Monthly Archives: August 2012

Rory Welcomes a Cash Boost for Communities Supporting Neighbourhood Planning

Rory has welcomed this week’s announcement by Planning Minister Greg Clark that new funding to help communities bring jobs and homes to their neighbourhood using improved planning powers is becoming available. Having helped to pioneer the Upper Eden area as a frontrunner in national neighbourhood planning policy, the local MP cited the news as a “major boon for rural communities wishing to take control of their neighbourhood’s development”.

Neighbourhood planning gives people a major say in shaping development in their area. It gives communities the power to help decide where development should go and the type and design of development that can be granted automatic planning permission. A £10 million fund is now available to help councils ensure their communities are able to finalise people’s plans for homes, businesses and facilities in their neighbourhood. More than 200 communities are already using the new planning powers introduced in the Localism Act to work up plans that can, for example, decide the location of new homes and decide the green spaces communities are keen to protect. Councils are today invited to apply for grants of up to £30,000 for each scheme to help pay for the costs of getting plans in place. Payments will be paid to councils to help them support and advise groups taking forward neighbourhood plans and to pay towards the examination of plans and a local referendum.

Rory said: “This is very welcome news, and I have no doubt that with Upper Eden blazing a trail in the field of Neighbourhood Planning – and informing government policy along the way – we have been instrumental in helping to unlock funding for this important policy area. Communities are often driven by frustration at what they see as a lack of common-sense, or by the failure of government, both national and local, to deliver; here, we are seeing here government responding directly to the needs of communities, recognising that giving the most local communities more power – to raise revenue, to take decisions – is so immensely important.”

Minister Greg Clark said: “We have seen enormous enthusiasm from communities around England, jumping at the chance to be in the driving seat of deciding the future vision of their neighbourhood. This fund will give councils and community groups working on plans a big boost in getting their vision in place as soon as possible to ensure people can enjoy the benefits sooner rather then later. Neighbourhood planning is making sure local residents are, for the first time, centre stage in helping decide their neighbourhood’s future. It is giving people the chance to plan positively and will help deliver the homes and jobs their communities need to thrive.”


Rory Highlights Engagement Process into Cumbria’s First Council-Sanctioned Neighbourhood Plan


Rory is reminding constituents to engage in the future of their area, as Eden District Council gives the green light for the first Neighbourhood Plan in Cumbria to be produced.

Under new powers contained in the Localism Act, local communities can come together and develop a Plan for their area which, once adopted, will form part of the basis for assessing planning applications. Residents of 17 parishes, including and surrounding Kirkby Stephen, have formed the Upper Eden Community Plan Group (led by Brough Parish Council). Eden District Council has given the go ahead for the Group to produce a Neighbourhood Plan by agreeing that the Upper Eden area they represent is a suitable neighbourhood plan area. A Neighbourhood Area Application was received on 28th May 2012 and, after an eight week consultation period, the Council designated the area on 16th August 2012. Upper Eden is one of the first Neighbourhood Areas to be approved in the country, and there now follows a final consultation process for local communities.

Rory said: “Upper Eden is leading the way in this important new legislation, and I am proud and honoured to have been a part of the process. I am also delighted to know of Eden District Council’s backing of the pilot, and support of the area as being suitable for a Neighbourhood Plan: they have offered unstinting support and have shown themselves to be an innovative, community-minded authority. We need now for as many as possible to engage in the final consultation exercise, which provides the opportunity for all to comment on what they want for their area and to turn their aspirations into reality.”

Robin Hooper, Chief Executive of Eden District Council said: “Designation of this Order is an important step in enabling the people of Upper Eden to express their own vision for how they see their area developing. We will continue to offer our support to the UECP group as it progresses its plan”.

Councillor Malcolm Smith, Portfolio Holder for Planning and Economy, said: “We are delighted to have our first Neighbourhood Plan underway. Local people want the best for their area and are best-placed to plan for the right development in the right place. The Council is committed to offering the right advice and support to make this possible.”

