent success of the surge in Iraq. There are no mass political parties in Afghanistan and the Kabul government lacks the base, strength or legitimacy of the Baghdad government. Afghan tribal groups lack the coherence of the Iraqi Sunni tribes and their relation to state structures: they are not being driven out of neighbourhood after neighbourhood and they do not have the same relation to the Taliban that the Sunni groups had to ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’. Afghans are weary of the war but the Afghan chiefs are not approaching us, seeking a deal. Since the political players and state structures in Afghanistan are much more fragile than those in Iraq, they are less likely to play a strong role in ending the insurgency.

Meanwhile, the Taliban can exploit the ideology of religious resistance that the West deliberately fostered in the 1980s to defeat the Russians. They can portray the Kabul government as US slaves, Nato as an infidel occupying force and their own insurgency as a jihad. Their complaints about corruption, human rights abuses and aerial bombardments appeal to a large audience. They are attracting Afghans to their rural courts by giving quicker and more predictable rulings than government judges.

Like some Afghan government officials, the Taliban have developed an ambiguous and sometimes profitable relationship with the drug lords. They are able to slip back and forth across the Pakistani border and receive support there. They have massacred Alokozai elders who tried to resist them. They are mounting successful attacks against the coalition and the Afghan government in the south and east. They are operating in more districts than in 2006 and control provinces, such as Wardak, which are close to Kabul. They have a chance of retaking southern district towns such as Musa Qala and perhaps even some provincial capitals.

But the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole. Their previous administration provided basic road security and justice but it was fragile and fell quickly. They are no longer perceived, as they were by some in 1994, as young student angels saving the country from corruption. Millions of Afghans disliked their brutality, incompetence and primitive attitudes. The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas. The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

Furthermore, there are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building. You could create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign (India, which is far more stable and legitimate than Afghanistan, is still fighting several long counter-insurgency campaigns from Assam to Kashmir). You could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a stable state (if such a state also required the rule of law and a legitimate domestic economy). Nor is there any necessary connection between state-formation and terrorism. Our confusions are well illustrated by the debates about whether Iraq was a rogue state harbouring terrorists (as Bush claimed) or an authoritarian state which excluded terrorists (as was in fact the case).

It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives? Afghanistan is starting from a very low base: 30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.

Yet the current state-building project, at the heart of our policy, is justified in the most instrumental terms – not as an end in itself but as a means towards counter-terrorism. Obama is clear about this:

I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.

In pursuit of this objective, Obama has so far committed to building ‘an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000’, and adds that ‘increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed.’ US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain’s). Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget.

Some policymakers have been quick to point out that this cost is unsustainable and will leave Afghanistan dependent for ever on the largesse of the international community. Some have even raised the spectre (suggested by the example of Pakistan) that this will lead to a military coup. But the more basic question is about our political principles. We should not encourage the creation of an authoritarian military state. The security that resulted might suit our short-term security interests, but it will not serve the longer interests of Afghans. What kind of anti-terrorist tactics would we expect from the Afghan military? What kind of surveillance, interference and control from the police? We should not assume that the only way to achieve security in a developing country is through the restriction of civil liberties, or that authoritarianism is a necessary phase in state-formation, or a precondition for rapid economic development, or a lesser evil in the fight against modern terrorism.

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

Such arguments seem strained, unrealistic, counter-intuitive and unappealing. They appear to betray the hopes of Afghans who trusted us and to allow the Taliban to abuse district towns. No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t’; soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible. And to suggest that what worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan (or that what worked in postwar West Germany or 1950s Souh Korea won’t work in Afghanistan) requires a detailed knowledge of each country’s past, a bold analysis of the causes of development and a rigorous exposition of the differences, for which few have patience.

Sober, intelligent ambassadors who were sceptical about Iraq presided over the troop surge in Afghanistan. Aid agencies, human rights activists and foreign correspondents have not opposed it. Politicians – Republican and Democrat, Conservative and Labour – have voted for it; the United Nations, Nato and Washington think-tanks support it. And finally, many Afghans encourage it, enthusiastically.

