Article first published in the New Yorker by Ian Parker on 15 November 2010.
“There’s a part of me that makes me a little bit sick,” Rory Stewart said, sitting in the courtyard of an annex of the House of Commons, in London. It was a bright day in July; Stewart had just been elected to Parliament, in an almost casual way, having already passed through many of the key institutions of the British establishment, including Eton College, the Army, Oxford University, and the Foreign Office. Stewart, who memorized “The Waste Land” when he was fourteen—“because I was a very pretentious fourteen-year-old boy”—is now thirty-seven. He has walked thousands of miles across Asia, largely alone, and written two well-received books; the Times called “The Places in Between,” about the Afghan part of his walk, a “flat-out masterpiece.” He has taught at Harvard about war and intervention and become friends with the Prince of Wales; many people think he’s likely to become Foreign Secretary or even Prime Minister. “If I go to a grand reception where lots of people are being polite to me, I’m sort of exhilarated for a bit, but then sick,” Stewart said. He grimaced, his teeth showing, and held the expression until he looked like a sky diver. He said that he saw himself in the eyes of bridegrooms on their wedding day: “You can see that they’re not quite happy.”
Stewart’s words carried an echo of T. E. Lawrence, an idol of his, who once wrote of himself, “There was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known.” Stewart’s identification with Lawrence is intense, which is “odder than it seems, because it’s almost too obvious,” his close friend Felix Martin, a British economist, says. Stewart is self-conscious about how easily he inspires confidence and how pleasurable esteem can be. One senses his anxiety: if a man is going to be admired, then let it be for a cause. Stewart, whose manner marks him immediately to the British as someone with ruling-class roots, longs to be more than an ordinary overachiever: he wants to be connected to the epic. He encourages the thought that he is unmoored from the modern age. At college, he used to regret being born into the wrong century. This persona, even when leavened with self-mockery, strikes some as insufferable, but it gives him an exceptional air. His name seems nude without a “Sir” in front of it. When he stands still, he seems to be posing for a sculptor.
A senior M.P. told me that Westminster had not seen such an original and exotic arrival in decades, perhaps since that of Winston Churchill. He then added that “Britain no longer has an empire to run” and has little need for “latter-day T. E. Lawrences acting as cavaliers seuls on the world stage.” In the courtyard, Stewart took off his tie and described a book about heroism that he had tried to write in his twenties: “We imagine, in the modern world, that heroes are accidental heroes.” His enunciation is careful, as if giving street directions to a foreigner. “But, historically, many of the people who were heroes in their society set out to be heroes. They emulated other heroes, were obsessed with being a hero, wanted to be godlike. In contemporary society, that disqualifies you. If you’re trying to be a hero, you almost by definition can’t be. But Achilles wants to be a hero. When he gets grumpy, he says to his mother, ‘You told me that if I agreed to die young and far from home I’d be the best among the best, now and in perpetuity!’ ” (Stewart struck the table in emphasis.) “Then Alexander the Great wants to be Achilles, and has ‘The Best Among the Best’ put above his tent. Caesar wants to be Alexander. Napoleon is obsessed with being Caesar. Byron models his carriage on Napoleon’s, and buys locks of his hair. Lawrence of Arabia travels with the Iliad and ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ in his backpack. There’s a narrative there, which people aren’t quite taking seriously.” To remain attached to the stories that fill a boy’s dreams is not peculiar or immature: it’s a way to get things done. Stewart had just written and presented a BBC documentary about Lawrence, filmed, in part, in Syria and Iraq. Squinting into the desert, Stewart—lean, straight-backed, and about five feet nine—was never seen without cufflinks, even on camelback.
Stewart reminded me that Lawrence, after his Arabian adventures, renounced celebrity, joining the Royal Air Force at the lowest rank, under a pseudonym: “He ends up with his ‘man’s work.’ He realized he can’t actually be a knight in shining armor.” Stewart added, “You can’t keep going. Look, Alexander’s dead at thirty-three, Byron’s dead at thirty-five, thirty-six. You can’t keep it up forever.” Although Stewart had just been elected to national office—and had just visited Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence, to join a discussion about the future of Afghanistan—he argued that his general trajectory was away from the pursuit of power. In 2003 and 2004, he had helped govern parts of southern Iraq. Between 2005 and 2008, he ran the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a charity, initiated by Prince Charles, that supports traditional arts in Afghanistan. He then entered academia. “Why would I run an arts school in Kabul?” he said. “It’s not part of the grand narrative. I don’t think Alexander the Great ran an arts school.” He considered for a moment that he had just compared himself to Alexander the Great, and laughed. “If you try to put it down in black and white, the irony vanishes and the monstrous egotism is revealed.”
Fellow-M.P.s passed through the courtyard and stopped to talk. One of them introduced Stewart to a general in the Afghan National Army, and Stewart exchanged greetings in Dari, touching his hand to his chest. A year earlier, Stewart had been newly installed at Harvard, as the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, at the Kennedy School; his views on Afghanistan and nation-building were sought on op-ed pages and in Washington. In March, 2009, he sat next to Hillary Clinton at a State Department dinner. Now he was one of three hundred and six Conservative M.P.s in a new coalition government—Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—and a chief worry that afternoon was the risk of missing a parliamentary vote if he attended a nearby event promoting British produce. The previous weekend, in the voting district that he represents—in Cumbria, in rural northwest England—Stewart had judged a scarecrow competition. He was feeling uncharacteristically unready, concerned about “this crazy accelerated path, where suddenly, without any of the proper preparation, or any of the things that I believe are necessary conditions for being a politician, I’m suddenly now a politician.”
An added complication is that his views about Afghanistan are not the Conservative Party’s views. The Conservatives, like their opponents in the Labour Party, which was in government between 1997 and 2010, have largely supported American policy in Afghanistan. Stewart believes in a long humanitarian commitment to the country but in a greatly reduced military presence: just ten or twenty thousand troops, so that the Taliban “are at least facing a stalemate,” as he recently put it. He summarizes his stance in a dense sentence that seems to be looking for a place as the epigraph in a future biography: “If we can do less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.”
We took the elevator up to his parliamentary office: orange-brown carpet, a wobbly coffee table, a sagging blue sofa beneath a small window. A TV showed proceedings on the floor of the House of Commons. We heard a short speech about taxes on diapers. Stewart watched with an anthropologist’s air. He has faith in his leadership skills—he is decisive, and can carry people with him—and he had been wondering if he could behave more as an executive than as a legislator, a mayor more than an M.P. In Cumbria, he would “manage, pilot, roll things out . . . almost as if I was running an N.G.O.” In this spirit, he had set himself the task of bringing high-speed Internet to his district. That afternoon, he was on the phone with Google, arranging a conference, conscious that it was “a little bizarre” for him, as an M.P., to be negotiating with sponsors and cutting deals. (Stewart’s phone calls end with “Best wishes,” as if concluding a letter.
