Monthly Archives: September 2014

22-10-2013 10-41-21

Iraq: Coalition Against ISIL

Written Transcript:

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

Members of the House have laid out, with enormous ingenuity, the complexity of this situation; we have heard about everything from Turkey almost to Turkmenistan. In the end, however, this is a relatively simple motion and we should support the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the decision that they are making, for two reasons: one is that air strikes, in and of themselves, are a sensible response to the problem that we face; and the second is the caution and the focus that they bring to the issue of defining the wider mission.

Air strikes are sensible because, as I discovered with my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi when we stood on the front line looking at the Islamic State, it is clear that essentially what had happened is that an advance across open desert territory, using Humvees and artillery, had been driven back quite easily with air strikes. Those US air strikes of three or four weeks ago achieved the result of preventing people from taking Irbil, and of ensuring that 450,000 refugees currently located inside Kurdistan were protected from the advance of the Islamic State. If nothing else is achieved, that containment is worth while, and the Royal Air Force’s participation in that process would be not only legal but moderate. It would be a reasonable undertaking, not only to defend our troops but to achieve an important humanitarian objective.

Richard Benyon (Newbury, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend therefore disagree with George Galloway who said that this is a force that cannot be contained by air attack because it has no presence on the ground? My hon. Friend’s experience would rather suggest the opposite.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

That is a very good question. The answer, of course, is that outside the heartland of the Islamic State, which is basically the Sunni areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq, it is very vulnerable. When it moves across open terrain towards Shi’a-controlled areas around Baghdad or into Kurdistan, it is out miles into the desert. It has nobody to move among. This idea that George Galloway presented of it swimming among the population makes sense only in the areas around the Sunni triangle—Mosul, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa—but does not make any sense in the Kurdish and the Shi’a areas. So the notion of containing through air strikes is sensible.

The second issue—because I think almost everybody in the House has agreed to vote for these air strikes—is the much bigger issue of destroying the Islamic State. Here, what has been very impressive in this debate is the caution that has been shown in making promises about our ability to do that. We have been here before. These people whom we are fighting in western Iraq are very, very similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq, whom we fought between 2007 and 2009. We are facing an increased, exaggerated version of the same problem.

Problem No. 1 is that we do not control the borders. That is most obvious in relation to Syria, but we also have a problem with Turkey. Problem No. 2 is that there is no trust currently among the Sunni population in the Government in Baghdad. They will find it very difficult—even more difficult than they did in 2007—to trust us again. The third problem is that there is very limited will among the Iraqi army to get into those areas. The Shi’a elements of the Iraqi army will be reluctant to go into Mosul. Kurds will be reluctant to go into Mosul, and even if they could be convinced to do so, they would find it difficult to hold those areas because they would be perceived as an alien occupying force. That means, therefore, that all the hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken about a political solution and a regional solution must be right, but we cannot underestimate the difficulty of that.

Richard Bacon (South Norfolk, Conservative)

What does my hon. Friend say to our hon. Friend Mr Holloway who is quoted in TheGuardian this morning as saying that if we start bombing we are bombing

“exactly the people you are going to need to get rid of Isis.”?

He was referring to the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

It is a good challenge. The answer is that air strikes need to be focused primarily on containing the advance of the Islamic State territories, and secondly, attacks need to be targeted against terrorist locations. But they cannot be the platform or the foundation of a counter-insurgency strategy. That needs to come from the region.

Just to move towards an end, the fundamental problem is that the Sunni states in the region believe that the Islamic State is an opponent of Iran. This is, in the end,

to do with suspicions between the Sunni states and Iran. As we have heard today, it does not matter how many planes we see flying around, the reality remains that Turkey has not yet committed to engaging in this. This is vital. We still see financial flows coming out of the Gulf directly into the Islamic State. Unless we can find a way of beginning to get the structures in place—structures which involve, first, trust between Iran and those other actors; secondly, some trust from the Sunni people on the ground on the future of their states—we have no future there. That is not a military problem but a diplomatic and political problem. Therefore, the challenge for the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister is to put those planks in place. If we are serious about these things—and we have the Arabists—we could get the money. People are worried about the budget for this; the Gulf states would write a £50 million or £100 million cheque to finance the teams to do that. It is slow, patient work. We must get out of the black and white mentality of engagement or isolation, surge and withdrawal, and instead show, through a light, long-term diplomatic and political footprint, the seriousness that should define this nation.