Earlier this year the UECP Group put their Neighbourhood Plan proposals to the public. The comments received were used to develop a local consensus around a set of planning policies which govern issues such as; Affordable Housing for Local people, Housing for Older People and Broadband Connectivity of New Developments. The plan can be viewed at or at Mansion House, Penrith, CA11 7YG on weekdays between the hours of 10.00 am and 4.00 pm. Copies are also available in local libraries. Local people are encouraged to have their say on the Plan. Comments should be sent to Eden District Council by no later than 5.00pm Thursday 27th September 2012, by email to [email protected] or in writing to Planning Policy, Eden District Council, Mansion House, Penrith, CA11 7YG.

For more detailed information on The Upper Eden Neighbourhood Plan and Neighbourhood Planning in general, including a step by step guide please visit their website at If you require any further information contact the Planning Policy team on 01768 817817 or [email protected].


Rory Takes to the Hills with Cumbrian Mountain Rescue


Rory has spent part of his summer recess out walking with Mountain Rescue operations in Cumbria, ahead of giving a keynote talk at the biennial UK and Ireland Mountain Rescue Conference to be held in Leeds next month.

Rory spent a morning climbing Helvellyn with two of the Patterdale Team’s Deputy Team Leaders – Matt Cox and Dan Farley – and a week later walked seven miles by Bassenthwaite with Mike Park MBE, Team Leader of Cockermouth’s Mountain Rescue team. Each outdoor meeting focused on the recently-published Rescue 2020 report, an appraisal of mountain rescue operations which focused on the Lake District. Top of the agenda was discussions about how to co-ordinate more closely with air ambulance and other emergency services – a subject Rory raised in a parliamentary debate before recess. They also discussed the effect of the VAT rebate for mountain rescue that the parliamentary group helped to secure last year. This was followed by a brief meeting with Keswick Mountain Rescue later in Rory’s walk through the constituency, focused on communications technology.

Rory said: “It has been wonderful to walk out onto the fells with some of our Mountain Rescue team leaders, and to experience first-hand the terrain they cover and get a better sense of the excellent work that they do and the issues they are facing. I am committed to getting the best possible deal for our mountain rescue teams across the UK, and to show how Cumbria can take the national lead – particularly in terms of co-operating not only between teams, but with our other emergency services, such as the air-ambulance. I would also like to explore using the sorts of new technology that we are currently trialling here in Penrith and the Border, such as 4G mobile broadband and femto cells, to make mountain rescue operations more effective. They do an excellent job, wonderfully supported by Cumbrian volunteers, and I look forward to seeing much more of them.”

Dan Farley of Patterdale MR said: “Matt Cox and I walked with Rory to the summit of Helvellyn via Red Tarn Beck and Swirral Edge. Rory is known for his walking, whether exploring the length of Afghanistan several years ago or walking around his potential constituency ahead of his election in 2010. En route to Helvellyn we covered all sorts of topics, from the history of the mines and local farming traditions to the various demands on mountain rescuers and our day jobs and backgrounds. Rory was keen to see behind the public side of what we do and to acknowledge the commitment of rescuers, and it was encouraging to hear how open he is to supporting what we do, not only locally but also in government and on a national basis.”

The UK and Ireland Mountain Rescue Conference takes place at the University of Leeds’ Headingley Campus, Leeds from 7th to 9th September. It is the largest gathering of Mountain, Cave and other LandSAR organisations in the UK. For more information please visit


Rory celebrates 4G trial success in his constituency


Rory, who helped bring an experimental 4G mobile broadband trial to residents of Threlkeld in his constituency earlier this year, joined local residents and business owners to hear about their successful broadband experiences at an event on Tuesday at the Threlkeld Cricket Club.

More than 50 residents from a number of local businesses – including a regional office of United Utilities, the Blencathra Field Studies Centre, the King Kong Climbing Wall, Walker Ellis, and local web developers  – have been participating in the trial. The event was also attended by the Cumbria Constabulary, Kewsick Mountain Rescue, Threlkeld Parish Council, Northern Fells Broadband Committee and the Broadband Stakeholder Group, amongst others.

