Monthly Archives: January 2010


Article first published in the New Statesman by Rachel Cooke on 25 January 2010.

I might as well come clean: I have something bordering on an obsession with Rory Stewart. Who is he, and where did he come from? Technically, I know the answers to these questions. He comes from Crieff, in Perthshire, and he went to Eton and Oxford, after which he joined the Foreign Office, eventually winding up as deputy governor of an Iraqi province. He is known for having walked across Afghanistan – he wrote a book about this called The Places in Between – and for having been a tutor to Princes William and Harry. Now he is the Conservative candidate for Penrith and, being both sane and prone to outbreaks of truthfulness, is possibly a ticking time bomb so far as David Cameron is concerned, Old Etonian or not.

But still, my questions stand. Who is he, and where did he come from? I suppose what I mean is: how can such a man exist in a world like ours? He is from another age, so unworldly, and yet so wildly successful at everything to which he turns his hand; so brave and adventurous, yet always so smartly dressed and polite (his hair is Hobbity, I’ll grant you; but for one who likes to travel he is singularly lacking in tattoos and piercings). In his documentary series The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia (Saturdays, BBC2, 7pm/8pm) he wears, at all times, even when striding over the Negev, a buttoned overcoat – it has a red melton collar lining, which he likes to display, cockerel-style – and those expensive-looking leather boots that only the truly posh seem to own (they must inherit them). I took all this in and, not for the first time, I marvelled.

Anyway, what of his film? Well, surprise, surprise: he’s good at TV presenting, too. In front of the camera, preternaturally calm, he makes Simon Schama look like a twitching lunatic. Plus, he has the kind of eyes – wondrous marbles – that convey his own surprise and interest to the viewer, and make it contagious. I’m not sure he has much to say about T E Lawrence that is new, exactly. It is fascinating to discover that US army majors are encouraged to read Lawrence, and even to watch clips of Peter O’Toole pretending to be him, but we all know how appalled he would be by the management of our present adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All the same, I found the whole thing captivating. Lawrence was a boyhood hero of Stewart’s, so there was real power in his retracing his steps: in Syria, he stroked the stone walls of the Crac des Chevaliers, the Crusader fort that Lawrence described as the “greatest castle in the world”, as if they might be hot to the touch, and, when he came to, he noted that it took 75 years to build the place. Contrast that with the razor wire and prefabs that now litter Afghanistan.

The film was beautiful and romantic. Stewart camped with Bedouins, and that was all flickering firelight, greasy lamb and tar-like coffee. Then, in the morning, as the sun rose, we saw him emerge from his tent wrapped, not in some picturesque ethnic throw, but in a cheap nylon blanket. This was the moment when I knew his bad night’s sleep had been for real. For his next trick, he rode a camel, at a firm trot, a wide smile on his face. Thus, the gap between our troops and the people whose countries they seek to “save” gaped ever wider even as you watched. I can’t wait for more adventures next week. Meanwhile, William Hague should meet up with Stewart and pick his brain, deftly and thoroughly, in the manner of a Bedouin setting about his mutton.

newton rigg, walking and penrith new squares

Today, Tuesday January 17th, I went with the Conservative Party group of Penrith and the Border to announce our support for the Newton Rigg campus and to oppose plans to close the site. Newton Rigg is vital to Cumbria both in terms of the training it provides and because of its broader contribution to the economy and development of the area. The staff of Newton Rigg have a wonderfully flexible and practical approach to training. They provide advice and support to local business (which has saved some businesses). And their staff, students and visitors to Newton Rigg have contributed greatly to the local economy through using local shops and services. Their most unique asset is their upland farm – there is no other in the country.

What makes me particularly angry is that this is just another example of the consistent neglect of rural Penrith and the Border. It is part of a pattern with the continual threats against rural schools and services and against Penrith and Alston hospitals. We must lay down a marker that our unique county – which is loved all over Britain – can only flourish if we continue to nurture and protect wonderful local institutions such as Newton Rigg.  I am determined to press all levels of government to ensure that the campus survives and flourishes on its current site.


Monday January 16th. A walk from Gilsland to Walton. A varied group joined me for this walk: they included a Legal officer, a housewife, two journalists, a grants officer from a large charitable foundation, a windfarm campaigner, a dairy farmer, and a trainee Buddhist nun. We were walking along the Roman Wall – Birdoswald was shrouded in fog but at Banks, the sun came out, revealing a thawing winter landscape – stretching to the still snow-covered Pennines. It was, as always, wonderful to learn from people while walking. People seemed very relaxed and open in talking about their work, their frustrations and their detachment from politics. I had a chance to chat to some farmers and residents at Lanercost but most of my time was spent talking to the walking group.

Those working for or giving grants to charities described the commitment and sacrifice of so many charity employees (working long hours for much less than they could earn in government). They also described – often through very funny anecdotes – the tolerance and wisdom that charity workers can develop over a decade working on a very tricky area.  More troublingly, they described the curious hybrid funding structures, whereby many charities are surviving less on private philanthropy and more on a combination of government, lottery and foundation grants, which draw them into an entire universe of fashionable theories on ‘best practice in the voluntary sector’. There is waste involved in much of this: unnecessary forms, esoteric jargon, excessive feasibility studies and strategic plans. Worse it breeds dishonesty – or as the grants officer politely put it ‘mutual deception – as when I say  ‘you can’t have money for a secretary but you can have money for a support officer who does secretarial work’.

We need to ensure that the remarkable people who are giving their lives to charitable work feel empowered and trusted: able to follow their own best judgement. This excessive paper-work and its associated bad faith, makes initially idealistic and committed charity workers feel increasingly cynical about and distanced from their work. Clearly – and this is much easier said than done – we need to not only remove many of these unnecessary layers (every politicians seems to say that) but also begin to change a whole culture our society, which tries to eliminate all risk, emphasizes process over action and in the process undermines individual responsibility, fulfillment (and even sometimes joy) in work.

