Monthly Archives: September 2010

the crosby mask

First published in The Herald on 18 September 2010.

Parliament has begun again: the Prime Minister brought us back for an extra two-week session. A number of my male colleagues have returned on crutches and in plaster casts. I have sat in debates on everything from the constitution (fixed term parliaments) to Equitable Life. I gave a speech in a five-hour debate on troops. The committees are active: cross-examining Cabinet Ministers and interrogating the head of BP about the oil spill. I’ve had an average of ten meetings a day: from discussing a sports hall in Cumbria and seeing a group of fifteen Irish travellers, to serving as an officer in a committee on rural services.

But it still feels a little strange to come down to parliament from Cumbria. Things may be controversial here – like some of the new community projects in Eden; or difficult – like trying to work out a good future for Newton Rigg; or involve many groups and companies – like installing broadband for rural areas. But they are concrete – you can see the effect. In parliament and in particular in the debating chamber the ritual and the tradition is so strong that is often difficult to see the result.

The best thing about going back turns out to be the people. I hadn’t always liked what I saw of politicians from the outside. But I find them, in reality, relaxed, impressive and human. There doesn’t seem to be any standard model. My friend Philip is a GP who wants to be an astronaut. Nick was the director of a paint business. Bob was an infantry colonel. I talked today with a farmer, a Serbo-Croat speaker and an SAS veteran. One MP can recite a two hundred line poem by TS Eliot. About thirty of them seem to have written books. Others have deep practical experience as businessmen or teachers. Almost everyone seems to be hard-working, punctual and reliable. None of this is, of course, any guarantee of being a good politician – but it makes for good colleagues. And some of them, thank goodness, are very funny – which takes courage in a place where everyone is watching what you say – and does wonders for keeping all of us sane.

I am now on my way back to Penrith for our broadband conference. This afternoon, however, I saw a piece of Cumbria in London: the Roman helmet which was found this May by a metal-detector in a field by Crosby Garrett. Although it is two thousand years old and the top was found in more than thirty pieces, the face seems perfect, bar a slight dent, like a dimple, on the tip of his nose. The patina on the bronze back is like old green cracked leather, the mask shines white. It was worn only for ceremonial cavalry displays. At first I thought it odd that such an expensive luxury had been brought, two thousand miles to the frontier and wondered whether it was an eccentric exception. But a hundred years ago, another was excavated in the Scottish border and two hundred years ago, one was found in Lancashire. They have flat tops while the Crosby Garret helmet has a great foot high rearing Eastern cap, topped by a griffin. The others look fierce and impersonal. But this is troublingly human. The small lips are slightly parted. The face is a little fat with a soft chin. Thick unruly curls escapes from under his cap. He looks very young –  little more than sixteen  – but very serious. One wide eye is focused on the scene in front but the other seems to look into another world. He is more like a priest than a warrior.

When the other Roman cavalrymen cantered onto the field to join the display in their own shining metal masks, they would have noticed this one. Were they impressed? Or would they have thought the wearer was showing off? Much must have depended on who wore it. It is tempting to assume that he looked like his mask: a very young, perhaps slightly over-protected, son of Rome sent out with this fancy expensive gear on his first trip to the frontier. But why should the wearer resemble his mask? He might have been a wizened veteran commanding the fort at Brough; or serving with the cavalry by Carlisle. Why is it topped by a cap from what is now the Iranian frontier? There were it seems Syrian Archers then at Kirkby Thore, so was the owner also from the Middle East? Or was it just fashion? Or a joke? And what does all his incredible expense and fashion: these bizarre costumes for ritualistic horse maneuvers – suggest about life not far from Crosby Garret two thousand years ago. And what made him leave this very expensive thing behind? Who folded it and placed it face down in the Cumbrian mud? And most importantly how are we going to try to keep it for Cumbria?


Rory’s speech on the UK armed forces in Afghanistan


I find this a very powerful, very troubling and very worrying motion. It states:

“That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.”

If one were to remove the word “continued”, there is nobody in this House who would oppose the motion. Every Member, day by day, feels more admiration for what our soldiers achieve, more respect for the sacrifices that they have made and more pride in what they represent for our country. But the danger of the motion is that it is black and white: it sets up an opposition between the terms “increase” and “withdraw”, and between “engagement” and “isolation”. It creates a world in which people are tempted to say, either, “Afghanistan is the most important country in the world, the central, existential threat,” or, “It doesn’t matter at all.”

There are two central questions. How much does Afghanistan matter? And what can we do about it? We have heard Members from both sides of the House make eloquent arguments about the significance and importance of Afghanistan, and it matters in five main ways. They should not be trivialised, because Afghanistan does, in a sense, matter.