The fundamental assumptions remain that an ungoverned or hostile Afghanistan is a threat to global security; that the West has the ability to address the threat and bring prosperity and security; that this is justified and a moral obligation; that economic development and order in Afghanistan will contribute to global stability; that these different objectives reinforce each other; and that there is no real alternative. One indication of the enduring strength of such assumptions is that they are exactly those made in 1868 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a celebrated and experienced member of the council of India, concerning the threat of a Russian presence in Afghanistan:

In the interests, then, of peace; in the interests of commerce; in the interests of moral and material improvement, it may be asserted that interference in Afghanistan has now become a duty, and that any moderate outlay or responsibility we may incur in restoring order at Kabul will prove in the sequel to be true economy.

The new UK strategy for Afghanistan is described as:

International . . . regional . . . joint civilian-military . . . co-ordinated . . . long-term . . . focused on developing capacity . . . an approach that combines respect for sovereignty and local values with respect for international standards of democracy, legitimate and accountable government, and human rights; a hard-headed approach: setting clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success.

This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? (Similarly, we do not notice the tautology in claiming to ‘overcome corruption through transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes’.)

In part, it is because the language is comfortingly opaque. We can expose Rawlinson’s blunt calculus of national interest by questioning the costs, the potential gains or the likelihood of success. But a bewildering range of different logical connections and identities can be concealed in a specialised language derived from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy. What is concealed is our underlying assumption that when we want to make other societies resemble our (often fantastical) ideas of our own society, we can. The language of modern policy does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse.

We claim to be engaged in a neutral, technocratic, universal project of ‘state-building’ but we don’t know exactly what that means. Those who see Afghanistan as reverting to the Taliban or becoming a traditional autocratic state are referring to situations that existed there in 1972 and 1994. But the international community’s ambition appears to be to create something that has not existed before. Obama calls it ‘a more capable and accountable Afghan government’. The US White Paper calls it ‘effective local governance’ and speaks of ‘legitimacy’. The US, the UK and their allies agreed unanimously at the Nato 60th anniversary summit in April to create ‘a stronger democratic state’ in Afghanistan. In the new UK strategy for Afghanistan, certain combinations of adjective and noun appear again and again in the 32 pages: separated by a few pages, you will find ‘legitimate, accountable state’, ‘legitimate and accountable government’, ‘effective and accountable state’ and ‘effective and accountable governance’. Gordon Brown says that ‘just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they need to build legitimate governance.’

What is this thing ‘governance’, which Afghans (or we) need to build, and which can also be transparent, stable, regulated, competent, representative, coercive? A fact of nationhood, a moral good, a cure for corruption, a process? At times, ‘state’ and ‘government’ and ‘governance’ seem to be different words for the same thing. Sometimes ‘governance’ seems to be part of a duo, ‘governance and the rule of law’; sometimes part of a triad, ‘security, economic development and governance’, to be addressed through a comprehensive approach to ‘the 3 ds’, ‘defence, development and diplomacy’ – which implies ‘governance’ is something to do with a foreign service.

By contrast, in 1868, Rawlinson’s views were defeated. Sir John Lawrence, the new viceroy, persuaded Lord Derby’s government that Afghanistan was less important than it appeared, that our resources were limited, and that we had other more pressing priorities. Here, in a civil service minute of 1867 (I found this in Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows), he imagines what would happen if the Russians tried to invade:

In that case let them undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where, in many places, every mile can be converted into a defensible position; then they will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend, toil-worn, with an exhausted infantry, a broken-down cavalry, and a defective artillery.

He concludes:

I am firmly of opinion that our proper course is not to advance our troops beyond our present border, not to send English officers into the different states of Central Asia; but to put our own house in order, by giving the people of India the best government in our power, by conciliating, as far as practicable, all classes, and by consolidating our resources.

Lawrence does not predict what the Russians might want to do in Afghanistan. Nor does he attempt to refute Rawlinson’s vision of stability, his economic theories, his moral justification or his idea of moral responsibility. A modern civil servant might express such an argument as follows:

the presence of Nato special forces, the challenging logistical and political conditions in Afghanistan and lack of technological capacity, are likely to impede al-Qaida in Afghanistan from posing a significant threat to UK or US national security. Instead development in South Asia should remain the key strategic priority for the UK government in the region.