Saturday January 15th

Walking all day – but barely covered three miles: I was visiting shops in Penrith. There is unanimity among shop-owners that the prime obstacle for customers is lack of parking. Suppliers refuse to come because they can’t park and customers are not able to wait for a product because they are worried about traffic wardens. It is amazing that so much of Penrith is still intact – some of the shops over a period of two hundred years. It has not yet succumbed like some market towns, to an endless row of charity shops, high street chains and abandoned shop-fronts. And the longer Penrith manages to survive the more people will come to appreciate what it offers. But it needs immediate support: some businesses are down 30 per cent this year, a long-standing shop has just closed.

Council officers should prepare an immediate contingency plan so that when (as seems very likely), Bank of Australia and its partners pull out of New Squares, temporary parking can be installed immediately. We should not be waiting for the announcement and then slowly beginning a process of feasibility studies and tendering. Instead we should have a plan ready to roll out at once.


Article first published in The Financial Times on 15 January 2010.

For me the new decade began walking through powder snow under a full moon north of Hadrian’s Wall. Every field and footbridge in Cumbria lay under new powder and the moon, cast up by the ice crust, illuminated hills 20 miles away. Four hours after dark and just three miles short of the Scottish border, I was offered a bed. Since October, I have been the Conservative party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border and for the past month I have been walking through the constituency in order to better know its people and places. I had reached the border section: the Bewcastle wastes, beside the Debatable Lands, which for 300 years until the accession of James I in 1603, were the scorched frontier of proxy wars between England and Scotland.

My hosts had been snowed in for four days; their heating oil had run out. I was given space in the nursery under many blankets and fed a very good bowl of porridge the next morning. They explained that this was one of the least populated parts of England and there were very few villages: the area was once too dangerous to be settled. The oldest parts of buildings, such as their kitchen, were the stumps of fortified buildings. When the roads are clear, children travel eight miles to the nearest school.

I reached the next house after half an hour’s walk through a light sleet. Since the roads were blocked, most people were at home. At Bewcastle, the bishop gave me soup and a jar of chutney. Beside his house was a seventh-century cross, set up in memory of a long-dead friend and – judging by the number of beautifully carved hawks on the stone – his falconry.

A friend joined me on the stretch over the moor to Gilsland. With each step, I had a momentary illusion of staying on the surface before I plunged through two and half feet of powder to the peat bog. We soaked our boots in hidden rivers and experimented with crawling. Most of this – though we could see nothing of it – was on the Maiden Way that linked the Roman fort at Bewcastle to Birdoswald. The wind kept the powder moving like a mist over the unbroken surface towards the setting sun. It took us two hours to cross a mile in this fashion and we were pleased to see Tarmac again.

The following day, I was pulled into the BBC studio at Carlisle to answer, in a debate with two other parliamentary candidates, Alistair Darling’s 150-page attack on David Cameron’s spending commitments. The conversation was strangely detached from anything I had experienced in Cumbrian homes. The chairman of Bewcastle council had, for instance, described carefully the different families who had taken up the affordable housing at the road head and the splits among her own relatives over wind farms. She, like most people I encountered, expects a precise, attentive focus on local decisions, not a macroeconomic theory.

Farmers, the most politicised group I met, were the exception. At the Longtown Auction Mart, Fred Errington pushed back his powder-blue hat, leant through the bars of the auction ring and barked at me, “When are you politicians going to tell the truth about the deficit? We don’t believe any of you any more.” At Penrith, David Crowden explained the cost of 20 new regulations, forms and electronic identification tags and asked what was coming next. Another man shouted, “I hope you’re not going to be fiddling like those other buggers.”

Every farmer, it seems, is not just frustrated by the near-monopoly power of the supermarkets and baffled by the increasing burden of paperwork but also by environmental policy and by government spending. Although they can appreciate the theory behind regulations, they find them disproportionate. Does water purity really require preventing all on-farm burials? Does animal health really justify putting electronic ID tags on every breeding sheep? Some forms simply encourage people to lie: “Yes, the truck was washed yesterday”, “No, no pets have ever been in my B&B kitchen”.

The marts are a unique opportunity for farmers, who have fewer and fewer people working with them, to meet and talk. The buyers stand muffled to the ears – it was minus 16 in the Longtown ring – munching on sandwiches, speaking on phones and also managing to feel the rumps and, in scarcely detectable nods and winks, bid swiftly on a bewildering range of crosses of Bluefaced Leicesters, Swaledale, Blackface, Suffolk and Texel. Despite the freezing weather (which has kept away many sellers from southern Scotland) there were smiles because of the prices. Even some of the fell breeds, which you could hardly give away two years ago, are going for record rates.

But on Friday, walking down the east fellside from my home at Dufton, I came across dairy farmers who are being crushed by supermarkets, which sell their milk for three times the price at which they buy. I listened to people, either in their houses or walking alongside me. Eight miles down the road, an equality and diversity officer at Carlisle hospital invited me in and fed me warm butter biscuits made in the shape of an elephant by her daughter. She was a Labour voter but she agreed with relatively rightwing farmers on the folly of so many targets, metrics, inspections and forms.

She was resigning because of paperwork which she, an intelligent and thoughtful woman, considered senseless. It is so easy to imagine – if, say, a tabloid is ranting about the subject – that these stories are exaggerated. But with each anecdote I heard the reality seemed worse. Again and again people said, “We would like some common-sense.” My main objective as a politician is to change this culture of government. Every day makes the task seem more urgent and more difficult.

