Article first published in The Radio Times on 29 March 2014.
Hadrian’s Wall doesn’t just run right through Rory Stewart’s constituency, it runs right through Rory Stewart.
Britain’s most extraordinary MP is half Scottish, half English. You sense his head is south of the border but his heart has always been in the Highlands. He was, after all, an officer in the Black Watch, he wears a kilt a lot of the time and even plays the bagpipes. His equally extraordinary father, Brian, retired now to the family seat in Perthshire after a lifetime of adventures himself, “now spends his whole time eating haggis as a deliberate affront to his guests”, according to his son.
Half the length of the wall runs along the top of Stewart’s constituency of Penrith and the Border and he hates it; or at least the idea of it. He hates the thought of Scotland voting for independence at the referendum later this year, too. He won’t have a vote himself because he doesn’t live there. His big decision would come afterwards, if his countrymen and women vote yes. “Scottish independence would mean I would have to decide either to be an immigrant with a life outside my own country, or make the more romantic choice of returning to Scotland,” he says. “I really resent the idea of having to choose.” He would rather, much rather, be British.
Stewart has made three films for the BBC that reflect his fascination – obsession, really – with the way landscape and history shape our sense of identity.
He reckons there was essentially little difference between Scotland and England before the Romans came. Instead, people lived in what he calls a Middleland that stretched from the Humber to the Tyne and beyond, a place of shifting kingdoms but a common culture. Until the Romans arrived.
“Then,” he says, “Hadrian literally drew a line on the map – created this pernicious scar across the landscape – and in doing so set up, in a way he could never have imagined, problems that would last 1,600 years.”
In a last-minute attempt to repair the damage of history he’s hoping to get 100,000 people to link arms across the wall in July because, he says, the argument is about love not economics. We can’t talk about his demonstration, though, because it “might put the BBC in a difficult position,” which is strange, because it seems to me the idea behind his films is a not-very-thinly disguised argument for a “no” vote.
He acknowledges as much. “I think I probably began filming feeling that what the programme would discover was that there was a strong sense of British identity and that there would be no difference either side of the border. But I found that Scottishness and Englishness are actually strong, instinctive things, whatever the historical reasons. Even the accent changes – just two inches across the border.”
Was that a disappointment?
“Yes, I think it was; in personal terms, definitely. Because I thought I could undermine the whole idea of splitting by emphasising these multiple historical identities, resurrecting the old kingdom of Cumbria, or Northumbria, and making people see they have a common heritage. What was sad for me was that people didn’t feel that common heritage and that Hadrian had done his job too well”.
He really does talk like that, in fully formed sentences, with lots of subsidiary clauses, and more than a sprinkling of footnotes. He’s a short, wiry man, bandy to the point of being bow- legged. If it weren’t for the shock of unruly black hair, his saucer eyes and satchel mouth would make him the spit image of Wallace – Gromit’s owner, that is, not Braveheart. He’s 41 now, but still looks 19; the last person, you would think, to have lived a dozen lives of Victorian high adventure before he hit middle age.
His childhood was eccentric. He was born in Hong Kong and raised in Malaysia, where his soldier-turned-diplomat father toughened him up with boxing bouts and trips with the Dayaks. He could declaim all 560 lines of Macaulay’s epic poem Horatius by the time he was six. His teachers at Eton thought him one of the most outstanding boys they’d ever taught. Prince Charles was so impressed with him when he visited the college that he took him to Balmoral as a tutor for William and Harry.
After his gap year with the Black Watch he went to Balliol, Oxford’s most cerebral college, and was fast tracked through the Foreign Office, distinguishing himself, while still in his early 20s, in Indonesia and the Balkans.
At 27, he gave it all up to walk across Asia. He marched 6,000 miles in 21 months, wearing a shalwar kameez and an overcoat, braving the locals’ suspicions and living off their hospitality. Shortly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 he walked across that country, too, alone and in the dead of winter through the heart of the Hindu Kush in what’s been described as “one of the riskiest and most foolish journeys of all time”. His book about it all, The Places in Between, has useful travel tips like: “If the field has no sheep droppings, it’s probably been mined”. The New York Times called it “a flat-out masterpiece”.