Speaking at the event, Rory said: “It’s fantastic to see local businesses flourishing as a result of this infrastructure, and I am delighted to see enterprises as diverse as the Blencathra Field Studies Centre, and Keswick Web Design, to local Bed and Breakfasts to leisure activity operators such as King Kong Climbing Walls, benefiting from this. Yet again, Cumbria is at the forefront of innovation and most importantly our local businesses and residents are finally able to access fast, reliable internet. This technology has the potential to allow people here in Penrith and the Border to get the most from their mobile phones when introduced – from children accessing study aids, to farmers monitoring their stock levels, to our local mountain rescue teams using better communications to help those in need. And I am especially encouraged to hear that the success of this trial means that the technology is likely to be rolled out further afield – potentially benefiting even more constituents in the very near future.”

Employees of various local businesses in the Threlkeld area are testing 4G using both dongles and routers. The trial is achieving speeds of 20 Mpbs, allowing businesses to achieve unprecedented levels of productivity. The area, which was personally proposed by Rory, was selected as the location for the trial as it currently has insufficient or unreliable broadband. Residents have warmly welcomed the new service, saying it is providing significantly improved connectivity that is benefiting them personally and professionally.

Paul Ward, King Kong Climbing Walls, said: “The trial has significantly improved how we work and communicate with our clients day-today, particularly through faster download and upload speeds, as we were previously subject to slow and intermittent mobile broadband coverage. If Everything Everywhere is able to launch 4G this year, it will be very encouraging for rural areas and business across the country.”

James Walker, Walker Ellis Associates Ltd: “Since joining the 4G LTE trial in Threlkeld, we are delighted to be achieving download speeds well in excess of 20 MBPS and upload speeds approaching 20 MBPS. As a commercial photography and graphic design business it is vital for us to be able to send large files quickly and reliably. We are delighted that Everything Everywhere has been given the opportunity to launch 4G this year as it will help a rural business like ours to keep up in an increasingly competitive world, by ensuring our long term survival and prosperity.”

Corin Burdon, Keswick Web Design:  “I’m pleased to say the benefits to my business have been immediately noticeable with a large increase in consistent and useable connection speeds, which are typically 3-4 times faster than my existing landline broadband. The quality of the connection has been particularly noticeable with file upload speed and transfers via FTP. On several occasions transfers I would have left overnight on my traditional broadband connection –  only to see errors and drop outs the next day –  have been accomplished easily and quickly while continuing to work on websites in the background. 4G hastaken the load in its stride even while multiple users are connected.”

The innovative trial was opened in May by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove and Rory, who worked closely with the telecommunications company to bring the trial to Cumbria – the first of its kind in the north of England. The trial is exploring how 4G can be deployed over airwaves currently used for 2G and 3G services.

Incongruous Lives and Unexpected Voices

It is the Parliamentary recess, and I have been walking through Cumbria and the Borders. On the second day I climbed over Helvellyn and Great Dodd, and slept in cloud on the summit of Blencathra. Day six was along the sand from Maryport to Silloth. Day nine was over lowland raised mires from Wigton to Bowness. Fording the Solway, the waist-deep water was silver. In the country between Longtown and Bewcastle, the rain-gorged rivers were chocolate with clay, or peat-black. Days fifteen and sixteen were spent in the two hundred thousand acre spruce forest of Kershope and Kielder.

There seems to be more time for conversations when walking, and for encounters which would be unlikely in a car or a chair. On a single day’s walk through Wigton, for example, I had breakfast with community workers, coffee with apprentice engineers in the factory canteen, dropped into the youth club, looked at a new park, lunched with the manager of the auction mart, called on a town councillor and the Rector at the church, walked around two housing estates with the community policing team, had supper in the kebab shop, and finally slept on a sofa belonging to a mother on the Greenacres housing estate.

I was more conscious of landscape and boundaries than I have ever been – and not only the Scottish Border. Connections stretched tightly across the county: the farmer who gave me coffee by Dearham was the brother-in-law of the farmer who gave me coffee at Plumpton. I saw Emerald the Limousin cow at John Elliot’s farm, having seen her earlier, seventy-three miles away, at Matt Ridley’s. But there were also deep divisions: the explosion of hedges, nettle and meadow-sweet which marked the transition from the limestone fells to the sandstone plain; the change between the two related Saxon churches of Bridekirk and Dearham, each with their ancient Norse crosses, where the life expectancy fell by a decade in a mile. At Kirkbride the soil was peat dark, the drainage ditches choked. Bowness Common was thick with sphagnum and bog asphodel. In the Bailey valley, boots sunk in heavy clay and, despite the new draining and planting, the soil was poached by the cattle, and the blue water oozed over a dozen, two hundred acre, owner-occupied farms. Across the Kershope Burn the farmers are tenanted at two thousand acres, and the countryside was empty of homesteads: the legacy of Border clearances. Each half-day brought a different geology, or altitude, or rainfall, or landholding pattern – different problems with different soils.