Lawrence, as viceroy of India, might have been expected to have a more confident or arrogant view of British power than policy-makers today. But in fact he believed that the British government lacked power, lacked knowledge (even though he and his colleagues had spent decades working on the Afghan frontier) and lacked legitimacy (he writes that Afghans ‘do not want us; they dread our appearance in the country . . . will not tolerate foreign rule’).

But he undermines the fantasy of an Afghan threat as much through the rhythm of his prose as through his arguments. His synecdoche, ‘the Oxus and the Indus’, emphasises to a domestic policymaker the unknown and alien nature of the landscape; the archaism ‘wend’ illustrates the circuitous routes; his repetitions enact the repetitive and tiresome journey. He highlights the political and religious energies of the resistance (placing them ‘every mile’) and suggests internal divisions without asserting them (by describing Afghanistan not as a single state but as ‘countries’). His concessive subjunctive ‘let them’ reflects his attitude of uncertainty about the future. It is not an assessment of the likelihood of a Russian march but an enactment of its potential and it reduces the army by the end of the sentence to a decrepit band on the edge of the Indus, which it would be difficult to perceive as a threat.

The rickety and elaborate hubris of the Russian march – stretching through sub-clauses and rhetorical tricks, and weighed down with 11 emotive adjectives – contrasts with the British response in solid words, bolstered by a homely proverb and buttressed with strong caution. He does not draw analogies with other countries in other historical periods. The argument is contingent, cautious, empirical and local, rooted in a very specific landscape and time. It expresses a belief not only in the limits of Russian and Afghan threats but also in the limits of British power and capacity.

eden_rivers_trust

river eden trust ‘source to sea’ charity walk

On 1st September Simon Johnson, Director of Eden Rivers Trust, and I will commence a fund-raising walk along the entire length of the River Eden. The 80+ mile walk, lasting four days will raise funds for Eden Rivers Trust’s conservation and education projects. A dawn start sees in day one on the 1st September at Mallerstang, the source of the Eden and over the ensuing four days friends, family and supporters are expected to join the intrepid pair as they make their way towards the Eden’s finish at the Solway Firth.

The walk will be roughly split into four sections (to be confirmed) and will be conducted on a mixture of footpaths, bridleways, quiet lanes and private land, where permission has been granted:

Day 1 – Mallerstang – Appleby
Day 2 – Appleby – Penrith
Day 3 – Penrith – Wetheral
Day 4 – Wetheral – Solway Firth

During the walk Simon will be introducing me first-hand to some of the key issues that affect the wildlife and ecology of the river. The itinerary will take in some ‘hands-on’ ERT conservation tasks, including a survey to hunt for the internationally rare White Clawed Crayfish and a to get ‘down and dirty’ at a local community river clean-up event! The walk will also focus on meeting members of the community who rely on a healthy river environment to support recreational and economic purposes.

We are aiming to raise as much money as possible to support ERT’s environmental education initiative ‘Rivers in the Classroom’ which to date has worked with nearly 5000 school children along the river valley.

Simon Johnson, Director of ERT, said: “I am really excited to be undertaking this fundraising walk with Rory. The walk not only offers a special opportunity to see a river in its entirety but also for Rory to learn first-hand about some of the major issues affecting the wildlife, ecology and people of this truly iconic river.”

I have been looking forward to this walk for months. It will come at the end of a Summer that, for me, has been made memorable by the people of Penrith and the Border and the landscape they inhabit; these are the two constants that make this constituency so special. It seems fitting to end my first Summer as an MP walking the length of this extraordinary river; 80 miles long, with 184 different species of plants and flowing through the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales National Parks, the North Pennines, the Solway Coast AONB, and the World Heritage Site of Hadrian’s Wall. This is arguably the jewel in our crown, and it will be a great privilege to meet the people along the way who – as I am – are proud to speak of the Eden Valley as their home. With Simon’s help I hope to raise awareness of its importance, and funds to contribute to its longer-term survival, and look forward to welcoming anyone who would like to join us on the walk.

Please click here to DONATE!