Rory speaks on BBC Question Time from Kelso

Rory joins Emily Thornberry, John Swinney, Lesley Riddoch and Janet Street-Porter in Keslo for Question Time. Points of discussion include: air strikes in Iraq, the Scottish referendum, the West-Lothian question, and the Labour Party conference.


The role of air strikes in Iraq

I am writing on the night sleeper, travelling down to Westminster to vote on air-strikes. Emails and texts are hammering into my Blackberry, for and against, from colleagues, constituents, friends, and journalists. The whole Scotland campaign, which absorbed us until last Friday, now seems months in the past. Parliament has been recalled at 24 hours notice. The party leaders, exhausted from their conferences, or from the UN in New York, are now focused – for the moment at least – on the Middle East.

I saw in Iraq, last month, why air-strikes can be worthwhile. Six days before I reached the frontline, Islamic State/ISIL fighters had exploded into the minority areas, and swarmed across the river, driving armoured Humvees into Kurdish territory. The peshmerga had shot at the armoured vehicles, and then, finding their bullets useless, retreated. Within a day, the Islamic State was only twenty miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and the city-residents were beginning to flee. Beyond were almost four hundred thousand refugees.

But then the US airforce responded. A few days’ earlier, air-strikes would have had little effect on ISIL, because they were living amongst a Sunni population and in the heart of Sunni cities, where they were difficult to identify, and difficult to kill. They had been taxing and running whole quarters for Mosul for almost two years – long before they were formally in control. But in Kurdsitan, ISIL were mounting a full-frontal assault, across miles of open desert. The US air-strikes immediately destroyed their artillery and armoured vehicles, and ISIL were forced to abandon their attack and retreat.

The US action showed, therefore, that air-strikes can prevent the Islamic State from taking Erbil or Baghdad. They can help protect the four hundred thousand refugees, whom I saw living in half-completed buildings, under bridges, in schools, and on patches of dirt in Kurdistan. The Royal Airforce can join these strikes legally (we are not invading – we have been asked for assistance by the Iraqi government), in a broad coalition (we are joined by everyone from Bahrain to Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Australia), without endangering the lives of our troops, and in a way that protects some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world. This is worthwhile.

But President Obama’s objective is ‘to destroy ISIL.’ And that is not possible from the air. ISIL are not a conventional army, reliant on heavy armour, they are an insurgents, living in densely populated areas. So is the answer –as Tony Blair suggests – ‘troops on the ground?’ No, not that that either. We tried troops on the ground, against almost exactly the same people in almost exactly the same place (ISIL were then called Al Qaeda Iraq), only seven years ago. Over a hundred thousand US troops were put on the ground to fight them in the ‘surge’. Over a hundred billion dollars a year was spent. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were armed, paid and trained. At first it seemed to be a success, but within two years of the end of the “surge”, Islamist extremists were again in control of much of Mosul; within three years they had retaken much of Anbar and the Sunni triangle.

Troops on the ground are not the solution for four reasons: we were foreigners, there for a limited time; there was no credible, effective, legitimate government in charge in Baghdad; the insurgents were supported by neighbouring states; and there was no long-term trust from the local population. Those fundamental factors have not changed. To try such ‘boots on the ground’ again, with less resources, and within even less trust from the local population would be suicidal.

The only people able to create and sustain a viable alternative to the Islamic State are the local population. That will only be possible if they can create a durable government, and if other states in the region stop providing financial support, and safe-haven to Islamic state fighters. That in turn will only be possible when Sunni states cease to believe that the Islamist fighters are their allies against Iran.

The key questions are not military but political. How do you bring Turkey to actively support the fight against the Islamic State? How do you convince people in the Gulf to cease financing them? How do you stop Iraq and Syria being simply pawns in a much bigger fight between Iran and its Sunni opponents? What support can you provide for the people living under the Islamic state, to allow them to slowly escape this circle of horror?