I was very conscious of history. In the nineteenth century scholars recorded not simply the still visible remains of the Vikings but also oral traditions in every valley: the ballads about the Captain of Bewcastle, and stories about the King of Patterdale. Each hill had its story. No longer. The ‘characters’ remembered in Longtown’s Graham Arms were men who died in the nineteen eighties. I spent the day with a farmer whose family has been – we looked at the parish records – on almost every farm in that upper valley, over the four hundred years since his reiving ancestors flowed South; but his grandparents had no legends. The man who could name sixty plants in the hedgerow had moved from Leicestershire. It was not in the traditional villages but in the new housing estates of Wigton that community and continuity seemed most deeply established (my host knew the inhabitants of a hundred houses, and could name all their children, and aunts).

Within this landscape, these boundaries, and this history, were a thousand professions and experiences. I forded the Solway with a publican, who was also a haaf-netter, fishing in that twelve hundred year old Norse tradition. I climbed Helvellyn with a man who was a potter, a solar panel installer, a beer festival organiser, and a web designer. The Silloth harbour-master who walked with me from Allonby had trained in Dubai, and introduced me to the Captain in harbour, who was from Kalinigrad. The sixth generation miller was now the manager responsible for Carr’s brand new machinery spouting the purest flour through ever-juddering steel tubes. Eric Weir was knowledgeable not just about his Swaledale flock, but also about the history of lead mining in the Howtown hills. Barry Todhunter the huntsman of the Blencathra had a name which suggested ancient tradition, but he spoke of riding the American railways from Chicago to Oregon.

There is nothing straightforward or orderly about such conversations: the eccentricity, the learning, the charm – and sometimes bluntness – of a hundred meetings on footpaths. Ours is a land of frontiers, and encounters – the ancient marches of England Scotland. Such stories and lives could exist nowhere except in Cumbria and on the Scottish border, nor could they have flowered in just this way, even here, a decade ago. Twenty three days into the walk with another twelve to go, it feels as though the energy of our place springs from neither history nor landscape, but from incongruous lives, and unexpected voices.


Rory puts dairy manifesto at heart of agriculture minister’s visit to Penrith and the Border


Rory today hosted and chaired a high-profile dairy farming conference at Dolphenby Farm, Edenhall where he was joined by hundreds of Cumbrian farmers and the Minister for Agriculture Jim Paice to discuss the future of Cumbrian dairy farming. This was the Minister’s third visit to Rory’s constituency, which he used to highlight Cumbrian dairy farmers’ needs following the unprecedented price drop crisis of earlier this summer. The parliamentarians were joined by CEO of FirstMilk Kate Allum, NFU Dairy Expert Robert Newbery and dairy consultant Mark Voorbergen at the two-hour conference – organised by FirstMilk – where a broad range of issues were discussed with the intention of Rory formulating a dairy ‘manifesto’ to create tangible improvements for Cumbria’s dairy farmers.

Rory said: “Today’s conference was all about the Minister hearing direct from Cumbria’s dairy farmers, and discussing the ways in which dairy farmers can be given the tools to negotiate the prices that they deserve. This summer’s dramatic price cuts were unexpected, and inappropriate; we need mechanisms in place to ensure this does not happen again. I am calling for a dairy manifesto that recognises and shapes the ways in which our dairy farmers can thrive and prosper in a market that fluctuates dramatically, and envisages the environment we need to create to enable that. This means making use of improved technologies such as smart-phone applications and better mobile and fibre broadband; identifying new export and joint-venture opportunities, such as those that FirstMilk are pioneering with Emirates Airlines and with Fonterra in New Zealand, producing whey protein products; and working on co-operative and partnership models whereby dairy farmers can collaborate on negotiating the best possible deals. I am enormously encouraged by the Minister’s comments and input today, and will work closely with Cumbria’s dairy farmers and with DEFRA to keep the momentum going and ensure that we really do make practical changes that will make a difference on the ground.”