First, Afghanistan matters in terms of counter-terrorism and 9/11. It was the place from which the 9/11 attacks were planned. Secondly, Afghanistan matters enormously in terms of narcotics. It produces the majority of the world’s heroin. Thirdly, Afghanistan matters for us and our credibility. For nine years we have pinned our reputation and that of our allies to this adventure. Fourthly, as people have said, Afghanistan matters to Pakistan. There is an extent to which Afghanistan will have an influence on that state, which, as we have heard, is nuclear-armed, unstable and has jihadist elements. Finally, Afghanistan matters to its own people. Nobody in the Chamber wants the Taliban to take over, and nobody is in any doubt that they represent a brutal, horrendous and cruel form of government-utterly discredited from 1996 to 2001.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab) : With the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have just checked the record for 2001, when I intervened on the then Minister and said that there was no chance of reducing the flow of heroin from Afghanistan, which then stood at 90% of the world’s production. The current figure is still 90%. What improvement has there been?

Rory Stewart: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention, because it leads beautifully on to the second part of my speech. What can we do about the problem? Neither he, I, nor anyone in the Chamber doubts that there is a problem, but what can we do?

The answer has been gone over again and again, and General McChrystal has an answer in his report. What have we done? Broadly speaking, over the past nine years we have had successes in health, education, counter-terrorism, rural development and urban regeneration. We have had a series of other things, which we like to describe as challenges-in counter-narcotics, as the hon. Gentleman said, in counter-insurgency when fighting the Taliban, in the rule of law, in governance, in anti-corruption and in state building. And we have come to the conclusion that we have a talisman, a way of dealing with Afghanistan and a new solution, which is in that report and is called counter-insurgency warfare strategy.

We must wish the surge all our best. We have embarked on it and are committed to it, and that is where we are going. So let us hope that it works-however, there is a very real reason to believe that it may not, within the time frame that General McChrystal anticipated or predicted. In other words, when at the end of this year General Petraeus reviews the strategy, and when in the middle of next year President Obama begins the draw-down of troops, it is unlikely that we will have achieved McChrystal’s two main conditions: sufficient pain inflicted on the Taliban for them to wish to go to the negotiating table; and, on the other hand, the creation of a stable, effective and legitimate state.

It is not the place of this House to talk about why those things are not possible, and we do not have time to talk about why we did not succeed. The central element is nothing to do with the British or American troops; it is to do with the Afghan Government. General McChrystal has said from the beginning that the only way we will win in Afghanistan is with a stable, effective, legitimate Afghan state. Without that, we are not going to win, and such a state is not emerging. Does that mean we can do nothing in that country? No-we can do an enormous amount, but we cannot crush the Taliban and create a stable, effective, legitimate Afghan state.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Plaid Cymru) : Is not another way forward to create a new constitution for Afghanistan that decentralises power to the ethnic groups in different regions instead of centralising power in the hands of one President who is very corrupt?

Rory Stewart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, Afghans must be allowed to do their own politics, and whether they have a decentralised or a centralised state or recognise ethnic boundaries is up to them. Our role is to accept the limits of our power and accept that there are things we cannot do. There are things we can do, but they have nothing to do with troop surges or counter-insurgency. We must find a moment-this is why the 2015 deadline is absolutely correct-at which we say about the current strategy, “Enough, no more. We’ve done enough.”

What then will we do after 2015? I suggest that with the end of UK combat operations in Afghanistan, we concentrate on three things: continuing limited counter-terrorism operations; continuing to support development projects, probably in the centre and the north of the country; and continuing to try to ensure a political solution, or, to put it another way, to decrease the likelihood of a civil war and increase the likelihood of a political solution by gaining leverage over the Taliban.

Is this as scary as we believe? Is this really the nightmare we have conjured? No. The Taliban are unlikely to be able to take over Afghanistan, because this is not the mid-1990s. This is not groundhog day-we are not repeating 1996. In 1996, when the Taliban came swarming into Kabul, mujaheddin were shelling each other in the centre of the city, the Afghan people were appalled by years of corrupt, abusive government, and the Taliban were untested-and there were no foreign troops on the ground.

Today we are in a completely different situation. The Taliban are discredited from the time when they were in government. There is much more coherence between the central and northern groups. There is very little likelihood of the Taliban being able to present a conventional threat. If they try to roll artillery or tanks up the main streets, as they did then, we can deal with that. That does not mean that they are not going to increase their presence in the south and east of the country-they almost certainly will. But even if they do, it is extremely unlikely that they will invite back al-Qaeda in the way that they did in 2001. From their point of view, that was their No. 1 mistake. If they had not invited in al-Qaeda, they would still be in power. Even if they do invite back al-Qaeda, it is something that we can manage. We have the willpower, the technology and the public support to deal with it in a way that we did not in the 1990s.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab) : The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting-I have heard this in a number of spheres-that we abandon the south-west and south-east of the country and that the Taliban will move back, but they will not be as bad as they were last time. I do not know what evidence he or those who are pursuing this strategy have for that. He will recall that the Taliban started off in a very localised way in Kandahar and then moved up the country, and never once has there been peace throughout the country. I do not see how we can have trust in that situation starting again.