Britain and its allies can play a role in resolving some of these issues. It would do so through large teams of diplomats and political officers working in all those countries, to try to find the seeds of a resolution. We could begin to create a much stronger diplomatic, political, and intelligence capacity in the Middle East. We have good Arabists, and we can hire more. The Gulf states would probably be prepared to pay for the whole team. But we would also need far more patience, humility, understanding, self-knowledge, and seriousness than we have yet displayed. We would have to realise that the leading role must be taken not by us but by regional players. That our primary role is to urge, argue, and facilitate. And none of this will come from 30,000 feet in the air.



Local MP Rory Stewart has welcomed an agreement between Penrith AFC and Eden District Council, which will see the club sign a 25-year lease on Frenchfield Stadium, providing them with the security of tenancy required to bid for funding and ensure their long-term viability. Rory Stewart has worked closely with the club over the past 4 years, holding numerous meetings with club representatives and officials at EDC, in order to resolve a long-standing dispute between the two over the responsibility for meeting repair and maintenance costs, as well as necessary remedial work to the ground, and an agreed rental sum. At the meeting on 18th September, all points of contention were addressed, and club secretary Ian White said it would allow the club ‘to look to the future, rather than delving into the past.’

Rory Stewart MP said: “After countless meetings, negotiations and proposals, I am delighted we have finally reached an agreement both the club and EDC have felt able to accept. We now have a lease which will allow Penrith AFC to turn its attention and energy back towards football itself and supporting and encouraging Penrith’s young people to play and enjoy the sport. This agreement has required flexibility and compromise on both sides, and it is a credit to everyone involved that we have managed to make this work.

Eden District Council’s Leader Cllr Gordon Nicolson, OBE, said: “Over the last two months we have had very productive meetings with Penrith AFC and they have confirmed that the terms we are offering are acceptable to them. There has been a lot of compromise on both sides, but we have reached an agreement that the Club has accepted. These have now been approved by full Council. We hope that the Club will continue to be part of Eden’s sporting landscape.”



Rory Stewart MP, as part of his ongoing campaign to ensure that north Cumbria remains free of inappropriate wind-turbines, is pressing Cumbrian District Councils to adopt the essential features of the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distance from Residential Premises) Bill which was formerly being carried through the House of Lords by sponsor Lord Reay until his unexpected death in 2013. This Bill sought to establish separation distances which increase as the height of turbines increases.

The MP is contacting planning departments within his constituency – Eden, Allerdale and Carlisle – in addition to contacting Ministers within DCLG to advise of his intention to continue Lord Reay’s
campaign. He will officially launch the campaign at a meeting next Friday 26th September, at 6pm, at Low Hesket Village Hall, with the NO2AWT group of anti-turbine campaigners from Aiketgate – one of just several community groups currently fighting turbine applications in Penrith and The Border.

Rory Stewart MP said: “I am encouraged that some local councils have already adopted a minimum separation distance for large wind turbines. However we need to ensure that this is incorporated into all Local Plans throughout Cumbria [comma] and we hope ultimately this moderate reform would be enshrined in planning guidance throughout England.

Economically, environmentally and visually,most wind developments are wrong for Cumbria, and are against the wishes of our communities. They wreck friendships and force neighbours to disagree. Hence they are divisive and entirely against the spirit of localism. For that reason I am very, very supportive of any community wishing to oppose them.”

“My parliamentary colleague Lord Reay introduced his innovative and enormously important bill in the House of Lords in May 2012, a bill which had involved much consultation with the government, and a great deal of detailed research. I consider his concept of calibrated minimum-distances to be both practical and fair. Most unfortunately he died before the bill could progress to the final committee stage. I would like to revive his campaign [comma] and will do all I can to progress it both locally and within the House of Commons.”