Stewart, who was once on the left, now describes himself as a Tory. He alludes to Edmund Burke; he talks of restraint and “common sense”; he believes only in modest political interventions, nationally or internationally. But these positions lack adventure and moral leadership. The heroes of Stewart’s youth did a lot of intervening. So Stewart seems to strive for a synthesis. Stewartism (if it comes to that) may describe a kind of splendid anti-idealism: the vigorous and manly pursuit of the not too much. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, reacting to President Barack Obama’s December, 2009, speech at West Point about Afghanistan, Stewart lamented the announcement of troop increases but praised Obama’s recognition of the limits of American obligations and interests in the region as “revolutionary.”
The office’s view was of rooftops, and Stewart identified a brick chimney as belonging to 10 Downing Street. Clambering onto a ledge outside, we could see the top floor of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Stewart is among those who have thought that he may, in time, be in charge of one of these buildings. “Do you think I should be Prime Minister?” he asked a reporter last year. One effect of Stewart’s strange poise is that you seem to be shown both an adolescent rehearsing for the part of seniority and the man of substance that he seems quite likely to become. His present self can seem almost a distraction. Stewart looked out over London—Whitehall, the Ministry of Defense, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office—and said, “Yes. That’s kind of it.”
One morning a few months earlier, in Cumbria, Stewart had been walking from farm to farm, beating on doors with an oddly heavy fist, as if he were in “Macbeth,” summoning a porter. Britain had been overwhelmed by extreme cold, and the roads were hidden by snow. As Stewart walked, he recited Auden and Scottish verse, and occasionally introduced himself to potential voters, at their gates or in their hallways. “I’m Rory Stewart,” he said, handing out a business card, which identified him as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party. “Yes, I can see you are,” one woman replied briskly.
He was living in what had been a vacation rental cottage, and he hadn’t moved the shelf of board games by the fireplace. On the windowsill was a pile of papers about the Afghan war, written by his Kennedy School students. In expectation of the general election that Gordon Brown, then the Prime Minister, was soon to call, he was hiking across every part of his district, accepting beds for the night from acquaintances or strangers. That day, he was keeping close to his cottage, between contrasting landscapes: to the east, the bare granite hills of the Pennines; to the west, the small fields and high hedges of the Eden Valley. He carried a walking stick almost as high as himself, and was dressed in what he described as the same down jacket and boots he wore on his daring, monthlong walk across Afghanistan, in 2002—the subject of “The Places in Between.” As we marched through powdery snow under a clear sky, Stewart said that most of his Asian walk—Iran to Nepal—was done “at about this pace, which isn’t crazily fast. It’s just over three miles an hour. I walked last summer from London to Oxford, which was fifty-seven miles, and there I did about four miles an hour. That’s not sensible. You don’t really enjoy it.”
Stewart had just taken his Harvard job when, in May, 2009, the Daily Telegraphbegan publishing leaked details of reimbursed expenses paid to British M.P.s. Taxpayers learned that they had paid for moat-cleaning services. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, which was then in opposition, repaid the money that he had claimed for trimming wisteria. In a further attempt to calm the electorate, he announced that he was reopening the national list of Conservative candidates eligible to represent the Party in the forthcoming election. Cameron said that he would welcome people previously unattached to the Party.
Stewart had at times considered a parliamentary career. He had discussed with friends an idea that might help prepare him: he would live in a housing project for two or three years, to better understand British poverty. (It frustrates him that he never did this.) But by the time he was interviewed at Harvard he felt that he had missed his chance: asked if he planned to run for office, Stewart said no. He took the job—non-tenured, for five years—and bought a four-bedroom house in Cambridge. He imported his father’s bookshelves from the family home, in Perthshire, Scotland.
The expenses scandal opened a shortcut. Stewart applied, despite the risk of annoying Harvard colleagues (some were annoyed), and despite the muted response of his father, Brian Stewart, who recalled telling him, “You’ve got a wonderful job. You’ve got a platform from which you can write your books, run your seminars, talk to the great and the good. What on earth do you think you’re doing?’’ Stewart replied, “What you don’t understand, Daddy, is I want to do something. Mrs. Clinton, General Petraeus, they listen politely, but it doesn’t change anything.” His friend Felix Martin understood Stewart’s urge to leave academia: “He’s garrulous, he likes people, he likes approbation from the crowd, from other people, and he’s not a narrow professional.” He added, “He’s intellectual but he’s not an academic.”
If Stewart’s desire for office surprised some, so did his choice of party. According to Stewart, General David Petraeus made a joking reference to the affiliation during a recent, off-the-record meeting with M.P.s. Mathias Risse, a professor at the Kennedy School, and a friend of Stewart’s, told me, “In terms of political positions, we always ended up seeing quite eye-to-eye. I always thought he and I both had Harvard, mainstream, liberal views.” While the Conservative Party under Cameron’s leadership had little of the right-wing ferocity of the Margaret Thatcher years—he rebranded the Party as temperate and green—Labour still seemed the more natural fit. Stewart had never voted Conservative, except against his will; in 2001, when he was walking in India, his parents cast his proxy vote for the Conservatives, to his dismay. He had been a member of the Labour Party in his late teens. (A few pounds a year; occasional meetings.) In 1997, he applauded the election victory of Tony Blair. In a TimesOp-Ed three years ago, Stewart objected to the “feel-good, idea-light” policies of the Conservatives, and wrote that “Churchill has been replaced by Bertie Wooster,” which is hard not to read as a criticism of Cameron. When, in 2009, Risse considered Stewart’s choice, he came to think of it as class-based, almost tribal, the Conservatives historically being the party of land and tradition: “Someone with his origins and his family history? Of course he can’t run for the Labour Party.” (Stewart does not see it this way.) Risse did not make the additional point that a Labour victory—after thirteen years in power, and with the unhappy-looking Brown as Party leader—was generally deemed impossible.
The process by which the Conservative Party chooses parliamentary candidates, once described as “trial by snob,” has been centralized in recent years. In the summer of 2009, Stewart passed a preliminary vetting, placing him in a pool of about a thousand potential candidates. He could now put his name forward when any sitting Conservative M.P. announced plans to retire. That fall, in Bracknell, a town forty miles west of London, Stewart made it onto a short list of seven candidates, but he lost in a primary to Phillip Lee, a local doctor, who later told me, amiably, “I had the advantage of not living on the East Coast of America.” Stewart also made the short list in the rural, and firmly Conservative, constituency of Penrith and the Border, which is east of the Lake District and just south of Scotland. Penrith, the largest town, has a population of sixteen thousand. This is “Withnail and I” country: sheep, Land Rovers, rain. The newspapers carry full pages of livestock prices. The sitting M.P.—who once said that the only thing he would give a beggar was “a piece of my mind”—was retiring. Stewart took part in Penrith’s brief, low-budget primary process, which that October culminated in a public meeting, and a vote, in the town’s cattle-auction ring. Stewart, who is Scottish, recalled that one attendee “got it into his mind that I was Afghan. ‘We don’t need an Afghan, we want a Cumbrian here!’ ” Stewart won. Two days later, he taught a class in his Kennedy School course on “War, States, and Intervention.”