Almost a year ago I was at another Roman fort, with stone as black as Birdoswald’s is white. It was Azrak on Rome’s other frontier, facing not across the snow plains of Bewcastle but across the Iraqi desert. I was filming a BBC documentary about Lawrence of Arabia and I was sitting in what had been his bedroom. At night, he thought about ancient history and the crusades and wrote memos to convince first world war cavalry officers to fund revolutionary guerrilla tactics. By day, he discussed livestock and family illnesses and convinced shepherds to dream of a fully independent Arabia. When he returned to Europe, he used his fame and intelligence to argue for a moderate foreign policy.

Many imagined that this boyish figure was too unworldly. But following his route, reading his secret reports, talking to people whose fathers knew him, studying his maps and journalism, has changed my idea of him. The poetry crammed in his head and his quixotic ideas of chivalry and heroism did not weaken him: they encouraged him to believe that things could be changed. His years in the field, listening to individual stories and brooding on history and landscape, gave him the confidence to challenge the stale assumptions of senior officials: their tired procedures; their lack of faith in people on the ground. Making the documentary showed me how impatience, subversion and idealism can also be intensely practical and effective.


Article first published in The Guardian by Julian Glover on 14 January 2010.

short burst of semi-­automatic gunfire rings out from the bushes. ­Moments later, we pass a burned-out tank and a huddle of men in uniform; a gun sounds closer by and its shots echo from the fells. My walking companion, Rory Stewart, doesn’t even flinch.

But then Stewart, who will almost certainly be the next MP for Penrith, is no ordinary fledgling politician. He ­relishes war-torn environments – he once, famously, walked across Afghanistan – and he is now spending six weeks walking through his future ­constituency. The gunfire here in ­Cumbria brings his old and new lives into unexpected collision: these ­soldiers are preparing for a war, in ­Helmand, that Stewart – from his ­experience of both Afghanistan and Iraq – does not think they can win.

When an army Land Rover pulls up and a suspicious pair of squaddies start asking why we are walking – on a public­ road – through the middle of ­Operation Green Enforcer, Stewart does not ­mention his time in Kabul. Nor does he explain that he has just ­become the local Conservative parliamentary candidate. The soldiers wouldn’t ­believe him if he did. With an old North Face down jacket, MacPac rucksack and mud-splattered Berghaus boots – the kit that saw him through the mountains of central Afghanistan in midwinter – he looks more ­uppercrust eco-warrior than county Tory. In a ­constituency that once sent Willie Whitelaw and William Pitt the Younger to parliament, his arrival ­personifies the Cameron revolution.

Among the ranks of all the new ­parliamentary candidates on offer, from all parties, Stewart is blessed – or cursed – by standing out as being by a long way the most extraordinary. Neither quirky candour, nor unconcealed intelligence, nor being famous already, have proved reliable foundations for a Westminster career, and he knows this. As we walk, the New Yorker magazine emails asking him to agree to a profile piece. Newspaper cuttings pile on the ­accolades: the author of two bestselling books, picked by Esquire magazine as one of the 75 most influential people of the century. In quick succession, he was a former officer in the Black Watch and a diplomat in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo war.

After leaving the Foreign Office in search of new adventures, Stewart, who looks (deceptively) winsome and vulnerable with his tousled hair and wiry build, walked 6,000 miles across Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, mostly alone (his winter walk across Afghanistan was the subject of his first book). Then, in the chaos that followed invasion, he was asked to serve as deputy governor of an Iraqi province (the subject of his second book). He founded and still funds an Afghan cultural charity, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, reviving ­traditional crafts to restore the wrecked old centre of Kabul, and ran it for ­several years, outside the expat ­security bubble.

An observer could be forgiven for wondering whether Stewart has ­entered some kind of unconscious competition for the most astonishing obituary of his generation. Perhaps he was a spy for a time, as some say. But this isn’t a career that needs any added exoticism. In his 20s he was Britain’s presence on the ground in Montenegro; in his early 30s he was besieged in the governor’s offices in Iraq’s Maysan province. He was, briefly, summer ­tutor to Princes William and Harry; he writes columns for the New York ­Review of Books; last year he became a professor of human rights at Harvard and he is still only just 37. The romantic American ideal of a British adventurer, he has testified before the Senate foreign relations committee and briefed the Obama administration and Gordon Brown; Brad Pitt apparently bought the film rights to his life. He has just made a series on Lawrence of Arabia for the BBC. And now – surprised by his own headstrong change of direction – Stewart is giving it up to join a House of Commons whose ­reputation has been trashed by the ­expenses scandal.

“People do think I am a bit mad to do it,” he says as we sit in the friendly bar of Kirkby Stephen’s Black Bull ­hotel, in the middle of the rural ­constituency, which has been Con­servative for the last 90 years. “They can’t quite understand why somebody like me would like to be a politician.” He only joined the party this summer, responding to David Cameron’s call for people with outside experience to come forward, and was chosen for Penrith in an open primary, his second attempt to win selection to a seat.

A clever, charming and funny man, and a sharply comic mimic, Stewart seems to display a dreamlike disconnection with the world as other mortals experience it. Walking with him, I find myself half-expecting to be beamed back at any moment to his home galaxy. Convention does not trouble him; he charges off in all directions, sometimes literally. At one point during our time together, driving down a farm track in his constituency at 1am, we plunge through a river and sink the car’s axles deep into a bog. Stewart’s face lights up: “So now we start walking.” And, in the mud and rain, we do.

Born in Scotland, he was brought up in Asia and at Eton (“a huge unfair ­advantage in life”). He is not soaked in British political culture – all those trite battles at Westminster and claims for duck islands and bell towers. He looks with unfamiliarity and horror at Private Eye when I lend him a copy.

It is, then, hardly surprising that there are those who fear he may sink or explode when he arrives next spring on the Conservative benches. Can a man who debates and dines with presidential candidates, is a friend of the Prince of Wales and has to dash back from Penrith for supper with Michael Bloomberg – the mayor of New York City – hack it as a backbencher?