While still not quite 30, he became deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces after the 2003 coalition invasion, surviving a siege during which, on one night, his compound was shelled with 100 mortars and grenades. It was an altogether chastening experience. Stewart, in his courteous and gentle way, is blistering about it – and details the components of what he sees as a disaster. The relentless and irrational optimism, the jargon that masked an almost complete lack of understanding of the country or the mission.
His programmes draw parallels between our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Roman occupation of Britain. “They kept the modern-day equivalent of half a million troops in Britain for 300 years,” he says. “And they did it for nothing”.
“It’s what I felt I saw in Afghanistan”, he says. “The sense of parallel universes – Romans and Britons barely met. You get stuck and begin inventing reasons for staying. It’s only afterwards anyone asks: ‘What are you actually getting out of this? Why does it matter?”
Two thousand years from now, he says, archaeologists might find traces of our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we can see the imprint of Hadrian in Britain today. But the Iraq operation achieved little more than disastrous unintended consequences, he says, and the real social improvements in Kabul could be swept away if Afghanistan retreats back into civil war. After Iraq, Stewart went off to be a professor at Harvard, and, at the suggestion of Prince Charles, set up a charity in Kabul, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, to protect and develop Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. According to The New York Times he was “living one of the most remark- able lives on record”. Brad Pitt said he was planning to make a movie about him, starring Orlando Bloom.
Then, still in his mid-30s, he stood for Parliament. To many, it was as incomprehensible as Lawrence of Arabia (one of his heroes) re-enlisting in the ranks under an assumed name. Not only was Stewart’s public life the very definition of dashing; his social life was pretty vivid, too. At Oxford he was a member of the Piers Gaveston Society, an exclusive and decadent dining club that makes the Bullingdon Club sound like the Girl Guides, which must have stretched Stewart’s diplomatic skills if it came up at the Penrith constituency selection committee.
Stewart sees it differently. He is uneasy about being regarded as the embodiment of lost Victorian virtues, because he fears being irrelevant in a world he wants to change. He thinks Britain has an identity crisis, a democracy that doesn’t work, and a power vacuum. “The politicians think the journalists have power, the journalists think bankers have power, bankers think lawyers have power. The truth is nobody has power.” He says that he at least is connected to those who vote for him. His mission, he says, is nothing less than “to imagine a more serious British civilisation. To raise our sense of ourselves.”
I ask him if he’s seen much television recently and he chuckles. I tell him he’s only the second person I have interviewed for Radio Times who isn’t an airhead, and he suddenly laughs like a hyena. Nonetheless, not to achieve that mission would make his life a failure, he says. He freely admits he would also feel he had failed if he didn’t become a government minister.
He worries about failure a lot; worries he’s too old to pick up the party politicians’ tradecraft, how to deal with 24-hour television and present an image that wins elections. He doesn’t see – or maybe he does – that the lack of such things might appeal to a public tuned out of politics.
So he settles for “a slower life” at Westminster. No longer a loner, he’s married to Shoshana Clark; the pair met when she and her first husband were both working for Stewart’s charity in Kabul, and she’s now the Turquoise Mountain Foundation’s CEO. He would like children, even though he calls them the “opium of the masses” and deplores the way we use them to avoid making big decisions about ourselves. “If we say the purpose of life is our children, that’s neither a purpose nor a meaning,” he says, and then smiles – “but I’m sure I will be as besotted as everybody else when I have them.”
He doesn’t mind that the Hollywood film seems to be on hold: “Being a backbench MP is a bit of an anti-climax for a superhero”. He does worry about Scotland, about an independent country with a real frontier that would, as he puts it, “accelerate our differences”. He wants a Britain where “whatever characteristics the English have are spiced up and challenged by whatever characteristics the Scots have. We’re really quite unbearable on our own, but much better as a family.”
If the referendum doesn’t go his way, he may have unwittingly solved the biggest conundrum of a “yes” vote– what to call the rest of the UK if Scotland leaves. The Romans, he says, called the southern part of the country “Britannia Superior”, and the land to the north “Britannia Inferior”. That would teach them.