Community Action

the big society and local democracy

The Prime Minister has now said repeatedly that Big Society is his passion and that he wants it to be his most lasting positive legacy. Where a Prime-minster leads, an industry emerges: think-tanks ponder it; civil servants wish to legislate on it, columnists debate it, new Ministers are created to propagate it.  But what is ‘Big Society’? Local government thinks it means more local government; businessmen: privatisation; charities: money for Charities and individualists hope it means less interference. While for cynics, ‘Big Society’ is a mask for something negative: just as a Ministry of Information is in reality a Ministry of Disinformation; so for opponents, Big Society simply means Small Government.

All these people tend to assume that ‘Big Society’ will be a program: with a funding stream, universal rules, a hierarchy of officials and standard procedures: like a road-building program; or a new school with its buildings, budgets, management structure, a national curriculum, exams, targets and inspections. All expect ‘Big Society’ to be investing in one of the four old categories: the state, private sector, charities or the individual. But all these views are mistaken. ‘Big Society’ will generally have no budget, no universal and predictable procedures. Instead it will be flexible, adjusted to a particular place or people. Big Society’s concern is not with government, business, ‘the third sector’ or individuals but with something quite different called ‘society’.  All the others may contribute greatly to society but they are not themselves society.

Let me give you an example. My Cumbrian constituency is so sparsely populated that government could not afford to deliver broadband to everyone in the next five years and businesses or charities or individuals wouldn’t either (laying the fibre-optic cabling alone could cost 40 million pounds). But in a Big Society model the government could build a high-speed cabinet in each parish (which would just about be affordable) and encourage the community to take it from there.  Each parish could then choose its own system, choose between a cheaper wireless system or a more expensive fibre system, ask local farmers to dig the fibre-optic trenches themselves (which would cost a fifth of BT doing it) and run their own network (or get a contractor to do so for them).

Government could play an important role by opening access to primary schools cables, helping communities to fire radio signals from mobile telephone masts; asking favours from railway companies to access their fibre and making soft loans (allowing a householder to repay a thousand pounds investment in broadband over twenty years not one).  But government would then be contributing a public asset rather than cash; political support rather than instruction; a loan not a grant and it would be abolishing laws rather than making new ones. And the end result is not a ‘cut’ but instead a community getting something which the government would never have delivered: an opportunity for Cumbrians to consult a medical specialist in Kent or learn about new approaches to grass management from an expert from Wales down a live video-link without leaving home.

Which bring us to parishes and local councils. Everything – from organising communities to building affordable housing or generating renewable energy (which is our ‘Big  Society project in Crosby Ravensworth) or taking over a community center (which is our project in Kirkby Stephen) or rolling out broadband across the fells of Cumbria – needs a democratic body. If a community draws up its own planning regulations, giving it the final say on what can be built and where, that plan must be approved democratically and this should require a parish or group of parishes.

Big Society is an attitude of mind not a program: it believes that local groups – in our case parish and town councils – can be canny, competent and creative. It believes that local decisions are more informed, popular, practical and sustainable than government traditionally imagines. It believes that communities should be given the freedom to take risk, take responsibility and when necessary challenge regulations and government restrictions. But the responsibility is mutual: if parishes are given more power, they should also learn to take the larger public view and consider the consequences of their decisions beyond the parish line. Big Society is local democracy in the broadest and most generous sense.

Rory in Kabul museum

the beginning of recess

I am writing this on the 0719. Coach A is empty. We haven’t yet reached Shap. The ash leaves are dark and there is rain over Knipe Crag, but the near grass is an electric green and the hidden sun brings out every wrinkle and glow in the limestone walls. I had thought that in describing last week, I would focus on the Penrith show, the 1963 Nuffield 342 tractor in the vintage section, and the points of the Bland’s champion, VJ; but the end of my first session in Parliament was defined by using the wrong words to a Scottish tabloid journalist. I remain very sorry for any offence these caused. I am determined to continue working as hard as I can to push the issues of rural poverty, broadband and local democracy. These last three months – my first in Parliament – have been unlike anything I have ever done and by far the best part of it has been the work in Cumbria. It is also where I hope I can be most useful.