Now, in January, three months into his political career, and having set up a Web site featuring a photograph of himself looking forlorn, Stewart was still struck by the oddity of what had happened. He would likely win a parliamentary seat that would then be very hard to lose in future elections, in a place he had barely visited before 2009. “Thirty years of my life will be here,” he said. “This will be the landscape, and the people.” He spoke with the wistful relief of a Lothario settling into commitment. He said that he was glad he had lost Bracknell and, with it, easy access to a metropolitan life of “Notting Hill dinner parties.”
On his walk across Asia, Stewart stayed in hundreds of village homes. Among other things, “The Places in Between” is about life as an unwelcome guest: how to squeeze hospitality out of wary people, and how to set up a relay of good will that will carry you from one village leader to the next. When, in Cumbria, farmers invited Stewart into their kitchens and quieted their dogs, it became clear that the skills of a canvassing politician can be acquired far from politics. There was a lot of name-dropping: “I was talking to the Forresters down the hill . . . ” When someone described the nearby village of Milburn as “too pretty,” because it tempts outsiders to buy second homes there, Stewart carried that thought across a field, across a stream, and into the next farmhouse. When a woman remarked that she no longer knew her neighbors well, Stewart began calling out names, as if helped by a telephone directory: “The Atkinsons. The Warburtons. The Addisons—they’re still around? The Richardsons?” It would be hard to imagine someone bringing a greater level of furrowed concentration to the business of being an affable neighbor.
One farmer told Stewart, “All illegal immigrants should be rounded up and on the first ship out.” Some voters might expect their Conservative candidate at least to nod, but Stewart said, “Hmm,” and changed the subject. After leaving that house, he said quietly, “Actually, I’m rather in favor of immigration.” He compared Cumbrian anxiety about overcrowding to his father’s anger about crime: “He lives in rural Scotland, where there is no crime.” He added, “The Telegraph and the Mail whip up this general rage”—a rash criticism of newspapers that reliably support the Conservatives. Was he sure he was a Tory? Stewart said, “I think I’m pretty sure.”
As the light faded, a deer sprang over a fence. Stewart looked across the valley, and at the blue-pink blur of snow and sky, and said, “If you painted that, people would say you were joking. It’s not possible, what’s happened to the horizon.” Soon after, we seemed to be in a Victorian etching when Stewart, striding down the middle of the track, carrying his tall walking stick, met a man carrying a bundle of hay on his shoulder, and they stopped to talk about horses.
“He’s as nice a person as you can imagine, in terms of human sympathy and feelings,” Brian Stewart recently said of his son. “He’s much nicer than I am.” Leaving aside that Rory is unmarried and childless (he is known as a dazzling, sonnet-wielding wooer of beautiful women but not a great builder of long-term relationships), he can be regarded as an ideal son. And his life is much more entwined with the life of his parents—still “Daddy” and “Mummy”—than is usual for a man of his age and background. When Stewart bought his house in Cambridge, his father built a wooden scale replica to facilitate remodelling. The house had “lots of silly little rooms,” Brian said. “We needed to have a gentleman’s library.”
Brian Stewart is eighty-eight. He lives with Sally Stewart—his second wife, Rory’s mother, who is a retired professor of business studies—in what he describes as “a classic small country mansion,” surrounded by a hundred acres. (Rory’s grandfather, who spent much of his life in colonial India, moved into the house in the late fifties.) During the Second World War, Brian Stewart fought in the Black Watch, the Scottish infantry regiment. After the war, he worked in the Civil Service in colonial Malaya; he later wrote a book titled “Smashing Terrorism in the Malayan Emergency.” In the late fifties, he had various diplomatic postings in Asia, including Burma and China; in the late sixties, he was the British consul-general in Hanoi. Rory was born in 1973, in Hong Kong, not long after his father had finished a four-year stint, in London, as secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which liaises between ministers and intelligence agencies. That title, in particular, suggests something that is not in the public record, but that his son acknowledged: his father was involved in British overseas intelligence for twenty years, and reached a high rank. Brian Stewart, confirming this, noted that in the seventies he was in the running to become the director of the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6.
Brian was fifty when Rory was born, and he already had two adult daughters by his first wife, from whom he was divorced. Rory said, of his half-sisters, “Very sixties girls—miniskirts, lots of boyfriends, cool music. I feel by comparison very kind of square. I remember one sister saying to me, ‘Daddy’s so lucky to have you, because now when he tries to teach his children ancient Greek in the morning there’s one who’s interested.’ ” Stewart’s early years were spent in London. Six days a week, at six in the morning, his father took him to Hyde Park for martial arts and fencing. As a boy, he could recite long passages from “Hamlet.” He used to insert hesitations into his speech, so that his flow didn’t unnerve contemporaries. His toy horse was called Bucephalus, for the horse that Alexander the Great tamed as a youth.
His feeling of family duty was reinforced when his sister Fiona, who has Down syndrome, was born. Stewart was five. “I maybe defined myself, in a weird fashion, as thinking that I was there to sort of look after everything,” he said. Today, Fiona lives with her parents in Scotland. Rory described her to me as “very organized, very together.” She works part time as a waitress, and she visited him in Penrith when he was campaigning. “Her sense of what I’m doing is interesting. She’ll say, ‘Oh, I saw you on the television—you’re just like Tony Blair.’ ”
In 1978, Brian Stewart retired from government. The family moved to Malaysia, where Brian ran the Rubber Growers Association. “My dress sense at that age consisted either of batik shirts or kilts,” Rory recalled. After a few years, he began returning to Britain for boarding school—first at the Dragon School, in Oxford, and then at Eton. That school (which has educated nineteen British Prime Ministers) is easy newspaper shorthand for class advantage. This has made it a liability for David Cameron, the modernizer, who was there a few years before Stewart. Last year, in Parliament, Gordon Brown mocked a Tory inheritance-tax proposal for having been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.” Stewart’s parents put Rory’s name down for the school at birth, then removed it, then put it back. The idea unsettled them, Rory said. “What I inherit from my father is that he’s extremely suspicious of establishments and bureaucracies. He also doesn’t really like upper-class English people. He feels they don’t get on with things—that they vacillate.”
Stewart, quoting Orwell’s self-assessment, calls himself “lower-upper-middle class,” explaining, “I was sent to a posh school, but I didn’t really have the hinterland.” Stewart’s patrician, well-tailored style is an homage to his adored father, and the establishment he served, but it is not a mark of aristocratic blood, or of great wealth. “I definitely don’t like people who are sort of aggressively posh,” Stewart said. “I don’t like that look. At Oxford, I didn’t want to join the dining clubs.” In fact, he did consider joining the Bullingdon Club, known for gatherings at which sons of privilege, dressed in tailcoats and drunk on champagne, throw flowerpots through restaurant windows. David Cameron was in the Bullingdon, to his continued embarrassment; so was Boris Johnson, now the unembarrassable mayor of London. After attending one meeting, Stewart stepped down. “I didn’t want to be part of it, as soon as I saw it up close,” he said.