“I am worried,” he says. “I think one of the odd things about public life, coming from the outside, is that people seem to be paranoid. Maybe they were quite frank initially, but then they did one thing which went wrong.” He ­wonders if politicians are scared into giving an exaggerated appearance of passionate idealism. “If every answer you give has to be super earnest and sincere, it is bad for the way you think . . . Ideally, what you want is someone who is thinking as they speak, rather than someone who has already thought it through and is banging it out” – an approach that may put him on collision course with the whips’ ­office. “Politics feels, on what I have seen of it, like joining a tribe and a lot of it is about unspoken ways of behaving.”

Stewart surely sees himself as a ­future minister, though he regrets telling one journalist he wanted to be. He makes little secret, however, of his hopes of one day taking charge of foreign ­policy or development. “I don’t want to be ironic from the sidelines. But you need to have things that you are not going to compromise on. There is a danger that you cease to be real.”

Questions have also been asked about why he has chosen the Tories rather than Labour; after all, he was a member of the Labour party as a teenager and he diverges from the Tory line on Iraq, Afghanistan and some aspects of the European Union. But he seems at home ideologically with his new party. He shows a Cameronesque irri­tation with government: “Excessive regulation, red tape, all the stuff people complain about. You have got more hope with the Tories of having people who speak that kind of language; you can say that sort of thing without them getting defensive . . . I found student politics when I was at university a bit uncomfortable,” he says. “I think the Conservative party has changed and I have changed.”

Stewart, despite his globetrotting, is drawn to the local; he is no grandee bored by the people he is asking to elect him. During this winter walk though his future constituency, he’s staying every night as a guest in a ­different village, and he beams with pleasure at the beauty of the part of Britain he plans to make his home. “I am only really happy walking. Maybe I should give my address as a hedge.”

His walk is a conscious repeat of his expedition across Asia, and he ­repeatedly compares the lessons of life in Afghanistan with the needs of Penrith. “I did stuff for three years in Kabul that I found exciting, and a lot of that was fixing roofs, talking about sewage ­installation,” he says. He does seem ­serious about his commitment to this place, although Kabul certainly offered thrills that Appleby-in-Westmorland may struggle to match. And of course he’s not actually a local here, as his ­Liberal Democrat challenger, a farmer, certainly is. A report in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald remarks ­significantly that Stewart is “based in Crieff, Scotland”.

It is tempting to think of Stewart as a man out of his time, except that in any age he would be an oddity. Walking through the sharp beauty of the Eden valley – all cropped fields, stone walls and clear streams – Stewart recites a medieval Scots ballad about death. The consti­tuency, he announces, is “halfway ­between Auden and Wordsworth” – both lived on its boundaries. As we walk into Kirkby Stephen a flock of green-and-gold parrots flies overhead; a suitably eccentric welcome for the town’s would-be MP. When he tells an assistant in the baker’s shop that he is standing for parliament she looks at him with pity and disbelief.

No other Tory MP, it is safe to say, will have spent a month as a 10-year-old living in a Dayak longhouse in ­Borneo, or be able on a whim to mimic a George Steiner lecture at Oxford, or drop into conversation lines such as “when I was beaten up at Bamiyan”. None will have walked to Oxford from Marble Arch, as he did in October, leaving London at 4.30am and arriving just after 11pm (“the A40 was boring”). After our dinner together, he asks to borrow a book, “as I only have Seneca”.

It would all be terribly affected, if it was not, apparently, for real. Throw a subject at Stewart – Henry V, for instance – and he pours forth detail and understanding. But in the Black Bull hotel that night a scratch Stewart/Guardian team comes last in the pub quiz. Full marks for geography and ­history, but none for pop music, and neither of us knew who plays Dot ­Cotton in EastEnders.

Of course the thing, most immediately, that Stewart offers Westminster is knowledge of Afghanistan and Obama’s America. William Hague has been welcoming to him. But Foreign Office hands tend to dismiss him as a nostalgic adventurer. He, in return, condemns them. “If I was to say to them, ‘With your current policy, ­Afghanistan is going to be no better in three years’ time – in fact it is going to be a slightly rubbish version of what it is today,’ they are not going to disagree with me. If offered a bet on whether the surge will work, they won’t take it. They think nothing can be done, and that if only I was wiser and older and more inside the system and hadn’t left the Foreign Office I would realise that is just the way the world works.”

It isn’t, he insists. Stewart is a liberal idealist. He even praises aspects of the EU, as few Tories do these days. “The world isn’t one way or ­another. Things can be changed very, very rapidly and can be changed by someone with sufficient confidence, sufficient knowledge and sufficient ­authority.” Quite possibly he imagines himself to be that person. One thing that is not in doubt is his self-confidence.

He thinks Britain’s foreign policy-making is superficial and ill-informed – overly dependent on a loyalty to ­America, yet adrift from what the Obama administration wants. He ­dismisses Brown and Cameron’s claim that British troops are fighting to stop terrorism at home. “Ninety per cent of the people we are fighting couldn’t find Britain on a map. They are semi-literate, tribal, conservative village ­communities,” he says. “This is not a trivial issue. There are thousands of ­Afghans being killed, hundreds of ­foreign troops being killed.”

He thinks Obama himself is sceptical of the current surge; in fact he thinks many of the politicians who back it are only really doing so because they want a fast exit from Afghanistan. “I think that some of the people who are ­pushing for troop increases are a little ambivalent. They may feel a bit trapped; they are not sure what to do. It is very difficult to convince them that there are any options other than troop increases or withdrawal.”

Stewart supports a middle way: he wants to see a smaller number of foreign troops, serving for a much longer time. It would, in effect, be a humanitarian mission; an admission that having ­invaded the country, we should try to fix things there. There would be no more pretence of war in Afghanistan offering some kind of protection to Britain. “Rather than getting into this impatient ‘either we stabilise the ­country or forget it’ posture, there are lots of things we do in the world where it makes sense to use modest amounts of resources,” he says. “We could deploy a few troops, quite a lot of money and, over 20-30 years, make Afghanistan better for Afghans and indirectly better for Britain by stabilising the region.