Following the recent publication of a CQC report on the quality of care provided at Court Thorn surgery in Hesket, where the local Patient Participation Group (PPG) was praised for the outstanding support it provides to both the surgery and the local community, the PPG has teamed up with MP Rory Stewart to encourage their adoption more widely in the Eden area. The Penrith and the Border MP has written to all surgeries in Eden to highlight the success of Hesket PPG, and has offered support to any surgeries keen on setting up their own group.

Patient Participation Groups serve as a mechanism by which a local community can work with their GP surgery to improve services and promote health and improved quality of care. Hesket PPG for example, has held a number of seminars and events to promote health and wellbeing for local residents, including: a ‘Heart Start’ course working with Community First Responders, a dementia awareness seminar and a ‘Putting your affairs in order’ seminar.

Rory Stewart said:

“I am a firm and passionate believer in localism, and I feel that PPGs are a fantastic way of re-establishing and maintaining strong links between a GP surgery, and the community it serves. At a time when I worry about the long-term viability of many of our small, rural surgeries, PPGs could serve as an important tool by which to highlight their on-going importance, and broaden the services we can offer to rural communities.”

Jennie Sutton, Facilitator to the Hesket PPG, said:

“The idea behind Practices investing time in patients and recruiting a Patient Participation Group is that you have the benefit of exploring issues and challenges from a patient perspective, helping to ensure better and more responsive solutions to care.”

Tony Lainsbury, the Chair for Court Thorn Surgery PPG, said:

“Working with Court Thorn Surgery at every level, from the waiting room, to the systems and processes used day to day and then through leadership and strategic decision making, ensures the patients’ voice is heard and considered every step of the way!”


Rory Stewart interview: Britain’s strategic gap


Article first published in Prospect Magazine by Jay Elwes on 18 September 2014.

“It was very striking when the Russia crisis broke out for example that there were only two people left [in the Defence Intelligence unit] working on Russia.” “There was no Crimea desk officer,” in the service, which provides strategic defence intelligence to the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. “The Crimea desk officer had to be moved across from the South Caucasus—and the Russian analysis section had been closed in 2010.”

Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, has told Prospect that Britain is suffering from a serious shortfall in foreign policy expertise and analytical capability, which hinders its ability to cope with the multiple foreign policy threats it now faces.

In an interview with Prospect, Stewart set out the challenge posed to Britain by Islamic State extremists in the Middle East and the military adventurism of Vladimir Putin, saying that: “What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers.”

There is no argument about the extent of the threat posed by the Islamic State group, Stewart says. It must be confronted. A more uncertain question is whether Britain can contribute to the development of a regional solution. This can only be done, says Stewart, “by having large, knowledgeable, energised teams on the ground working through these issues minute by minute.” Such teams, says Stewart, do not currently exist.

“In the Foreign [and Commonwealth] Office, for 16 years, the focus has been on management and corporate management skills and promotions. And people have not been rewarded for developing deep country expertise, or deep linguistic knowledge… “They’re being asked to be project managers, trade and commerce representatives,” says Stewart. “Often, diplomats who try to focus exclusively on producing very high quality reporting—contacting locals—find that they struggle to get promoted into the senior management stream.”

This has been accompanied by a loss of capacity. “Within the Ministry of Defence,” says Stewart, there has been a “hollowing out of institutions at defence intelligence which means that there are simply not enough people available to analyse Libya and Syria and obviously Crimea and Ukraine.”

This shortage of specialist staff, and the withering of corporate memory, means that previous decisions go unexamined. This deprives Britain of a body of knowledge on which it can draw when confronting new threats.

The same myopia affects Britain’s civilian strategic thinkers, he says. He is especially alarmed at the “terrifying idea” that has taken hold “that failure is not an option, the idea that these are existential threats that something must be done [about]—that leads people to dust down theories which really don’t bear much examination.”

From 2003-2004, during the US-led Coalition intervention, Stewart served as Deputy Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq. In 2005 he established a charity in Kabul, the Afghan capital, funding infrastructure projects. He has been a strong critic of western ambitions for “nation-building” in both countries.

Britain and its allies must draw all they can from the experience of Afghanistan, in the hope of extracting lessons that can be applied to the confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, says Stewart, a broad failure of strategic imagination means that this learning process is not occurring.