Since Parliament is now in recess, I was able to be in Cumbria in the middle of this week: Wednesday, between Carlisle and Bewcastle; Tuesday, between a surgery in Penrith and Appleby with groups from Crosby Ravensworth and Kirkby Stephen. I am beginning to realise how much my worldview is set by the Boundaries Commission. Bewcastle and Kirkby Stephen feel very close because they are both inside the constituency, but I feel as though I am crossing an international frontier when I go to Carlisle, or when this train comes down into Oxenholme. New rules mean that Penrith and the Border could lose 10,000 of its current voters and gain 20,000 elsewhere before the next election (we could lose parts of rural Carlisle, for example, and gain ports in West Cumbria, or even take in part of Northumberland). This would separate me from areas that I have been very privileged to get to know, and would endanger our ability to speak with one voice for a rural area with its own distinct identity.

If I am slowly beginning to understand something about places like Bewcastle it is entirely because of the patience of people like Steve Pattinson. Every time I see Steve – at Longtown mart, or looking at his British Blues on his farm, or wobbling on my bicycle alongside him this Spring in a Young Farmers’ charity day – I feel that he is teaching me something new. We sat this Wednesday, with five farmers in their thirties, round an Ordnance Survey map on the kitchen table to discuss the five miles on each side of Roadhead. There were common Cumbrian themes: no police nearby and no bus services, schools far away, mobile coverage and broadband is poor and an ambulance which can take a long time from Carlisle (in Winter only one road is gritted and outsiders struggle to find farms , which is why the Air Ambulance is vital). As in every part of Cumbria, farmers were working long hours for low wages; regulations – from electronic tagging onwards – were ludicrous; DEFRA seemed to focus more on catching farmers out than supporting them; and the subsidies created perverse incentives to get rid of stock and let fields grow wild.

But Bewcastle also has its own unique challenges. Farms are as small as a hundred acres. Whereas almost everyone once produced milk, only three farms still do and the herds (80 head) are small. It was not initially given the same special subsidy status as the Lakes. Rainfall is nearly 60 inches a year, the soil is not good for crops and everyone has to pay to winter their livestock on low ground like Cockermouth. There has been a lot of talk about diversification, but the transport costs are too high and there is no tourism. One farmer joked, ‘people forget that there is anything between the Roman Wall and the Scottish border: we seem to remain the debatable lands.’ Archaeology shows that there were settled farms in Bewcastle before the Romans. But we are now facing an extraordinary combination of problems, which makes it increasingly unlikely that the next generation will go into farming at all – endangering the culture and landscape, which has been the heart of the border for more than 2,000 years.

On Sunday afternoon I walked up from Bampton and down to Rampsgill in Martindale. Mrs. Cookson invited me in for toast and tea: her husband was gathering the sheep with Mr. Robinson on the fell. Evensong was at 5.30 in St.Martin’s. There was no electricity in the chapel and I was called in to read the lesson in the half-light. It was Isaiah 50:6. Then I climbed straight back up behind the yew, which was older than the eight hundred year old chapel. Looking back from High Street, before running home, I could see the lake and the whole sharp ridge line running from Helvellyn to Blencathra. It was a very different universe to Bewcastle: the deer, the geology, the silhouette of the mountain, the families, the history, even the dialect. But it felt that evening part of a single Cumbrian culture and a single constituency, and I wouldn’t want to lose touch with an acre of it.

Rory's Street Surgeries

westminster’s crazy, but I’d rather be eating cake in cumbria

The oddest thing about coming to parliament for the first time is that you come straight from a campaign which has next to nothing to do with parliament. In my case, I had spent the previous months almost entirely in Cumbria: walking through villages and visiting cattle auctions and schools, dairy farms and affordable housing projects.

Four days after riding around in the back of a trailer with a megaphone, I found myself in parliament. This may explain why it felt like a slightly disconcerting place. You can admire the beauty of the building. You are struck by a sense of history and ritual but still feel as though you shouldn’t really be there. You feel you are intruding on beliefs and meanings that can’t be learnt from a guidebook. It’s rather like visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

In the first few weeks, the new MPs packed the chamber so tight that I could only sit on the steps halfway up the aisle. The chamber had the stale smell of 600 coffee-charged, hot bodies on overfilled cushions. The Serjeants-at-Arms marched along the aisle in knickerbockers, hands on their swords, and the Speaker stood in his throne, calling over the powdered wigs of the clerks.