“The difficulty for me as a politician is what kind of slogan is it to say our aim should be to decrease the likelihood of civil war? The only way that you are going to be able to stay is if you have a realistic, affordable presence on the ground, a presence that voters are going to put up with. The danger of these troop surges above all – and there are many, many dangers – is that they are unsustainable: they create immediate pressure for withdrawal.”

It is a strong argument. But will a Tory government listen? He pauses. “I have absolutely no idea. I believe it very strongly. If I can find an appropriate and constructive way of hammering away at a point that I believe is true, I would like to keep doing that.”

Whether Cameron will be able to ­listen to someone as honest and unusual as Rory Stewart is unclear. How Stewart will deal with the realities of life in Westminster is anyone’s guess. That he will be Britain’s most fascinating and most watched new MP is not in doubt.

more thoughts on my walk through penrith & the border


January 1st.

I can imagine no better way of beginning the new decade than this: walking past Askerton over a broad snow field, under a full moon. I had ended the old year with a dance at Caldbeck village hall on the 29th . I was beyond Brough on the 30th. and saw in the New Year at Pooley Bridge and resumed the walk from Castle Carrock just before midday on the 1st. Tommy, a keen follower of the foot-packs and a student walked with me. We began East on the Fell Road and then worked back North through Brampton. The sun fell before we reached Castlesteads. For the next three hours we were lit by an astonishing moon, which, cast up by the snow crust, illuminated hills twenty miles away.

It feels difficult now to imagine Cumbria without snow. Every hill and footbridge lay under untouched powder. Eighteen miles into our walk and just three miles short of the Scottish border, at nine at night, we were offered a bed. The oil had run out so there was no heating but Tommy was given a sofa by the fire and I a space in the nursery under many blankets. Our hosts had been snowed in for a few days.

January 2nd.

After a very generous helping of breakfast we turned back towards Bewcastle with a fine hard wind, climbing up towards Roadend. Almost everyone was at home because they did not trust the roads: which was, of course, great for a visiting politician. I learned a lot from Mrs.Smith, the chairman of the parish council about windfarm and housing proposals and was given a jar of chutney by the Bishop at Bewcastle Cross. The stretch from Bewcastle to Gilsland was absurd and absurdly beautiful. With each step, I hoped I would stay on the crust but in fact fell with a creak two and half foot deep in snow, through to the peat bog. Both Tommy and I managed to slide into hidden rivers, soaking our feet. The effort of climbing out of the snow-drifts with each step made us experiment with crawling. We took it in turns to break trail and tread in each other’s steps. Most of this – though we could see nothing of it – was on the Maiden Way that linked the Roman fort at Bewcastle to Birdoswald. The wind kept the powder moving like a mist over the unbroken surface towards the setting sun. It took us two hours to cross a mile in this fashion and we were pleased to finally see tarmac again.

January 3rd

Sunday, was my birthday and my parents came down from Scotland to celebrate it with me and friends gave me a wonderful birthday lunch near Penrith. I spent the afternoon trying to catch up on work and e-mails and was back in the cottage at Dufton that night.

January 4th

The ‘long campaign’ begins. BBC Radio 4 invited me to the Carlisle studio, as a prospective parliamentary candidate, to take part in the World at One debate with Rachel Reeves, Labour candidate for Leeds West and Karen Gillard, Liberal Democrat for South East Cornwall. Alistair Darling had just published a 150 page attack on David Cameron’s spending commitments. I tried to reflect what I am hearing on Cumbria doorsteps rather than quibbling with a 150-page policy document. I sense voters will decide almost intuitively that the Conservatives are more likely to make the necessary decisions to get the private sector going again and reduce the deficit. But it is so clear that all parties need to be better at communicating about the deficit and cuts. Again and again, people tell me that they don’t believe what politicians say about the finances.

I then went on to Tullie House museum – which is one of the great small museums in Britain: a fragment of gold necklace, kept by a Celtic goldsmith; a Roman greyhound, found at Kirkby Thore; a two thousand year old cup inlaid with the Roman fort at Castlesteads. Here is Cumbrian in all its magic Celtic-Roman-Welsh-Saxon-Irish-Norweigian-Scottish-English frontier state. And a great bookshop, from which I emerged with twenty books.

January 5th

The central challenge for this election and beyond will be to build up the membership again from where we are (under 300) to where we should be (a few thousand) and a lot of that will involve bringing in younger members. I held a long meeting with our new agent, Gordon Nicolson, Neville Lishman, the Area manager and Isa Henderson, our chairman and planned and replanned every step to take us through to the election: hustings and canvassings, leaflets and magazines, posters and letters. The centre of all of this though will have to be a team in every parish. Please volunteer to set up you local branch.

January 6th

Thomas Lowther, Conservative county Councillor and a farmer, took me to the Penrith sheep sales. David Crowden, Chief Executive of the mart, gave up an hour to explaining how the farmers took the auction business back under their control following the 2001 Foot & Mouth epidemic. He is a great ambassador for farming and in particular for the importance of the marts. Just spending time in an auction is a reminder how the marts are not just a good way of setting prices but also a unique opportunity for farmers (who have fewer and fewer people working with them on farms) to meet and talk about what they are facing. Like everyone, David is frustrated by the near monopoly power of the super-markets. As we work round meeting Willie Coulston and Robin Raine, Edward Bindloss, John Hall, Arthur Slack.  It is clear that there are disagreements even within the farming community. It is not just a question of reflecting local views to Westminster but of choosing how much emphasis to put on each issue. The experience is freezing and heart-warming in equal measure.