Sally Stewart told me that perception of her son’s class was “the thing he has to fight against all the time.” This summer, a minor tabloid scandal broke after Stewart was quoted in a paper saying, of his constituency, “Some areas around here are pretty primitive, people holding up their trousers with bits of twine and that sort of thing.” (His point, he later said, was that Cumbria’s beauty is misleading; there are “hidden pockets of poverty.”) One newspaper, wrongly reporting that Stewart had described Cumbrians as “primitives,” ran a piece under the sub-headline “old etonian has to apologise.”
Stewart’s reputation as a man of unnatural achievement depends a little on the cumulative impact of his résumé—the giddy rush of soldier-diplomat-adventurer-writer-politician. Facts can become blurred. It’s easy to find articles suggesting that Stewart trekked across Afghanistan for two years (thirty-two days, in fact); or earned an O.B.E. “for his military service in Iraq” (it was for his work there as a civil servant); or that his understanding of Afghanistan outstrips that of almost all other foreigners (he lived in Kabul on and off for three years, speaks some Dari, no Pashto, and visited the south of the country for the first time two years ago). Stewart can’t be blamed for the errors. And if he has ever contributed a little to misapprehensions about the scale of his military experience—his Web site states, “My life has been dedicated to public service. I served in the Black Watch”—he did not do so when we spoke. “It was unbelievably brief,” he said. “It wasn’t really being in the Army.” After leaving Eton, Stewart was selected for a program that sent a few dozen graduates to officers’ training, and then gave them a temporary Army commission. For nine months, Stewart was a second lieutenant in the Black Watch. At the age of eighteen, he was assigned a platoon of thirty men, and wore a kilt to work. It was 1991, but they were still learning how to identify Soviet tanks. “I felt that we were rehearsing for a play that’s never going to be put on,” he said.
In 1992, not long after Stewart had started reading history at Balliol College, Oxford, he was approached by Prince Charles. The two had met when the Prince visited Eton a year or two earlier. The Prince was looking for a summer tutor for his sons, William and Harry, then ten and eight. (Charles and Princess Diana had recently separated, and the scandal was at its peak.) Stewart was invited for a weekend at Highgrove, the Prince’s house in Gloucestershire. When we spoke, Stewart was a little reluctant to talk about the Prince, but confirmed a story I had heard about his first night at Highgrove. He somehow locked himself in a bathroom, then realized it was also a safe room—reinforced and wired in case of attack. There was midnight conversation between him and the Prince, who stood on the other side of the thick door in his dressing gown. “Don’t be so ridiculous—you turn the key in the lock,” the Prince said. Stewart snapped the key in two, and a royal security detail broke through the door with axes. On a later visit, the Prince teased Stewart for wearing a tweed jacket that looked brand new.
Stewart tutored the young princes for two weeks in the summer of 1993, in Scotland: an hour a day, teaching English to both, and math to Harry. “I spent a lot of time with the Prince of Wales,” Stewart said. “That’s really where my friendship with him began.” One wonders if Stewart was summoned, at a difficult time, as much for the Prince’s sake as for his children’s. (“He’s remarkable at handling the Prince of Wales,” a well-placed observer recently said. “The Prince of Wales suspends all of his critical faculties when it comes to Rory.”) Jonathan Dimbleby, the British television journalist, was then making a documentary about the Prince. The film shows a glimpse of Stewart, playing soccer with Prince Harry and others, on a sloping lawn by a loch. Stewart—not fully adult, with a long neck and a big head—can be seen forcefully tackling a boy half his size.
Returning to Oxford, Stewart switched from history to philosophy, politics, and economics (P.P.E.)—the course taken by scores of future politicians, including David Cameron and Benazir Bhutto. As a student, Stewart liked to turn the mundane into the extraordinary: when he wounded his hand on a broken champagne bottle, he asked to be stitched without anesthesia. Emily Bearn, a British journalist, has written of an evening in Oxford, when he wandered into a room and recited poetry while she was throwing up into a wastebasket.
Encouraged by his mother, he had decided by his third year that he wanted a career overseas. Felix Martin recalled that Stewart was impatient “to emulate his father, in some respect. Travelling, going to funny places, getting something done.”
Stewart did not get a first, the highest category of degree. He now thinks he showed hubris when he tried to squeeze a P.P.E. degree into less than two years: “There was only one paper I did remotely well in, and that was in Aristotle. And I don’t know anything about Aristotle. Whereas I actually thought I knew a lot about Wittgenstein, and I did quite poorly.” Someone who knows Stewart well described his defining talent as the ability to sound convincing without expertise. Stewart put the matter differently: he said that when he came to mark Harvard papers he realized that students who were obsessed with a subject, who tried to cram too much onto the page, often failed. “They’re trying to do far more than can be done. Whereas in my Aristotle essays I knew so little. I was being cautious. I was saying what I could.”
In 1997, Stewart moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he began working in the British Embassy. He wrote an unpublished novel about a beloved Indonesian statesman whose past is grubbier than his supporters suppose. In 1999, just after the Kosovo war, Stewart became Britain’s sole diplomatic representative in Montenegro. A year later, he declined a posting in Bosnia and left diplomacy to begin his long hike.
Last fall, Craig Murray, a former British diplomat who became an antiwar activist, made a striking charge in a blog post: he claimed that Stewart had been an officer of MI6, and was still active in MI6, when, starting in 2005, he worked in Afghanistan, running the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, the charity that Prince Charles helped found. Stewart told me, “There’s no way I can prove it, but the reality is I was really busy in Kabul, and anyone working with me would realize that I wouldn’t have had the time to do anything. And what would I have been doing anyway? Why is running an arts school the best cover?” (And it’s hard to believe that British intelligence would put Prince Charles in the position of being a spy’s sponsor.) Stewart also denied that there was any espionage element in his walk, a few years earlier.
This seemed credible. But was he in MI6, at the start of his career, in Indonesia and Montenegro? Someone in London who is in a position to know told me that Stewart certainly was. His mother, when asked, smiled, and said, “I wouldn’t begin to know.” Stewart muttered that he was not, but he didn’t contest the idea with the vigor of his Afghan denial. As a storyteller and a newly minted politician, he must find it frustrating if he is under a legal and moral obligation to mislead. “It’s an unfair question,” he said crossly, although he later suggested phrases that I might use—such as his career “giving the appearance of” such a path. He added that people should have “the very, very clear understanding that I stopped working in embassies and for the government proper in 2000.” From then on, “I was no longer part of the system.”