Rory Heralds Cumbrian Investment


The Government says a £3.5 million investment in Cumbria’s rural economy will create 900 jobs and almost 500 new businesses.

Rory welcomed agriculture Minister Jim Paice to Blencathra today to meet with local businesses and to announce an investment of  £3.5 million into Cumbria’s rural economy, which the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce estimates will create an estimated 900 jobs and almost 500 new businesses in the process. The Minister also used his visit to Penrith and the Border to promote the work of the Rural Growth Network, first announced in the budget in April.

Speaking at the Blencathra Field Studies Centre, Rory said: “I am delighted that the government is showing its commitment to Cumbria, and recognises the importance of Rural Britain. The key to Cumbria’s future remains investment in broadband and mobile communications to every home. But this investment in business mentoring and support, is an important addition. It will provide mentoring and expert advice for new small local businesses, who are an increasingly central part of our economy.”

The Minister also visited the Blencathra Business Centre in Keswick, which will be transformed into eight new work premises with business services including one-to-one business advice, online training, networking opportunities and access to super-fast broadband. This is just one of the Rural Growth Network’s ‘enterprise hubs’ planned for rural areas across Cumbria, which will deliver business support to a range of sectors, including food and drink, adventure sports and digital and creative enterprises.

The Keswick centre is one of a network of enterprise hubs planned across Cumbria that include:

• Fourteen new work premises at Alston;

• Eight new work premises at Blencathra Business Centre;

• Eight new work premises at Clawthorpe Hall;

• Twenty new work premises at Marl, Ulverston;

• Eight new work premises at Millom; and

• Ten new work premises at University of Cumbria, Ambleside;

Cumbria’s bid to become a pilot Rural Growth Network was submitted by the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and has been named alongside Devon and Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire, Northumberland and Durham, and Warwickshire as winning through to become pilot schemes. The Rural Growth Network is part of the £165 million programme of measures that the Government is delivering to grow business and create new job prospects in rural areas.

Rory presents Sir Walter Scott on ‘Great Lives’

Rory Stewart champions the life of Sir Walter Scott. Presenter Matthew Parris is joined by Scott’s biographer Stuart Kelly. Scott arguably invented the idea of Scottishness and marketed it to the world. But now he is virtually unread and he stands accused of saddling Scotland with tartan tat and Highland kitsch. Rory Stewart argues that Scott’s version of Scottish identity represents a valid
alternative to today’s Scottish nationalism

Lessons from Afghanistan


National Army Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library

National Army Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library

Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile describes the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan by Britain from 1839 to 1842. This is a well-known story—depicted in grand nineteenth-century canvases (Remnants of an Army), 1960s comedies (Flashman), and a flurry of books with Victorian titles, published or republished to coincide with our current Afghan mess: Signal CatastropheCrimson SnowThe Last ManRetreat and RetributionButcher and Bolt. Most of the books remind us that the British “Army of the Indus” swaggered into Kabul from India in 1839; that the general’s personal baggage had been loaded on 260 camels; that behind the lancers in their scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos trotted a pack of hounds, which had been led through the arid horrors of the Bolan Pass in order to hunt foxes in the Hindu Kush; and that the Afghans were soon watching ice-skating and giving advice to British women on their geraniums.

The British had invaded to replace the Afghan king, because they felt he was becoming too close to the Russians, and that Afghanistan could have been used by Russia to threaten British India. By November 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes, the British political official responsible for Kabul, congratulated his superior, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, on the perfect tranquility of the country. A day later, Burnes was hacked down in the flames of his burning mansion; a week later, the British garrison was under siege; on December 23 Macnaghten’s mutilated corpse was hung from a butcher’s hook in the bazaar; and on January 6 the British army began its retreat.

Some 15,000 soldiers and camp followers marched out of their compound through the snow, heading for the British garrison at Jalalabad. Some died of exposure, others were taken hostage or escaped, but most were killed. Five thousand men, women, and children died as they struggled through a five-mile gully outside of Kabul, picked off by muskets or cut down with swords. On January 13, sentries looking for the Army of the Indus saw a single wounded man moving across the plain. Dr. William Brydon was what remained of the Army of the Indus.