The farmers are great company. They – of all the people I have met on my walk – are the most fiercely political. Above all, I would like to be a champion for rural issues. Penrith and the Border is the largest constituency because it is the most sparsely populated. The 98 per cent who live in cities struggle often to understand the reality of rural life – which is often about space and distance from services which a city-dweller has on their door-step. Advocating fiercely for our rural hospitals, schools, bus services, roads, environments and most importantly the rural businesses and farms that create, finance and sustain our rural landscape is in my view the very centre of my role.

January 7th

Longtown Mart. Philip Walton – Chairman of the largest sheep mart in the country – gives me breakfast in the mart cafe before taking me into the auction ring. Prices are good, –for the moment at least. I come away feeling heartened – and chastened. These are good people, connected with the real business of life. They have real needs and for a long time, their needs and opinions have been sidelined. There are some smiles despite the freezing weather (which has kept away many sellers from Southern Scotland). But fifteen minutes spent looking through the paperwork forms is such a sad reminder of how much surreal bureaucracy is beginning to pile up on farmers.

January 8th

I set off from Dufton through Milburn to Temple Sowerby, walking again. Hoar frost on every tree, another four inches of fresh snow and it’s difficult to take a photo without it looking like a chocolate box. But is increasingly serious for many people – particularly the elderly. I slowed down considerably to make sure I had as many serious conversations as possible. A couple took us in for half an hour in Knock. The husband was 86 and served on an aircraft carrier during the war.  He was particularly focused on getting troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stop immigration and balancing the budget deficit.

On the outskirts of Knock, a lady in pink wellies who was scooping her dog’s poop into a blue bag, greeted me warmly but said she was a solicitor and a labour voter who liked the labour party because they had spent a lot of money on public services. I couldn’t disagree with that.

At Milburn Grange, a lady of 86, who can’t drive (she is I would guess six miles from the nearest proper shop) explained that she survives because her neighbour drives up and down the road and gets her groceries.

A well-known local farmer fed me date cake and tea. His main concerns were quangos and again immigration and targets. He described going to see one of the new Cumbrian quangos and sitting in their office and asking one of the employees what she did. “The lady said she didn’t know…so she asked another colleague what it did.  She didn’t know either and so they got a 3rd colleague in who said it was a sort of think tank.’ ‘You don’t seem to be doing much thinking at all,’ he replied. We agreed that it must be miserable for the morale of people who work in an organisation if they have no firm idea of what the point of the whole thing is.

A lady who runs a B&B described trying to fill in the paperwork honestly: sending in a reply saying that she didn’t check her refrigerator temperature every day, that she could tell when her meat was cooked enough by looking at it, and yes, she did have pets in the kitchen. Given that she had got no reply, she presumed they had not bothered to read her reply.

At Low Slakes, a lady whose family has been there for centuries, said that everybody had changed but as the conversation went on, and we talked about the Atkinsons, the Wears, the Smiths, the Richardsons and the Taylors and others, I wonder. It was by now 2 in the afternoon and in 3 hours, we had managed to walk a mile and a half. In Milburn, we saw Mrs Johnson by her car. But the Armstrongs weren’t in. Mrs Robertson was in at the farmhouse at the top and explained that because the weather had improved, everyone was out on their tractors. It was the first day back at Milburn School with a new head teacher so I talked to the teachers a bit and called on Mrs Atkinson. Her husband has sadly died recently and she was feeling the cold.

On the road out of town, I met a cheerful car mechanic. And another man, who was furious about MPs expenses and wasn’t sure that he was going to vote Conservative again. We got a better reception from Mrs Soulsby who had the most impressive Suffolk and Charolais tups, though she is worried what this prolonged snowfall will mean, particularly for upland farmers. Sarah Mason invited me in outside Newbiggin at Acorn Bank. She emphasized that she was a Labour voter but that didn’t stop her feeding me delicious elephant-shaped butter biscuits made by her daughter. She works on ‘gender equity and diversity’ in Cumbria Hospital but was enraged as the rest of us with the targets and metrics.

I saw Henry Sawrey Cookson, the local independent councillor and his daughter on the road and finished at 6, at Temple Sowerby Hotel with the Evans.

It was a wonderful day: beautiful, of course (it would be difficult to forget how beautiful Milburn school looked in the snow and the sun) but more importantly because of those conversations. I can only summarise them here – I must have listened to people, either in their houses, or walking alongside me for more than six out of the seven hours of the walk. It is a real privilege to learn from people in this way. It was particularly striking how a relatively right-wing farmer agreed with a left-wing mental health worker almost entirely on the folly of targets, metrics, crude inspections and countless forms. It is so easy to imagine – if a tabloid for example is ranting about the subject – that these stories are somehow exaggerated. But they’re not. The reality is surreal. Each anecdote confirms the astonishing absurdity of so much in the system. Again and again people said ‘we would like some common-sense.’ I’ve heard it twenty times a day but it’s difficult to put it better.

January 9th

Warcop & Sandford Exchange where I saw the head of the parish council and councillor Martin Stephenson and met many Warcop locals. Then to Kirkby Stephen where I see Libby, who runs the Upper Eden community plan and talk to her about how to make sure we get the funding through the council system. I feel very comfortable with the Upper Eden community plan, less because of its detailed structure and more because everyone I’ve seen connected with it seems intelligent, keen, practical and hard-working. With Gordon Nicolson and Duncan Fairbairn, Cumbria County Councillor, I embark on the business of canvassing Kirkby Stephen. It is a wonderful town: a roundhead stronghold, with the romance of Arthurian Pendragon behind it and the tusk of the great boar of Westmorland, in the crypt. Dropping 500 leaflets through doors, takes me past the vicarage and the astonishing view towards the Yorkshire dales to the river and back through the narrow medieval lane. I am learning that curious politician’s (and pizza-menu deliverer’s) technique of working my cold fingers to drop a folded flier under the brass letter box and extract the fingers back through the stiff bristles before the Alsatian reaches them.