That summer, Stewart’s first published article appeared, in the London Review of Books. It described a trip he had taken with friends two years earlier, through highland jungle in Indonesian Irian Jaya. (“ ‘Please ask your mother,’ I said to Caleb, ‘if she has eaten human flesh.’ ”) It was travel writing that elegantly carried its own critique of travel writing. Stewart went in eager pursuit of the exotic, but then wondered why. The piece ended in what could be thought of as Stewart’s signature: a Romantic swoon in the face of what remains unknowable, undoable. Villagers sing a song that excites him. He notes, “With its ancient harmonies the song was impressive. But the words reveal very little. Written down they are not what I hoped they were.”
Stewart’s biographical note in that journal announced that he was about to walk around the world. He had been talking about this at least since 1996. “It was something he bandied around,” Felix Martin said. “We all teased him relentlessly—all mouth and no trousers.” He now had a plan: to hike from Iran to Vietnam, then cross the Pacific, walk across South America, and then proceed from Portugal back to Turkey. On reading Stewart’s cannibals article, a London publisher offered him a book advance.
Brian and Sally Stewart had recently moved back to Scotland, after living abroad since the late nineteen-seventies. Brian found his son’s news alarming: “Brigands, bastards, Communists, Taliban. If you break a leg, you’ve had it. I just shut my mind to these things.” Sally Stewart understood the impulse: “He hadn’t had the gap year. Dragon, Eton, the Army, Balliol, diplomatic service. It’s Edwardian.” Rory set off from the Turkish-Iranian border in the late summer with a guide imposed on him by the authorities. They walked together in an ill-humored way for three months. (Stewart brought along a mule, which irritated his guide, who was the first Iranian to climb Everest.)
The walk that began in Iran lasted for nineteen months and, by Stewart’s calculation, covered six thousand miles. He usually stayed in private homes. For two hours each night, he wrote in cheap notebooks, which he photocopied and mailed to Scotland when he could. He allowed himself breaks. Brian Stewart told me about gathering for what he called “a family jolly” in Iran; there were two other jollies. Rory was fastidious about returning to the point he left off, although he was forced to take one large jump. Halfway through Iran, his visa was withdrawn; he could not get permission to visit Afghanistan or the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. So he re-started his walk in central Pakistan, after first flying to Hong Kong for a vacation.
Later, Martin went out to meet him in the Indian Himalayas, and walked with him for a week. “Felix turns up and he’s very chirpy,” Stewart said. “And I have convinced myself that I am some sort of sage, because I’ve been alone for twelve months and I feel that I’ve been through this rite of passage, and I’ve become a man. And I’ve become a crashing bore.” Martin recalled that Stewart “was primarily concerned with philosophizing,” but noted that this fell away after Stewart returned home. “He’s a very malleable character. Underneath it all, there is this tremendous love of society, love of other people.” He added, with affection, “When he takes himself too seriously, then of course it’s awful, but his great virtue—were he ever to lose it, it would be a disaster—is humor.”
Stewart crossed from India into Nepal in early September, 2001. He was bored, and his knees hurt. “I memorized ‘Four Quartets,’ walking with sheets of photocopied paper,” he recalled. He was in remote country when a Nepali with a radio tried to tell Stewart something about a plane and New York, but it was another week before Stewart understood what had happened on September 11th, when he was taken to a police station as a suspected Al Qaeda fighter. Several weeks later, he read an e-mail from Clare Lockhart, a friend from Oxford, who was in Pakistan, as part of a U.N. team working to help reëstablish an Afghan state after the fall of the Taliban. She asked him for ideas. Stewart, glad for the interruption and excited by the thought of working in the new Afghanistan, stowed his walking stick and compass in a Kathmandu hotel, and headed back west by bus.
In the preface to “The Places in Between,” Stewart describes rushing to Kabul in order to seize the opportunity to hike in Afghanistan. This leaves out a period of hustle and disappointment. He spent a short time with Lockhart in Pakistan, and after she flew to Kabul, leaving him behind, he followed by taxi, over the Khyber Pass, confident that he would find work. (His advice, for those riding taxis in difficult places, is to switch places with the driver. Those likely to do you harm will not be looking at the man behind the wheel.) After he spent a week in Kabul, his future was still uncertain. Offers “kept changing in definition. You know, am I going to be Karzai’s press secretary? Am I going to be the chief of staff to the governor of Kandahar?” He added, “I keep getting these promises, and they never quite come off. So then I decide I’m going to fly to Herat”—in western Afghanistan—“and walk back to Kabul.” At the start of his famous Afghan walk, his mood appears to have been a sulk. “Yep, exactly,” Stewart said.
Matt McAllester, a British reporter, was also in Herat, working for Newsday. Stewart was “scruffier than most Afghans I had seen,” he recalled. “Wispy beard, shalwar kameez. And then he opened his mouth and spoke like the Old Etonian he is.” He added, “His great intelligence didn’t seem to extend to understanding a simple fact—that he would die if he went on this walk.” It was January, and the Taliban had only just left Kabul. “I really did assume he wouldn’t make it. I remember there was a long discussion about whether he would take a gun or not. There were strong arguments for taking one. Wolves and, you know, people.” Stewart did not carry a gun, but he had to accept the company, for the first eight days, of two armed men provided by Ismail Khan, Herat’s warlord governor. Before leaving Herat, Stewart was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. “It would be a pity to be killed, of course,” Stewart said. “But I’m willing to take that chance.”
He reached Kabul a month later, and was in Scotland before the end of April. He walked the twelve miles from the rail station in Dunblane to his family home. Scotland looked tidy. “It was dawn and the halogen lights were still lit along the road,” he later wrote. “Rabbits stood beneath single trees.” He started writing, but only the story of the previous weeks: the dog he adopted and dragged through the snow; the British Special Forces soldier who, to Stewart’s evident delight, called him “a fucking nutter”; the Taliban to whom he pretended to be an Indonesian professor; and the Afghan—dilated pupils, trembling hands—who punched him in the face. (In his book, Stewart writes that he responded to the assault with defensive self-puffery: “This is wrong. I’m a Briton. I am a guest of your Governor Khalili. You have just punched me in the face. I’m a very important man.”)
According to Sally Stewart, Rory’s friends expected the account to be “florid and Latinate,” and were surprised by his dry, clear-eyed prose. But, later, when Stewart showed what he had written to various American publishers, they were unimpressed. He summarized their reaction: “Not enough personality, emotion, motivation. I’m not present enough.” Certainly, there are times when the book’s reticence seems calculated to enhance an air of remoteness and romance. (One can be silently immodest.) But the book can also be seen as a beautiful portrait of a fairly strange person made stranger by solitude: hyper-alert but still absent, peculiarly adaptable, and prepared since childhood to be claimed by history. It’s not that Stewart cut emotion from his account; there was just less of it than you might expect. “It isn’t that I was lonely and terrified and not recording it,” he told me. “You don’t feel very lonely when you have deliberately chosen to go away. You feel lonely in London, when you’re expecting to see people and nobody’s picking up your calls.”