“The big challenge is acknowledging that counterinsurgency warfare theory and nation building theory have failed,” he says. “Those theories turned out not to deliver. It turned out we were not able to nation build in the context of an insurgency.”

“People have been very slow to see how bad these theories were because they were essentially like snake oil being sold to somebody with a desperate terminal illness,” he says. “Like someone with an incurable illness [the west] was willing to reach for almost anything that was offered and pump incredible amounts of money into very flaky ideas: about Afghanistan being a centralised, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic state.”

The few episiodes in the Afghan campaign which, at the time were considered victories by the west in retrospect look less shining. One example was in 2007, when the Sunni tribes in Anbar province in Iraq turned against al Qaeda, driving them out of their strongholds. Might the Islamic State now be driven out in a similar manner by those same Sunni tribes?

“Why on earth would it happen? Last time it occurred in the context of $130bn a year, 100,000 American troops on the ground, huge amounts of money going to the Sunni Awakening, giving money to over 100,000 people to fight in tribal militias. They took huge risks, a lot of them got killed and the whole thing fell to pieces three years later,” says Stewart, “so why should they trust us?”

“The challenge for the west is to take a long hard look at itself,” he says. The time has come for some considered reflection among “the think-tankers, strategists, diplomats, politicians, who so confidently asserted that they had solutions to Iraq or Afghanistan… Ultimately one has to believe that the world is going to become a more humane place,” he says, “that populations of these countries are going to work their way towards a settled, better future—we have seen that happen again and again in the world. But the idea that it is somehow within the gift of the west, that the west is sufficient or even necessary in that transformation, is now I think under pressure.

“We are going to have to rediscover our confidence by looking at places like Bosnia and Kosovo where we got it right,” he says “and try and understand how we got those things right if we are ever to intervene successfully again.”


We’ll Be Stronger Together

First published in Time on 28 August 2014

The Scottish National Party is one of the most attractively crafted nationalist movements in history. It has cloaked itself in progressive liberal language; it claims to be in favor of higher immigration; professes great friendship for neighboring nations; is anti-militarist; and instead of focusing on the past, champions “the future.” But in the end, like all nationalisms, it has a reactionary core. It assumes that one people–the Scots–are somehow, although they would never state it, intrinsically separate and superior; and that the answer to their problems is to cut off a group of fellow-citizens, and treat them–the English, Welsh and Northern Irish–as foreigners. All the bewildering, appealing and contradictory claims of the Scottish nationalists ultimately rest on this foundation.

Take their manifesto. The SNP, the main party behind the Yes Scotland campaign, has avoided any discussion of identity and has tried to make the referendum into a party political campaign, emphasizing economic policy. Its manifesto focuses on a pension guarantee, adjustment to housing benefits, and a lower corporation tax rate. But none of these proposals requires independence to become law. Some could be implemented immediately by the existing Scottish government. All could well be introduced by a Labour government in London, should the left-of-center party win the next election. The only challenge is to convince all British voters, not just Scots, to vote for such policies. 

But this not what the Scottish Nationalists have in mind—apparently because they believe that political attitudes are permanent, fixed aspects of national character. (They call this idea – —that political views coincide exactly with ancient borders -—”civic nationalism”). Their solution is, therefore, to simply exclude the “English”—the nationalists’ tendency is to refer to all other Britons as the “English”—from voting by changing the electoral boundaries. This is gerrymandering on a national scale. In order to achieve more “progressive” policies in areas such as welfare and taxation policy, they wish people to renounce their citizenship and create a new country. Not only is this bad democratic process, it misrepresents the reality of broader British political attitudes.

There is no evidence in social attitude surveys that the English are—as nationalists like to suggest—more xenophobic, reactionary and right-wing than the Scots. England and English thinkers have shaped and continued to define most of the progressive policies in Britain from feminism to civil rights and the environmental movement. Scotland is in many ways less “modern” than London, which has become one of the most rapidly changing, cosmopolitan, and global capitals on earth (7% of Scots were born outside the U.K., compared to 37% of Londoners).