I would learn to tell the difference between a second reading and a committee stage by whether the gold mace was placed on, or beneath, the table. I would learn to read subclauses and House of Lords amendments, and became confident enough to speak. But I learnt also from my first speech that my narrow focus on Amendment 71 of the Academies Bill was boring (to a senior Liberal Democrat colleague), irritating (to the Labour Minister) and slightly comical (to my Conservative colleagues).

My office was initially improvised in Portcullis House: a long, glass-roofed atrium with flimsy tables, paper cups, Cambodian trees and escalators, which reminded me of Terminal 3 departures and where I always felt, as I dashed around, about to miss my plane. I took refuge from this by spending more time with Cumbrian colleagues.

In my second week, I walked from the chamber where a man in a tailcoat said: “How are you Mr Stewart?” and politely opened the door, straight into a stranger in the street who shouted: “All politicians are thieves and liars”. In my fourth week, a friendly journalist spent a morning with me and I woke up on Sunday to six-inch tabloid headlines, accusing me of calling my constituents “primitives”. While I was trying to explain that I hadn’t, the same story was being sent to every newsdesk by the Press Association, so that by Monday I was in seven national newspapers and a dozen blogs, and trying to defend myself on two TV stations and three radio programmes. I had been running along on a sunny afternoon, smiling, smack into a glass wall. I was attacked for my attitude to my constituents, the one group with whom I felt I had developed a meaningful and, I hoped, lasting relationship, and found some purpose since my election.

I feel energised, plotting with constituents, in a way I rarely do in Westminster. Last week, in Kirkby Stephen, I listened to four Cumbrians over coffee and lemon drizzle cake explain the perversities of Government pricing and microwave links. Then, over curry, they sketched out a vision of how communities themselves can transform a world and a landscape. And I felt I could play a role in this.

Let me explain. My constituency consists of 200 villages that stretch from the northern Lake District to the border. One is in a silent valley where at night there is not a light to be seen or a car heard. Another has a factory making tin roofs for the Bahrain Air show. We have more self-employed people than any other constituency in Britain, but there are hidden pockets of poverty: I visited a pensioner last week who had no indoor lavatory. People from Kirkby Stephen have a three-hour round trip to their nearest hospital at Carlisle. And every decade, closures leave them farther from a school, a shop, pub or police station. Our communities will benefit greatly from broadband and suffer without it.

The four people around that table had a plan which could deliver decent access to everyone by 2012 and connect most to super-fast speeds. Cumbrians could then consult a medical specialist in Surrey or take a Russian lesson down a live video-link without leaving home. This is far faster than the Government or a company like BT would be able to do on its own. The community plan is about improvisation: sharing cables with primary schools, firing radio signals from mobile telephone masts, asking favours from railway companies, getting farmers to dig the trenches themselves, and asking each parish to design its own system.

This is where I have found I can do something useful for Cumbrians: persuading the broadband minister to spend three hours with me in a car; organising a conference and luring the Obama broadband team to Penrith; raising money; persuading Virgin Media to run cables in the air and the council to open cables underground; and working with others to map out the coverage, mile by mile, across the fellside.

I took a train from Cumbria to parliament on Monday and rushed into the Division – when the voting bell rings and 300 of my colleagues flood in from three doors into the lobby – which is as confusing and threatening as the Marrakesh bazaar. For eight minutes, as often as seven times in a day, groups form and dissolve in motion, with a crackle of enmities, generosity, disappointments and jokes.

I am writing this at midnight in my parliamentary office. It is hot: a small plastic fan is blowing and my table is piled with papers. This week, parliament stopped sitting. I am going to be walking along the Eden River. But on the way out tonight there will be no one in Central Lobby. The doorkeepers, tourists and MPs have gone home. I plan to pause, feel the cool, tiled floor, look up at the chandelier, read the names on the statues posing in the lobby. No one will be reporting and I won’t have to pretend I know all these things already. And then I will get the night bus and pack again for Cumbria.