But Stewart didn’t hide his satisfaction in having pulled off an audacious feat, through courage, luck, and what could be called either guile or deceit. He told me, “It’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s a very egotistical thing to say, and it’s probably very deluded and misleading, but what I felt was: This was what I had been made to do.” He appears to have been able to unburden himself of some part of the expectation of heroism carried since childhood. He had been driven, to some degree, by a “false and lonely conception of himself” and “haunted by the competition of dead men and the need to out-do everyone who had ever lived,” as Stewart once wrote of Alexander the Great. While walking, Stewart told me, he felt “that it was sort of a man’s work; that I’d started from here, I’d ended here, and I had no anxieties about who I was and what I was doing, and privilege, or justification, or how I was using my mind, or how I related to society. I had this very simple narrative: I started here and got here.”
He went on, a little hesitantly, “The walk was very, very important in making me a slightly more normal person. I may have come across as thinking I was superior to people. But actually I felt quite inferior.” He recalled his walk’s final night: “At the end, when I’m sitting in an Afghan room with a bunch of smelly men, I realize that actually in some very, very small way I feel that I’m justified in being with them. I’ve got a kind of equality with other people.” He reached Kabul the next day, and never picked up his Asian walk again. His great circumnavigation ended with most of the world unwalked. Felix Martin said, teasingly, “It’s an example of luck—the Lucky General, and all that. He had taken this route that clearly was not going to work—into jungle in Burma. And then the war.” Stewart told me that he had been confident of getting a Burmese visa, but “not far into the Afghan walk I began to realize that what I was doing was at a different level, and that if I was lucky enough to survive this I should probably call it a day and go home.”
Stewart tends to speak at a scornful double-speed trot when he refers to Westerners hoping to create “accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic” societies in troubled or war-torn places, including Afghanistan. He recently described the concepts of counter-insurgency and failed states as fragments of “metaphysical structures” no more real than the parallel universes filled with demons and bodhisattvas imagined by eighth-century Mahayana Buddhists.
By the time Stewart returned to Scotland in 2002, this skepticism about nation-building had begun to form. He wrote a newspaper article that included a disdainful vignette of a Kabul dinner where young expats consumed imported olive oil and spoke about human rights with unearned assurance. In “The Places in Between,” Stewart set up a stern contrast between the lifelong commitment shown by British colonial civil servants and their flighty modern equivalents. “Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism,” he wrote.
And yet, in 2003, he begged the British Foreign Office for a job in Iraq. He had supported the invasion, and still believed that some nation-building methods might succeed, if they were implemented in the spirit in which he had walked: immersed in village culture, alert to local politics. (Stewart tends to extract broad political lessons from his own successes and failures.) He received no replies to his inquiries about work, so in the summer he turned up, uninvited, in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Soon after, carrying an edition of Lawrence’s letters, Stewart took up a posting in Amarah, the capital of the southern Shiite province of Maysan, as the deputy to Molly Phee, an American who had been appointed “governate coördinator”—a de-facto regional governor—while an Iraqi was sought to replace her. (Stewart tends to describe his role as deputy governor, rather than “deputy governate coördinator,” which frustrates some people for the way it hints at ruling, rather than serving, Iraqis.) “I thought that if only I worked really hard, and spent a lot of time sitting with sheikhs, and got my politeness right, and understood the culture, and got out in my boat in the marshes, and used my personality, I could build a state,” he said. “I could be a Machiavellian prince.” Colonial means would serve post-colonial ends. “I kept saying this to Iraqis: We are here for a temporary period. We want to go home. We are building your capacity, and then we’re leaving, and we’re doing this for the sake of security, and human rights, and justice, and democracy.”
Within a few months, he said, “I discovered that it’s ‘Mission: Impossible.’ ” Iraqis “had no intention of coöperating with this thing.” He spent Coalition Provisional Authority funds delivered from Baghdad in vacuum-packed bricks of a million dollars in cash; local leaders came to his office and asked what was being done for them. “We have restored two hundred and forty schools.” “Apart from that, what have you done?” “All the clinics and hospitals.” “Apart from that?” In “The Prince of the Marshes,” his book about this experience, Stewart’s shame about how unwelcome the occupation is—he is told, “You are Hitler”—is mixed with a quiet joy about his own undeniable pluck. “This is why being a politician is destructive to brain and character,” he recently said, wryly. “Because in the end there is an element of vanity that makes me want to believe that these projects I’ve undertaken have a meaning, or that I was skillful.”
Stewart is not a natural deputy. His relationship with Phee wasn’t always easy—in part, Stewart said, because he arrived at his post five weeks before she did, and came to be perceived by some as the C.P.A. chief. (Phee, now the National Security Council director for Iraq, declined to discuss her relationship with Stewart.) He left before Christmas when a job came up in Nasiriyah, not far from the ziggurat of Ur. The troops there were Italian, as was Stewart’s new C.P.A. boss, Barbara Contini. “She would say, ‘Wonderful, darling, it sounds fantastic. You do it, Rory, I trust you’—which was much easier for me.”
He left Iraq in June, 2004, in a largely despairing mood, not long after Sadrist militiamen had besieged the C.P.A. compound with mortar fire for three days. Preparing for the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis, he contacted his father. “He sent me a signal one day,” Brian Stewart recalled. “ ‘Daddy, what is the drill for pulling the flag down when you leave?’ It was exactly as choreographed by me: sunset, ziggurat, Italian lancers.”
Early in 2004, Prince Charles wrote to Stewart in Iraq, suggesting a program that would teach carpentry and other skills to young men who might otherwise join militia groups. Stewart helped to set this up, working with an Iraqi labor union that gave each student coveralls with “Charles” embroidered on them. Later, after Stewart had left Iraq and written “The Prince of the Marshes” while on a fellowship at the Kennedy School, he heard again from Prince Charles, who said that he had spoken with President Hamid Karzai about a possible institute of traditional arts in Afghanistan. The Prince of Wales asked Stewart if he would visit Kabul to investigate. It was the summer of 2005. Stewart was unsure of his future; his Afghan book had been praised in Britain but became a hit only after its American publication, the following year. He had just made a fruitless application to become the British Ambassador to Belarus.
The Turquoise Mountain Foundation was launched in 2006, on a five-year timetable, with two goals: to restore traditional mud-and-timber buildings in Murad Khane, a trash-filled area of the old city; and to incubate a school of Afghan arts and architecture, which would later be moved into the renovated neighborhood. Stewart rented space for himself and his staff a few miles from Murad Khane, in a dilapidated nineteenth-century fort that may at times have been hard to distinguish from the expat enclaves that he mocked elsewhere. Under Stewart’s occupation, the fort had access to imported olive oil; it was often filled with young overseas volunteers, described by one observer as “the sons and daughters of aristocrats,” on short visits. Dignitaries enjoyed candlelit evenings of Persian poetry. Sir David Tang, the Hong Kong-born tycoon, wrote in the Spectator of his visit, “We dined in the only surviving tower looking across the dim city under a desolate moon, against the silhouette of the ruins of the British embassy.”