Which is why, for all the talk about the future and progressivism, the nationalist project is in fact reactionary. Nationalists blame Scotland’s problems—which are almost indistinguishable from the problems of most Western democracies—on their relationship with the rest of Britain. Instead of trying to harness the potential of a diverse, connected, and rapidly expanding London, they treat London as a threat—and attempt to segregate and protect themselves from it. Instead of continuing to share national resources and assets with fellow-citizens, they hope to achieve their utopia by scapegoating the English, treating them as foreigners, and keeping the resources—particularly the North Sea oil and gas reserves that have long benefitted all of Britain—for themselves. In short, their response to the fundamental problems of a 21st century democracy is try to try to shut the complexity out by drawing in their borders.

The United Kingdom can be improved—it needs much more local democracy, it needs to rediscover a sense of seriousness, and it would benefit from a new written constitution—but it retains great strengths. The three-century-old union between different nations is unique proof of the power of solidarity, tradition, and democratic process. And there are good economic arguments for remaining together. In the end, however, the referendum is about identity: should people continue to be both Scottish and British, or become only Scottish?

For two months now, thousands of English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have gathered on the Scottish border at Gretna. They are bringing rocks, which they have collected from every corner of the United Kingdom, and are piling them in a giant traditional stone cairn, in honour of the Union. The cairn records its builders’ respect and affection for their fellow citizens, and demonstrates that different nations can build together in a single country. Such structures have been built on both sides of the border for more than six thousand years. The building of the cairn may be an ancient tradition but it is a far healthier and more truthful response than nationalism to the challenges of the modern world.


What will it mean to wake up next week and find that Scotland has left forever?

What will it mean to wake up next week and find that Scotland has left, forever?  Bewilderment, certainly, loss, grief. But we cannot know how we will feel until it is lost: until it is too late. We have spent three or four hundred years, as a single family: everything in our language, our culture, and our identity is a product of that family.  We are four nations that have evolved together.  If that family is torn apart, we will be bereft, unmoored, in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

We would start by losing the very name of our country – the United Kingdom refers to the Union between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. What is the name for a disunited Kingdom? What will it feel like for the first time, to drive into Scotland on holiday and be stopped at, a border post? To watch lawyers and consultants grow rich through splitting our assets?

Will Scots move to Cumbria to pay lower taxes, or English move to Scotland for benefits? What fortunes will be made by accountants, as companies work out the costs of doing business with a new country with different regulations? How much will we pay international bankers to advise on the division of the debt? And what will investors make of us, when all this is going on?

Those are the easy questions. It would be a messy, ugly divorce, and we would waste a decade and a fortune, in squabbles that will become ever tenser, ever angrier and more resentful, as the blame is apportioned and reapportioned between us. But the negotiations would end.

Our identity, however, our family of nations, would never heal. Take the millions who have worked for the British Army, or the British government, or the millions with mixed English and Scottish ancestry. We never had to think about what our country was, and wasn’t – we were serving Britain regardless of whether we were in Cornwall, in Aberdeen, or in Iraq. Neither a Scottish father, nor an English mother, was a foreigner. But split our country and who are we serving? What will happen when our countries disagree? Which country would we follow? Which army would we join?

And would we ever feel the same way about England or Scotland alone, as we feel about Britain? Will we unleash a defiant and shrill English nationalism, insisting on superiority and differences? How long then would Wales stay? And will we not always feel as though something were missing in our new country, as though we carried a phantom limb?

Only a week remains. The polls currently show that Scots will vote for separation. But it is very close: a point either way. The views of a few thousand people will decide the future of millions. We must help them see the Nationalists for what they are: pessimists about Britain, who hope to shut out the challenges of the age, by shrinking the country, putting up artificial borders, and retreating from the diversity of the United Kingdom. They offer a dream only of being with people like themselves. And it is a false vision. The strength of Britain – and of any family – lies in difference, being challenged by other people and other nations, learning from each other, and becoming – like any family – much more than the sum of our parts.