I see again many of the people which I saw when I walked through Kirkby Stephen three weeks’ ago and many of them to my delight offer to help deliver leaflets. Kirkby Stephen could become one of our strongest branches again.

January 10th

Again another 500 leaflets in Kirkby Stephen, this time with Isa Henderson, Charlotte Fairbairn and Glenys Lumley and her husband Hebron. And again it is the encounters and conversations which make the task so interesting and rewarding. A man with an amazing Siberian husky with one brown and one sapphire blue eye supports conservative policies – on the face of it – but is reluctant to vote. One lady is happy to stop – despite the cold weather to talk at length about taxation and pension policy. Another younger woman says she has never voted, seeks my advice on how to reduce the gas bill and seems as though she might try voting this election. Tony Kilvington gives up half an hour to suggest ways of getting more young people involved.



the legacy of lawrence of arabia, bbc2

On Saturday 16th January at 8pm, BBC2 are screening The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia.  This is the first of a two-part documentary presented by Rory Stewart and directed by Iain Scollay.

Explaining why he chose to become involved in the making of the documentary, Rory says:  “Lawrence was a fascinating man.  He had huge integrity and was not afraid to speak out against the British occupation of Iraq in the face of huge opposition.”

“As a man, Lawrence was capable of great compassion and extreme self-discipline.  This mental and physical toughness aroused suspicion in some and earned him many detractors.  Yet his insight into the Arab world and into our own position vis-a-vis that world stands true to this day.”

Part two of The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia will be broadcast on Saturday 22nd January.  BBC2 8pm.


rheged centre film screening

The Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, written and narrated by Rory Stewart

The Rheged Centre
15th January 2010 at 7pm

Come and join me at a preview screening of this BBC 2 documentary before it airs on television. The director (Iain Scollay) and I shall be in attendance to give a talk and answer questions.

You can book a free ticket by calling the Rheged Centre on 01768 868 000.

For full details visit

I hope to meet you there!


I am unpacking again in my cottage in Dufton in the Pennines. The backpack and most of its contents have been with me for 10 years. The boots crossed 3,000 miles before the waterproofing frayed. The down-jacket has served as my pillow in 500 different village houses between Turkey and Bangladesh and smells like it. So I should know what is in the pack. But I am checking for the third time in half an hour because underneath the waterproofs lies a woollen tie and a series of leaflets saying “As the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border … I will be spending the next few weeks walking through Cumbria”. I am no longer just a walker, I am a walking politician.

Six months ago I wasn’t even a member of the Conservative party because my jobs, briefly as a soldier, as a diplomat and the founder of a charity in Afghanistan, hadn’t allowed me to be involved in British politics. My work convinced me there was a widening gap between government rhetoric and reality from Britain to Baghdad. I wanted to help change the culture of government. So I put my name forward, after the expenses scandal, when David Cameron said he was prepared to have candidates who, like me, had never been involved in politics before.

I applied for Penrith and the Border in part because I found it the most beautiful place in England. But more than 300 others also applied. The “open primary” for the final six was held in Penrith Auction Mart. Anyone in the constituency, regardless of party, could ask questions and vote. When I stepped into the ring, the expressions of the farmers implied they had seen mule shearlings who would make better candidates and I don’t think they liked my answer on the liquid milk price. But, to my surprise, the people in that mart chose me. My friends and family were appalled: they predicted that I would soon be wrecked by some inevitable scandal before being spat out: bankrupt, frustrated, discredited and definitely still single.

I decided to begin by travelling around on foot. Almost a decade ago I learnt more in 21 months walking across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal than in the rest of my working life: feeling the soil and the distances, listening to everyone and, most importantly, staying the night in village houses to hear families talk. I learnt how distant my colleagues and I in government were from the lives of others. Our policy papers existed in a grotesque jargon space of misleading phrases about “transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes”. I had become more confident disagreeing with policy because my walk had showed me real people in real places. If a document claimed that “everyone is committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state”, I could think of a particular man in a specific village and say “that is nonsense”.

Penrith and the Border is the largest and most sparsely populated constituency in England. Penrith, with a population of less than 15,000, is the largest town and almost all the remaining 50,000 voters live in small villages spaced over 1,200 square miles. When I set out, in the week before Christmas, I had much to learn. The village of Morland, for example, was not for me a living place: I had only half-seen it from a car. I had tended to visit the same friends and return to the same places. I had talked into the night in cold kitchens with friends who were farmers and businessmen about their work, but I had no idea how many members were on the district council.

I was nervous about knocking on people’s doors and saying “I am the prospective parliamentary candidate for . . .” (did it sound more natural to say Tory or Conservative party? There was something off about Rory the Tory). I assumed voters would want to know what I could achieve in Westminster and I expected to be interrogated on the financial deficit, overseas aid and the budget. My friend Tommy said: “It’s not like crossing Afghanistan. I’d call the police if someone looking like you knocked on my door at night. No one’s going to put you up. You’ll probably be mugged on the first day. I’d stick to the Taliban.”

On the first day I walked 15 miles through a mizzling rain. As I readjusted to the weight of my pack, I felt the sodden weight of the turf under my feet, became aware again of the silence and saw the wide sky silhouetted by bare hedgerows.

I arrived in Kirkby Stephen five minutes before the town council meeting at 2.30pm. In an Afghan village I would have gone through an elaborate ritual of greeting, sat cross-legged over glasses of tea, while the elders spoke and I dozily half-followed the conversation in Dari. In Kirkby Stephen I had to tie up my sodden boots and hobble with my pack between the community centre, the shops and the church hall for six meetings before the pub quiz at 9pm. I scored zero in the music round.

Instead of elaborate ritual, I had to focus on the new child protection centre, the lack of credit, the names of the councillors opposed to the plan to merge the parish with neighbouring Appleby. I recorded 50 new names in my notebook. Five people told me they hated Appleby because they were roundheads and Appleby was with the royalists in the civil war.