Rory Stewart: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not suggesting that the Taliban are nice people. These threats, and the fears and worries that we have, are very real. The Taliban are horrendous people. Terrorist threats from Afghanistan are genuine, as are the threats to Pakistan, to our credibility and to the Afghan people. However, the point is that “ought” implies “can”. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do. After nine years, we have failed to demonstrate that the Afghan Government can take over control. Our troops can fight all they want, and they do it very well, but when we withdraw, the Afghan Government will not be robust enough to take over. We therefore need to accept that rather than what I, and the hon. Gentleman, would like, which is being able to guarantee the Taliban’s disappearance, we need to contain and manage the situation.

What does this mean for UK foreign policy? It means beginning a new approach where we recognise-this is the central point that we would all agree on-that we have other priorities in the world. Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all. We cannot bet all our money and all our troops on this one place. Pakistan matters more in terms of terrorism, Egypt matters more in terms of regional stability, and sub-Saharan Africa matters more in terms of poverty, and that is before we get on to Iran, North Korea or China. The lesson that we should take, and the reason why the 2015 deadline is correct, is that we should recognise the limits of our knowledge, power and legitimacy. And understand that although we cannot do as much as we pretend, we can do much more than we fear. The only wisdom is the wisdom of humility.

penrith and the border broadband conference

Penrith and the Border communities are determined to get high-speed Next Generation broadband Access(NGA) for most people and a reliable 2mb connection for everyone by the end of 2012. This is vital for a constituency with a higher proportion of self-employed people than anywhere else in Britain. It will also be very important for us as the most sparsely populated constituency in England, with very poor access to many services.
Under current plans, Cumbria is unlikely to achieve universal 2mb access before 2015. Even this date seems very optimistic. There are currently no plans to provide superfast NGA for most of the citizens in the constituency. A conventional approach – where Government and a private sector provider lay all the fibre for superfast access – would be totally unaffordable (a recent estimate was for £40 million pounds).
We therefore need a project that can deliver universal broadband to everyone in Penrith and the Border, and super-fast broadband to most people, in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. Our Parish Pump Project aims to drive this process by opening ‘back-haul’ fibre-optic infrastructure, which is already in the ground but which is currently inaccessible, and relying on communities to install the ‘last mile’ from the fibre back-hauto their homes. If successful, it would rapidly ‘fill in’ through community action 1,200 square miles of the most remote part of England.
Rory Stewart MP and his team are pressing the Government to:
   -open up existing fibre-optic cables that run to almost all the schools in the constituency
   -encourage owners to allow access to the existing cabling on the Carlisle-Settle line
   -encourage the owners of electric, telephone and mobile masts to allow us to attach aerial fibre-optic          
     cable and microwave units
   -create a ‘parish pump’ (cabinet) in each parish (at a cost of £10-15,000 per cabinet), supplied with a ‘fat-
     pipe’ of fibre-optic cabling. (This should cost less than ten per cent of existing estimates of the cost of  
     more traditional approaches to NGA for Penrith and the Border. We would like this to be funded from the
     digital switch-over fund)
Communities would then decide what service they wanted to pay for from the parish pump to their home. They could decide, for example:
   -to go with a cheap low-speed option by putting a wireless network on top of their parish-pump
   -to choose the more expensive high-speed version of running fibre optic cable to their home
   -they could drop the cost by asking local farmers to let them through their fields and paying a  
     local contractor to dig the trenches.
Rory Stewart MP is also pressing the Government to:
   -Provide low-interest loans to parishes so that they can buy the infrastructure to connect the cabinet to
     their homes; rather than having to bear the high cost of installing super-fast up front (which might cost
     £1,500), they could pay off the cost in low-interest instalments over 20 years.
   -Help to convince private sector service providers (such as Virgin Media) to agree to provide their
     services down community-built networks. (Without this communities could get super-fast broadband but
     not Virgin products ‘such as ESPN’)
Mr Stewart aims to launch a communities web-site for parishes to share their ideas on connecting homes to the parish pump, recording barriers and providing more detailed information of the maps of ‘not-spots’, and hopes to negotiate on Cumbria’s behalf with industry and Government to achieve the objectives above. Those areas which are not within reach of a fibre parish pump (or a microwave relay) would fall back on a wireless or satellite solution. He hopes that the private sector will be inspired by the potential competition from parish pump projects into moving into areas which they currently argue are uneconomic.
The international broadband conference at Rheged in Penrith on 18th September 2010 will finalise the design and infrastructure for the project, provide a detailed map of the constituency’s needs parish-by-parish, announce the first pilot projects in specific parishes and hopes to secure commitments from Government anthe private sector. The Hon. Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Broadband, will open the event and speakers include Bill Murphy (Managing Director, NGA, BT Group), Chris Smedley (Chief Executive GEO), Bill Davies (Executive Director, Blackberry RIM). Representatives of Cumbria’s numerous innovative community projects delivering NGA, such as Cybermoor from Alston and Great Asby Broadband, will also attend.