Some in Kabul found Stewart hard to take. In part, this had to do with style: his spread-collar shirts, his evident pride in being recognized for public service. But there was also the perception that he was not following best professional practices. Stewart took the media limelight, which attracted donors, but his visibility clashed with the prevailing view that development work, wherever possible, should be in local hands. He was charged with thinking more about what was fast and photographable than what was long-term and well planned. According to someone in Kabul who has significant experience in this field, when Stewart discussed Kabul’s old city, of which Murad Khane is one small part, “it was difficult sometimes to rein him in, and say, ‘Actually, we do need to speak on the basis of fact. We’re talking about urban poverty, we’re talking about water supply, we’re talking about people without sanitation.’ ”
In a Cumbrian kitchen last winter, I watched Stewart respond with grateful barks of laughter when told of forms that needed to be filed before a household can take in bed-and-breakfast guests. He complained about British government habits of “micromanagement,” and criticized volunteers who arrived in Kabul talking of the need for “strategic plans.”
To put it ungenerously: Stewart has ideas; his foes have plans. He has written that the efficacy of foreign interventions should be rigorously measured, but he asks for himself the right to act on instinct. In “The Prince of the Marshes,” he yells at a young C.P.A. staffer in the Green Zone: “You can’t get around problems with numbers.” Stewart once wrote that “charisma can be more potent than bureaucracy.” The Turquoise Mountain Foundation has raised twenty-five million dollars, including ten million from U.S.A.I.D. It has restored sixty-five buildings in Murad Khane and cleared thousands of tons of trash. The neighborhood has a new school for children; students at the arts institute are working toward internationally recognized degrees. And there is hope that, with the help of an endowment, now two million dollars, the institute will endure after the foundation ends its direct involvement, and withdraws its foreign staff, next year. Hedvig Alexander, the foundation’s managing director between 2008 and 2009, acknowledged “the size of Rory’s personality” but defended a management style that creates momentum, gets something under way, even at the risk of some disorganization and waste. (Stewart recalled a failed experiment with earth roofs, and a glassmaking consultant who was unnecessarily flown in from Europe.) As Alexander saw it, Afghanistan was “desperately in need of some small successes, a bit of excitement.”
Stewart is proud of, and a little defensive about, the work—“I would have loved to have done something a fraction as lasting and visible in Iraq”—but when he described it to an audience of architects in London, not long ago, he said, “Let us not pretend that the whole thing is a wonderful combination of sustainability, development, architectural best practice, and consultation.” It was the lesser of evils. Stewart can make disappointment sound more alluring, more intellectually reliable, than success. He told his audience, “If you cannot always do all that you pretend, perhaps you can do more than you fear.”
By the time that Stewart left Kabul, he had emerged as a public intellectual in the United States and Britain, thanks to his books and his journalism, including a stint as an Op-Ed columnist at the Times, in March, 2007. Most notably, Stewart had become a strong critic of British and American policies in Afghanistan, arguing that the West had an obligation to the Afghan people, but a limited one, and an equal obligation to others; and that Afghanistan posed a security threat, but not a great one. He claimed that troop increases made failure only more likely, both by alienating public opinion at home—and possibly inspiring sudden withdrawal—and by alienating Afghans, who, he told me, are “much more conservative, much more anti-foreign, than we acknowledge.” Hedvig Alexander, who lived in Afghanistan for seven years, disagreed with his analysis; she found Afghans to be pragmatic more often than anti-foreign. She felt that Stewart’s views were born of impatience, and perhaps colored by his disappointments in Iraq. She was also vexed by his decision to speak publicly in this way while running a charity in Afghanistan. She asked him to “tone it down.”
Stewart has many admirers—Senator John Kerry recommended “The Places in Between” to Hillary Clinton during her Senate-confirmation hearings, and later invited Stewart to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Michael Semple, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan who lived in the region for twenty years, and who became a Kennedy School fellow in 2009, said that it was “brave and healthy of Rory to find a third position in the debate, between ‘troops in’ and ‘troops out.’ He challenges the way things have been going . . . without being anti-American, and without being against the idea of doing something good in Afghanistan.” But others are puzzled by his emergence as a full-scale Afghanistan expert. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani journalist and the author of the best-seller “Taliban,” told me, “He doesn’t have really a sense of the history of the place. He’s a late arrival to the Afghan conundrum that has been going on for thirty years.” He added, “He does flit from one thing to the other.” (It’s true that Stewart cut short his time in the Foreign Office, then on his walk, and at Harvard.) Saad Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian businessman who heads the Moby media group, praised Stewart for his work in Murad Khane but said, “If I was to walk with a dog from New York City to New Jersey, would I become an expert on U.S. politics?” Some critics remarked on the limits of Stewart’s knowledge of the country’s people and languages.
When Stewart was given a summary of these observations, not long ago, on a train between London and Penrith, his mouth hardened. “If they’re American or British policy experts, saying, ‘He doesn’t understand Helmand, he doesn’t speak Pashto,’ and they do, then fine.” If not, “I might say, ‘How good’s yourfucking Pashto?’ ” As for the reservations of powerful Afghans, “I’m being critical of their country, right? If I was immensely flattering about Afghanistan, those very people would probably say, ‘Ah, yes, Rory understands it so well, understands our culture so well.’ ” He added, “As soon as Lawrence turns up in Versailles in 1919, and says, ‘We shouldn’t make colonies of Iraq and Syria,’ there are telegrams flying in from the India office, saying, ‘Who the fuck is this guy Colonel Lawrence? He has been to Iraq once, in 1916, and he never ventured outside Basra. What on earth does he think he’s doing, making comments about this? His Arabic is no good, he doesn’t have access, he’s out of date, he’s a self-promoter.’”
He went on, “What I understand is the way the British government and the American government machines work.” If he can be outclassed as a regional expert, he cannot be outclassed as an anthropologist of bureaucracies—“what it feels like to be in the Army, to be in the Foreign Office, work with a U.N. agency, manage one of these interventions.” He added, “My anthropology is not of Afghanistan. Insofar as I have an instinct, it’s about what goes wrong around the Cabinet table.”
Stewart left Kabul in 2008. That summer, British newspapers reported two news items about him. One was that he had sold his life rights to Plan B Entertainment—the film production company partially owned by Brad Pitt—and StudioCanal. According to Stewart, Orlando Bloom had expressed interest in playing him, and that had driven the deal; the two floppy-haired men took a hike in Perthshire together. The other news was that Stewart—again encouraged by his mother—was to go to Harvard in 2009.