In three of those meetings people offered me a bed for the night without my even mentioning the subject. I have since been given a bed in a 17th-century house in the centre of Orton; in a cottage in Morland; in a medieval keep beyond Penrith; in a pub in Threlkeld; in a farmhouse above Pooley Bridge; and the GP put me up near Castle Carrock. As in Afghanistan, villagers often join me for sections of the walk. My companions have included a vicar, recently retired from the army, a painter who is chairwoman of her parish council, a trout fisherman, a man with a clothes shop, three school-leavers, a housewife, a B&B owner and a lurcher called Prospero.

Walking allows me to capture the spirit of a place in a way that I could not by car. Walking into Morland up the Vale of Lyvennet in the dark, I feel the gradient and hear the tumbling echo of the mill stream. Next day my host shows me the Saxon tower and explains about his mail-order business. We pass the new housing estate and half a mile outside the village meet Henry Strong, a powerful 75-year-old who has just been thrown into a beck, smashing his forehead, but is now out again milking cows, rubbing “the hole in my head”.

Eamont Bridge, down the road, had been flooded. I had seen, a month back, water swirling in kitchens and the wreck of a small chutney business that had been unable to afford insurance. I walk through again and attend a large community meeting, where I am shown how the riverbed has risen 6ft since they were banned from dredging it and see how the bridge contributed to the rise. I therefore have little sympathy with those on the higher ground beyond Penrith who say “Eamont Bridge always floods, what do they expect?”

Farmers are often the first and last people I meet in a village, generally with a greeting of “What are you going to do for farming?” History matters here. The small independent hill farmers are an old Cumbrian tradition. The farmers around Warcop were the first in Britain to buy out their feudal lord, run their own community and elect their own non-conformist priest.

After foot and mouth, which killed almost every animal in the constituency, people have restocked but have also begun to diversify. Wives have opened countless small new businesses. One employs seven in a chocolate pudding factory; another makes sheep’s wool insulation for roofs. More than 20% of those in the constituency are self-employed – almost the highest level in the country. Most of the rest work for small businesses. There is little unemployment; many do two or three jobs.

I meet a different audience when Derek, owner of the Bluebell bookshop in Penrith, asks me to do a reading. The questions are not about my books but “Why did you become a politician?”; “How am I supposed to vote Conservative?” In my most recent job, as a Harvard professor of human rights, I could joke about my ignorance and uncertainty. Now people want clarity and earnest answers: my conclusions, not my reasoning. One man loses his temper as soon as I mention politics: “I am being asked to pay more Vat and you lot are spending it on your expenses . . .” He is almost crying with fury and frustration.

From Newbiggin-on-Lune to Brampton, people gather in groups to meet me in their houses for lunch or supper. I leave my wet boots at the door and deliver political speeches in my socks. With experience, the speeches get shorter and shorter. The central lesson is to shut up and listen. Farmers are almost the only group to focus on national political programmes. Few people raise the financial deficit, overseas aid, the budget or Gordon Brown. Gary in Castle Carrock tells me he has never voted Conservative before but will vote for me simply because I am the first politician who has bothered to come to his village Things that strike me as priorities are not necessarily so to others. The mobile phone reception is worse in Cumbria than in Kabul. Email is very slow. But although people on doorsteps acknowledge the problem, it does not seem to excite them. Other things mystify me: why, when 99.5% of Cumbrians are recorded as “white”, am I told by a man in a Greystoke pub that the No 1 problem is immigration and sharia?

On the last day of walking before I break for Christmas, leaving Alston, the highest market town in England, a driver waves at me. It is Kirsty, the nurse, going to work in Carlisle. She would rather work locally but staff at Alston hospital have been cut and it has been at risk of closure. The out-of-hours GP surgery is 20 miles away.

I pass a covey of grouse in a field, their feathers puffed out against the sleet. Approaching 2,000ft I see red and blue lights, Mr Crabtree, the Alston policeman, and a gritter lying on its side by the ditch. The road to Penrith is blocked and walking suddenly has a more practical point because there is no other way to get to Croglin.

A gritter driver from Alston is watching, seemingly impervious to the blizzard. “How do? That truck is a piece of crap. No one understands what it’s like up here. The Unimog was the right bit of kit – I told ’em.”

“Why did they get rid of it?” I ask.

“Don’t ask me. I’m only paid to think from the neck down. Forgot your skis?”

Walking has given me more than I hoped: living in Cumbrian homes and experiencing the great distances between communities. It allows me to learn from a hundred people I might never have encountered by car. But it has not provided neat solutions. It is easy to see they should have listened to the gritter driver about his truck – but I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district. This is not just about an individual’s decisions, it is about budget lines and regulation insurance and a whole way of looking at the world. I realise that to change government needs not just cutting regulations or giving parishes control of money, but also shifting an entire public culture over decades.

This is not Afghanistan, with officials behind security walls, doing short tours, making extravagant decisions about people whose language and culture they barely comprehend. The people I meet are able to fight for things they value and understand. From Brampton, where a woman tells me of the 30-ton boulders that the council laid in a car park – “as though there had been a meteor shower over night” – and her campaign “to get them back to Mars”; to a parish councillor 50 miles away who had got round council rules by laying the access ramp to the working men’s club himself at night, Cumbrians are balancing their tolerance for government with acts of initiative and subversion.

The snow powder is light but 2ft deep dropping down the next 1,400ft from Hartside, making the going slow. Crossing a bridge at Ricker Gill, I panic a flock of Swaledale sheep, burrowing beneath the snow. At Haresceugh, where the buildings’ fine masonry suggests they were made from the castle ruins, I shout at a barn door. Mr Dixon emerges in a Russian tank commander’s cap.

“Walked from Alston on a day like this? Conservative candidate? Monster Raving Loony more like.”