This “signal catastrophe” is illuminated by an astonishing range of contemporary sources, far more than exist for any classical or medieval conflict, and indeed for many more recent campaigns. You can read Colin Mackenzie’s description of a naked Indian baby, wide-eyed and abandoned on the snow-plain, at the beginning of the retreat, and you can still admire Mackenzie’s full-length portrait in the British National Army Museum (he has curled mustaches and is wearing the robes of a Persian prince). You can read the diary of Lady Sale, whose tough, unblinking account of the retreat, written on tattered sheaves of cheap paper, with her own deletions to conceal stories of cannibalism, survives in the British Library. And in family collections and regimental museums you can peer at thousands of smudged and occasionally blood-stained letters, entries, and memoranda, written by the civilian and political officers killed during the uprising.

Preston makes use of many of these sources, providing a fair summary of the events. But she neglects the equally exciting Afghan accounts. They do not match the laconic realism of the British diaries—some include comic stories of sorcery and miracles—but they reveal Afghan perspectives, of which Europeans, then and now, seem to have been largely unconscious.

The only contemporary historian to use these sources to illuminate fully the Anglo-Afghan war is William Dalrymple, whose book will be published early next year.*Dalrymple’s dealings with the book dealers in Kabul led him to the memoirs of the Afghan king; contemporary Afghan chronicles; two serious works by nineteenth-century Afghan historians; and two contemporary poems, written in the sonorous verse of ancient Persian epic. Dalrymple has been able to describe many facts not contained in the British sources, the sophistication of Afghan court culture, and the clearly religious flavor of much of the resistance.

I was struck also by the emphasis in Dalrymple’s Afghan sources on a rape committed by a British soldier in Kandahar, which passes unnoticed in the British accounts, but to which the Afghans attribute much of their early rage. All these sources, however, focus on the mistakes made by the British, and tempt historians such as Preston to believe that the disaster was the result of two things: avoidable military errors and the pernicious interference of civilian “political officers.”

The first explanation might be described as the view of George Macdonald Fraser, whose fictional antihero, Flashman, says of the British commander:

If you had taken the greatest military geniuses of the ages, placed them in command of our army, and asked them to ruin it utterly as speedily as possible, they could not—I mean it seriously—have done it as surely and swiftly as he did.

This view was echoed in most contemporary British accounts, and reflects the fact that almost all were written by soldiers. (Lady Sale is the notable exception, though she has very military prejudices.) Almost all assert that the army could have avoided disaster if it had marched immediately into the city of Kabul, avenged the murder of the resident, and crushed the insurgency. It should, they say, have used night attacks to seize strategic positions and to defend its outlying forts and stores, moving its base to the more defensible royal castle, and holding out there, rather than retreating. In other words, they suggest that the situation could have been saved with a clear strategy, good leadership, sufficient resources, and enough troops. And they foster the idea—as the Soviet military did in 1988—not only that they were not defeated, but that they could have won outright if they had not been let down by bad planning, logistics, and tactics, and then been withdrawn by cowards.

Even at the time, this was a view highly appealing to the policymakers. The president of the India Council, John Cam Hobhouse, assured the House of Commons: “It is a military defeat—nothing more. It has nothing to do with the policy….” Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston added, “There is no reason [why] we shall not be able to recover in Afghanistan the same position as we occupied before the disaster happened.”

All the sources put the greatest blame for the British disaster, however, on the shoulders of the civilian political officers, in particular Macnaghten, the envoy, and his deputy Burnes. When the commander in chief of the Indian army (quoted approvingly by Preston) gave his reasons for the failure in 1842, for example, he blamed “making war with a peace establishment…giving undue power to political agents…[and] want of forethought and undue confidence in the Afghans on the part of Sir William Macnaghten.”