He had not yet taught his first class when Cameron made his announcement about post-scandal job opportunities. “The experience of running this thing in Afghanistan made me a Burkean conservative,” Stewart said. “The way I respond to bureaucracy, and targets, and micromanagement, and structures, and government. Although I might be tempted—ideologically, or politically—to be a Labour supporter, actually, if you watched what I did or how I acted, my behavior was that of a conservative. My reality rather than my rhetoric.” He added, “The thing that’s reassuring about the Conservative Party is that when I talk to William Hague”—a former Party leader and now the Foreign Secretary—“about Afghanistan, he seems to listen, he seems to get what I’m saying. He may not agree with what I’m saying, but the questions he asks are reasonably intelligent.”
Stewart acknowledged, however, that while in Kabul he had had a meeting with a visiting Labour minister, and “I was incredibly charmed by him and, you know, if he’d said, ‘Would you like to work with me?’ I probably would have been tempted.” He did not name the minister, but I was separately told of a meeting between Stewart and David Miliband, who was Foreign Secretary between 2007 and 2010. (Miliband declined to comment.) A young Labour M.P. recently told me, “I think we could have played it better. It just wasn’t pursued on our side with the right vigor.”
On Election Day, in May, Stewart stood on a trailer pulled by a tractor and quoted from “Four Quartets” through a megaphone—“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Later, a few hours after polls had closed, Stewart watched the returns on television in a converted barn, at the edge of a field full of sheep. His parents had rented the barn during the brief campaign, to house themselves and Rory’s young, and mostly female, volunteers.
At about one o’clock in the morning, Stewart stepped outside. It was very dark, with stars showing but no moon. He felt his way over a cattle grid, and down a grassy bank toward a fast-moving river. The election was over, and although the votes in Penrith would not be counted until the morning, there could be little doubt that Stewart had won. It also seemed likely that the Tories would become the party of government. A few hours earlier, I had driven him to cast his own vote, in the silent, unlit village of Dufton. We arrived at a village hall with ten minutes to spare. Two polling-station workers, alone, were listening to the radio so they would hear Big Ben chime, and know when to shut the door. “Can we sit with you until you close? That would be lovely,” Stewart said, after casting his vote (pencil and paper). We sat in the empty hall until ten, and then went over the road to the Stag Inn, where four customers sat quietly, one of them reading a novel.
That morning, Stewart had sent a text message to his friend Matthew Parris, once a Conservative M.P., and now a well-known writer and broadcaster. Stewart had asked for guidance about how to behave on Election Day, and Parris had replied, “It’s not inappropriate to go for a long, lonely, Christ-like walk in the hills muttering to yourself about how you wish this cup could be taken from you.” Now that the voting was done, Stewart seemed less than jubilant, as if he had not yet discovered enough points of contact between the demands of Conservative politics and the demands of being Rory Stewart. I had seen him make an odd political speech on the eve of the election, moving his hand stiffly in front of thirty people in a low-ceilinged back room of a pub in Alston, high on the moors. Before reaching a much-more-than-we-fear conclusion, he had talked of putting power into local hands, and standing up to generals who press for troop increases, and he had carefully commented on the history of Britain’s industrial decline. But the dominant impression was awkward ill humor. He snapped at even the mildest challenges—these came from thoughtful middle-aged men in V-necked sweaters. (One was drunk, but cheerfully so.) Stewart was perhaps tired, but the event was a reminder of his inexperience of everyday electoral politics, and how he may be more suited to leadership than to representation. He enjoys being admired, and politicians are not admired.
By the grassy bank, Stewart talked very softly, almost sleepily: “I’d say that at the moment it feels very, very natural. It feels like something that I’ve been, in different small ways, preparing myself for.” But he saw dangers ahead. “I have to be very, very careful about who I let myself become, about the way in which my personality can become eroded, rounded down, coarsened, the way my mind can rot, through stress, and through exhaustion, and through all the kinds of more horrible, morally disturbing things about politics. So it’s all very well saying I’ve prepared myself, but have I prepared myself well enough to do this without becoming the kind of person that I would despise? This is a bullshit, Lake District way of putting it, but I feel I am sort of surprised to go outside and find there are still stars. Last night, I was outside and I felt some thorns in the grass under my fingers and I realized I hadn’t really felt anything sharp under my fingers for a long time.”
Stewart once wrote wistfully of pre-modern cultures that saw “nothing inconsistent in the coexistence of self-promotion, fantasy, and greatness. They were prepared to allow that real merit could coexist with dreams and showmanship. We are no longer prepared to accept this. Competitiveness, egotism, self-promotion, and rhetoric are seen as weaknesses.” Stewart has an awkward flamboyance. In Parliament, I watched him thank a committee chairman with the gesture of namaste; and I saw how he had taken to sitting on the floor of the chamber of the House of Commons—on a step in the aisle between green benches, even when those benches were empty. The habit suggests an ambitious form of humility, given that it positions Stewart close to the ministerial front bench. “It’s as if he’s turned up at the village and needs to sit on the rock,” one M.P. said. Felix Martin has decided that Stewart is “too unusual” to become Prime Minister. Matthew Parris disagreed. “Most of the people who have become Prime Ministers have been strange,” he said. “John Major is much stranger than anybody thinks. Harold Macmillan—there are elements of Harold Macmillan, the showman, in Rory. Benjamin Disraeli was very strange, and so was Gladstone. Margaret Thatcher was completely bizarre. Tony Blair is some kind of delusional confidence trickster. And Gordon Brown is completely mad.” He added, “I think Rory might fly very high, and he might just drift and fizzle out.” He said that the initial concern of the Conservative leadership was that Stewart might prove to be “not really a sticker, not a stayer.”
In the darkness, Stewart saw a small dog and picked it up, and said that he didn’t think about becoming Prime Minister as often as he once did. “If I was going to be really, really pretentious and put it in the most fantastical, idealistic terms, if you gave me a choice between being Edmund Burke or Lord North”—who was forced out of office during the American War of Independence—“I would much rather be Burke. My greatest ambition would be to be somebody who made some kind of intelligent, lasting contribution to political thought, much more than working my way up through the system at the cost of being a mediocre Prime Minister. There is just no point in being Lord North.”
The count was held the next morning in a large modern sports hall in Penrith. In the room next door, couples played indoor bowls. “I imagined some old, dusty, timbered hall, and smoke and balloons and cheers,” Stewart said. He moved around with such impatient buoyancy that his body language seemed to be on the point of crossing over into dance. During the long wait, in an effort to entertain a young woman reporter from the Westmorland Gazette, Stewart made a kind of commando’s diving roll—head first—over a low rope that separated the press from the ballot boxes. He became entangled and stumbled. There was one chair in the middle of the hall: Brian Stewart sat there, in a Churchillian pose, knees far apart, his green tweed suit matching his son’s coat. After Rory was elected, with more than half of the vote, he made a short speech—“compassion, community, and common sense”—and then stepped from the stage and kissed his mother on the top of her head.