In the end, Scottish voters need to be convinced only that Britain is a country, of which they can be proud. A country with a brilliant future. And that is something that even those of us who do not have a vote can demonstrate. We are the heirs of a country that has been four hundred years in the building. We cannot let a country that our ancestors sacrificed for so long to build, simply drift away through apathy, complacency and indifference. Instead, let us prove that when our country was at threat, our citizens were still prepared to stand and work together. Scottish Nationalism is a narrow, reductive, withdrawal. But Britain can always offer something larger, more capacious, more diverse, more powerful, and more imaginative.


Rory’s interview with The New Republic

Article first published in The New Republic by Alex Palmer on 10 September 2014.

There’s a moment toward the end of The Places in Between, the book that established Rory Stewart as a celebrity intellectual, when he happens upon a frozen lake. Places chronicles Stewart’s solo trek across war-torn Afghanistan in 2002, and in this passage, he arrives on a spotless plateau, surrounded by nothing but enveloping silence and a fresh layer of snow. “I walked across the frozen lake,” he writes, “and, standing in the very center, looked back at a mosque carved into a cliff the color of elm wood. … After a few minutes, it seemed I had never been so alone or anywhere so silent. The only sounds were the creak of my staff and my steps.”

As he evades the Taliban, Stewart also finds time to consider the wisdom of a Persian poet (“Man’s life is brief and transitory, Literature endures forever”) and the linguistic similarities between the French and Old Persian words for “journey.” By the time he was 33, The New York Times had declared that Stewart was “living one of the more extraordinary lives on record.” Brave, smart, an elegant writer—and really rather dashing, in an angular, Mick Jagger sort of way—he was a kind of throwback to the last great explorers of the British Empire.

Having seen the world, Stewart set out to change it. Following a tour as a deputy provincial governor in post-invasion Iraq (an experience he chronicled in his second best-seller, The Prince of the Marshes), Stewart went on to found an NGO and teach at Harvard, where he was still based when he decided to run for Parliament. His ambitions were nothing if not grand: As he later told one interviewer, he hoped “to imagine a more serious British civilization. To raise our sense of ourselves.” He set his sights on a seat representing a tony suburb west of London—then failed to even secure the Tory nomination.

Plan B was Penrith and the Border, a rural district—or constituency, as the Brits call them—in England’s far northwest. It wasn’t the capital, but for Stewart, the area did have a natural appeal: With its patchwork of villages and craggy peaks, the area is “the closest to the Hindu Kush you’re going to get in the British Isles,” as longtime Conservative M.P. Malcolm Rifkind puts it. Stewart courted its 65,000 voters by walking the vast region on foot—he still can’t resist a good stroll—and was elected in May 2010.

One afternoon this summer, I accompanied Stewart to a meeting with constituents at the Conservative Club in the sleepy town of Brampton. As Stewart rushes through the door of the squat brick building, a minor drama erupts among the waiting constituents, who are trying to figure out which room the meetings will take place in, what time their appointments are, and whether there is actually an appointment system at all. “Poor Rory,” chuckles a balding man nursing a beer in an empty corner booth. “He’s always a bit late.”

Dressed in a dapper navy suit, Stewart sets a trim black briefcase at his side, removes a pen from his jacket pocket, and stands to greet each arrival, many of whom bear thick packets of forms or petitions demanding his attention. One older man has a handful of letters he has written to various government bodies advocating better programs for the learning-impaired. From the replies he has received, it’s clear that no one has actually read his entreaties. “Absurd,” Stewart says, shaking his head. Another constituent, a thick-set retiree in jeans and a plaid shirt, saunters over and plops down across from Stewart like he has found an empty chair at a cocktail party. With no pressing concerns to discuss, Stewart and the constituent wind up going through the latter’s family tree. (“She’s your cousin, is she?” Stewart asks. “She’s amazing!”) Soon enough, the man ambles back in the direction of the bar. Stewart is never less than attentive during these conversations. But sometimes I catch a look of discomfit—half-smile, half-grimace—reflexively spreading across his face.