Macnaghten was criticized for cutting the subsidies to Afghan chiefs, for removing their influence over army recruitment, and for his contradictory attempts to bribe and eliminate rebel leaders. Burnes was blamed for seducing Afghan women. Both were blamed for having dragged Britain into the disaster, for undermining military goals for “political reasons,” and for ignoring the reports of the uprising that eventually killed them. Military witnesses saw this as the inevitable result of a British system in which overpromoted, pretentious civilians were allowed to interfere in military matters. As General William Nott, who commanded at Kandahar throughout the campaign, remarked: “If a man is too stupid or too lazy to drill company, he often turns sycophant, cringer to the heads of departments and is made a ‘Political,’ and of course puts the government to enormous expense, and disgraces the character of his country.”

But all of this was then—and remains—grossly unfair to men who, having been killed in the campaign, were unable to defend themselves. In fact, the political officers, in or around the Afghan adventure, were part of an elite cadre of highly experienced specialists. Macnaghten was an extraordinary linguist and a unique authority on Indian legal texts. Among other political officers, Eldred Pottinger led much of the brilliant defense of Herat against a Persian attack, and Henry Rawlinson rode seven hundred miles across Persia in six days, and was the first man to decipher Persian cuneiform. Almost all had undertaken solo journeys of exploration, opening entirely new routes into Central Asia. Alexander Burnes in particular was tough, endlessly curious, witty, imaginative, and courageous.

It is true that, to the fury of military officers like General Nott, the “politicals” who survived could not avoid a knighthood, a governorship, an honorary degree, a medal from a learned society, or even a parliamentary seat, but it was not easy to survive: in the few months following the uprising in Kabul, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two political officers, were thrown in a pit in Bokhara and then beheaded. Eldred Pottinger (“the hero of Herat”) and Arthur Conolly’s brother John died of fever; Alexander Burnes and his brother were hacked down in Kabul; and William Macnaghten was killed at point-blank by a prince at a meeting.

But they did not die because of naiveté. Macnaghten’s whole later career had relied on a culture in which hosts protected diplomats and guests (it is still difficult to understand why the Afghan prince murdered the defenseless envoy). Burnes would have done better to withdraw from his unprotected residence. He remained at his post not because he was inexperienced but because he felt he could neither keep his reputation nor do his work if he fled when threatened.

All these men knew that the walls of the royal castle would have offered more protection than their pathetic camp. But it would have insulted Afghans, and made the king appear even more of a puppet, to place British troops among the king’s women in the royal palace. Ignoring such political and cultural issues and the king’s wishes would have inflamed resistance more rapidly. (And indeed when, in 1879, having “learned the lessons” from the first Afghan war, the next British envoy insisted on taking up residence in the royal castle, he was killed almost immediately.) It was not the civilian political officers’ fault that the British were insufficiently bold and active in challenging insurgents or recapturing strategic positions. The political officers pressed for all these things, arguing that decisive action was vital for the credibility of the occupation. They were continually overruled by General William Elphinstone and General John Shelton, whose professional military judgment was that it was too dangerous to fight in narrow streets, or mount night attacks, or to try to hold out in Kabul. Generally, the problem was not that the military placed too much emphasis on the advice of political officers, but too little.

It is a mistake, however, to put the blame for the disaster on either the generals or the political officers. Whatever decisions were made, there would have been no happy ending. A foreign army isolated in Kabul, propping up an unpopular ruler in the face of a growing insurgency, could not succeed. To maintain security, they needed to create a new Afghan army, which required taxation and expenditure. This created enemies and required a resource base, which Afghanistan did not have. They therefore relied on enormous—and unsustainable—amounts of foreign funding (which in turn fueled corruption).

They needed to win the support of the population if they were to defeat the insurgency and build a legitimate state; but the population would not support a weak, corrupt state in the middle of an insurgency. To reassure the nationalists, the foreign force had to convince them they were leaving; and to reassure the supporters of the British, the foreign force had to convince them they were staying. Such political problems could not be solved with more troops. They were all (to use a British policymaker’s phrase) “the inevitable consequence of our position in Afghanistan.”

The most interesting and least well explored question, therefore, is why did the policymakers choose to invade Afghanistan in the first place? It is disappointing that Preston—like almost every other historian—does not make this question more of the focus of her book. This is not for lack of sources. We have access to the secret correspondence from the “Political and Secret department,” the reports submitted by British agents in Persia, Herat, and Kabul, and the original version of the public papers, with the handwritten annotations of the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston: we know more about the policy process than we know about many modern wars. And the reasons and the arguments of the policymakers, contained in these documents, are as eloquent as they are catastrophic.