eden river trust walk

I have spent the last two days walking along the Eden. I thought I would experience and remember it as a single flowing stream. But instead it seems many rivers. At Mallerstang below the falls the valley is narrow, with folds and rivulets and short limestone distances that conceal castles. The dark rearing crest of Wild Boar Fell seems part of an entirely different landscape, looking over all 1,200 square miles of the constituency from Blencathra to Bewcastle. After Kirkby Stephen the river is tranquil and measured in its meanderings, at odds with the framing line of the Pennines and the volcanic pikes behind. A sudden wall of pink sandstone at Temple Sowerby seems the setting of an oriental mystery but two miles later, approaching Langwathby, the flood plain is bare and treeless and the gravel scattered with desultory cows. Tonight, before Lazonby, I am sleeping near dark rock-falls and caves.

Eden has given its name to a district. Many of our community groups take their names from the river and its tributaries. It is the water that some of us drink, a landscape we love, a lure for tourists: an artery. But walking along it, I sometimes feel we have abandoned it. From the banks one glimpses the backs of houses, sewage treatment plants, dead-end tracks, slurry tanks. In Hartley, or Morland, the houses look towards the stream and the mill-race. But those are unusual tributaries. The main river often flows behind and apart from the villages. Even accessing the banks feels furtive: that one is discovering something almost like a disused canal.  In places it is only half-accessible, ringed with old barbed wire, touched in places by Japanese knot weed or down half-crumbled sandy cliffs.

Today I was joined in the walk by a grassland expert, an organic dairy farmer, a professor of soil science, a water habitat expert and a man who had fished the river for fifty years. They showed me how sometimes, every mile, the nature of the river changed completely because of a new stone-base or even the barrier formed by a bridge. They let me handle white-clawed crayfish and told me the fish lived only in limestone because they need the calcium for their shell. They explained how the Borrowdale volcanic rock in the Derwent meant water poor in nutrients and filled with oxygen, delighting certain flies who avoided the nutrient-rich Eden. They showed the riffles, which pleased the new-hatched fry, and the pools for the parr and the runs for the adult salmon. They explained the impact of fertiliser, stock, and soil management.  They showed how phosphates had encouraged the algae, which choked the gills of the crayfish and left the three types of lamprey unable to breath above the silt.

But when I heard more about what this meant for farmers – the sixty five thousand pound tanks that need to be built for slurry to keep nitrogen out of the river, the banning of bare fields on the water edge, the emphasis on core sampling and soil analysis, the specific times of year in which fertiliser should be laid, the strict controls on stocking – it looked much less easy. How, when margins are so tight, can farmers be expected to invest so much money and time and research in something whose effect on their farm is often, at least in the short-term, indirect?

What impresses me most about the Eden Rivers Trust is the effort it makes to engage with farmers: Robert Warburton, the Chair, is a farmer; Will and Tom from ERT who accompanied me on the walk are farmers. Hundreds of volunteers are working with the Trust. I came across them on Wednesday counting trout and on Thursday counting crayfish. They remove abandoned objects from the river near Carlisle, and they weed Himalayan balsam from the banks. Most importantly they get things done. At Hoff, for example, I saw a ford which had blocked the movement of fish. The agencies had complained about it for decades. But the ford was the only way of getting the milk wagons in to the dairy farm and new work carried many risks for the river. So the agencies had done nothing. It was ERT who ultimately convinced the farmer, reassured all the agencies, found the contractor, filled out all the paperwork and had the culvert installed in ten days – often working at night without disrupting the milk truck. The fish are now spawning freely in the Hoff again.

My previous walks have taken me over, away from, or high above the river. I have experienced the landscape largely in terms of slopes and trees, boulders and peat. Suddenly I am able to hear its movement. I begin to mark the different geologies, and understand something about the algae and fly, fish and fertiliser. I am learning how (often for very understandable reasons) we have polluted or tried to tame the flow. But what I will remember most is the farmers and volunteers who are daily protecting and preserving this, our river: our Eden.