Until recently, Stewart wasn’t one of those people who had to worry whether or not things would work out. They just did. (There are many clever students at Oxford, after all; only Stewart was handpicked by Prince Charles to tutor William and Harry.) But his new calling may prove the exception in his glide from one triumph to the next. “Being a backbench M.P. is a bit of an anticlimax for a superhero,” he once told a British reporter. Stewart meant it as a joke, but there was a lot of truth in the remark.

Stewart received a chilly reception when he arrived in Westminster. A Labour supporter in his youth, he had dismissed the Conservatives’ platform as “feel-good, idea-light” as recently as 2007. But he opted to run for office as a Tory, in an election that was predicted, accurately, to be a Tory landslide. His fellow M.P.s sensed an opportunist—and, even more irritatingly, an opportunist they couldn’t dismiss. They dubbed him “Florence of Arabia.”

Stewart’s fellow M.P.s sensed an opportunist—and, even more irritatingly, an opportunist they couldn’t dismiss. They dubbed him “Florence of Arabia.”

Stewart responded by focusing resolutely on his far-flung district. After nearly two decades of wandering the globe, Stewart says, he realized that he needed to “prove that I care about Britain.” (“Broadband. Farming. Intervention. Foreign Affairs. Walking. Sausages,” his Twitter profile read until recently.) He presides over the anniversaries of municipal swimming pools, visits livestock shows, and encourages local businesses to use the new broadband Internet service he fought to have installed in the district. “It’s a job where … much more than you would’ve thought, people expect you to serve time,” Stewart says.

And yet the pull of the world outside Britain remains inexorable. Early in my afternoon with him, during a meeting with the head teacher of a local school, I watched as Stewart thumbed madly on his BlackBerry. “So sorry,” he said, eyes focused on the screen. “Trying to get rid of the news out of Iraq.”

Sometimes, when his duties fail to fire his mind, Stewart invents challenges himself. Two of the voters Stewart meets with at the Brampton Conservative Club are a pair of cheerful, middle-aged women who want to update him on their efforts to reopen a shuttered train stop that used to operate near Hadrian’s Wall. After listening patiently, Stewart leaps in with his own proposal: What if the station was not just a station? What if, instead, it was a brand new hub of local life?

It could be, Stewart continues, “an all-singing, all-dancing community regeneration project,” with a community center, a library, a visitor’s center, shops—and, yes, the train platform, too. Stewart’s eyes widen: They could even get an endorsement from an eminent British historian declaring the nearby stretch of Hadrian’s Wall to be “the finest preserved historical site in the United Kingdom.”

The women are stunned into silence. In a few minutes, Stewart has turned their modest crusade into an epic redevelopment project. Finally, one of them blurts, “Yes, that’s wonderful!”

Later, we drive to Stewart’s office in the nearby town of Carlisle. From the front seat, Stewart launches into an enthusiastic disquisition on his recent trip to the Baltic region, the role of NATO, the development of the modern industrial state. “The problems that worry people today are not like the big issues of the nineteenth century—extending the franchise, ending slavery, women’s suffrage,” he says, a bit wistfully.

We arrive in Carlisle to find only one constituent waiting. Soon enough her concern—unpaid alimony after a messy separation—is addressed, leaving Stewart to mull the state of the British soul. Lately, he has become enamored with some ideas for Parliamentary reform that would reduce the House of Commons from the current 650 members to something closer to 100, as part of a larger shift to a more federal system of government. But, he admits, “I don’t know enough yet about myself or about the country or politics to know if that is even remotely consumable.”

Over the past few months, Stewart has started to win over some of his formerly frosty colleagues. In May, he was voted in as the chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, making him the youngest head of any select committee. “That’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in Parliament,” he confides.

But because Stewart is Stewart, there is persistent speculation in Westminster that he won’t stick around for long. “I have wondered occasionally whether having done so many different careers, but relatively brief periods at each, whether the same would happen [to Stewart] in the political world,” says Rifkind. A former Conservative advisor relays a widely held view: “Chairman of one of these committees is simply killing time for him.”

I ask Stewart if he thinks he has found his rhythm as a politician. He hunches forward on his elbows and stares off toward the wall. “It’s just difficult to work out what an M.P. is, what an M.P. does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be,” he says. “Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”