The decision to invade Afghanistan was made in India by the governor-general, Lord Auckland, and Macnaghten (who was then foreign secretary to the Indian government). It was championed in London by Palmerston and John Hobhouse. The Indian decision-makers feared instability among the independent states of Sindh and were intimidated by the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab and its large professional army. (At the time, the frontier of British India was close to the modern Indian-Pakistani border.) They perceived Afghanistan, beyond the Punjab, as an unstable, fragmented state. Beyond Afghanistan, they saw an expanding Russia as a mortal threat to British India, which could only be contained by creating a buffer of pro-British rulers in Afghanistan and the Punjab. The existing ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, seemed too weak, too close to Russia, and too hostile to the Punjab for their purposes, so they decided to replace him with Shah Shuja—a former Afghan king, now in exile in British India—on the grounds that Shah Shuja was “the legitimate ruler,” and popular with the Sikhs. All these measures, were perceived, in Hobhouse’s words, as “indispensable for the very safety of our Eastern Empire.” Preston records such views but does not analyze them.

The theories were senseless. Informed and influential people said so at the time. First, the threat posed by Russia was grotesquely exaggerated. As Disraeli observed in his great speech criticizing the war in 1842, British India was “an empire separated on the east and west from any power of importance by more than 2,000 miles of neutral territory, bounded on the north by an impassable range of rocky mountains; and on the south by 10,000 miles of ocean.” (The Russian attempt to cross even the very first section to Khiva, in 1840, led to the loss of an entire army.)

Second, the Punjab, which the policy-makers treated as a permanent cornerstone of regional security, was in truth a new, fragile kingdom, which collapsed, and was then invaded and occupied by the British a few years later. Third, as Burnes argued, Dost Mohammed, who the policymakers portrayed as weak and treacherous, was in fact a very promising potential ally who preferred “the sympathy and friendly offices of the British.” Fourth, there was almost no conceivable legal and moral justification for the invasion. It was, in the politician Lord Aberdeen’s words in 1839, “as rash and impolitic as it was ill-considered, oppressive and unjust.”

Finally, as many pointed out before the invasion, the policymakers completely underestimated the practical problems of occupying Afghanistan. One ex–governor general of India, Lord William Bentinck, called it “an act of incredible folly.” His brother the Duke of Wellington predicted that the soldiers would be drawn into a “perennial march into that country,” and that the difficulties would begin when the military operations were ended. Mounstuart Elphinstone, the greatest living authority on Afghanistan, focused on nationalist resentment:

If you send 27,000 men…and can feed them, I have no doubt you will take Kandahar and Kabul…; but for maintaining [the new king] in poor, cold, strong, and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans,…it seems to me to be hopeless…. The Afghans were neutral…they will now be disaffected and glad to join any invader to drive you out.

Why did Palmerston and the senior officials in the capitals ignore such detailed, broad-ranging, and authoritative criticisms?

We may want to believe that the policymakers were stupid, ignorant, or evil. But they were not. The governor-general, Lord Auckland, was a calm, diligent administrator, and his secretariat included the men reputed to be the cleverest in British India. Lord Palmerston had long experience as secretary of war for nineteen years, and foreign secretary, almost continuously, for a further nine years, before the invasion. Having designed the policy of the invasion, Macnaghten went out to Kabul personally to implement it, where he demonstrated admirable energy, a deep respect for Asian culture and religion, and a sincere affection for the locals.

The uncomfortable truth is that experienced, energetic, knowledgeable men, surrounded by vigorous and thoughtful staff and excellent advice, were nevertheless seduced by superficial premises, inadequate reasoning, and unjustified conclusions, and launched a war on the most flimsy of theories. As a new member of the British Parliament, I am perhaps oversensitive to the irresistible momentum of policy, but it seems astonishing just how elegantly and comprehensively the policymakers convinced themselves and others to undertake a disastrous intervention.

No amount of negative reporting from the ground could shake their confidence. Macnaghten continued to believe, in defiance of all evidence, that the Afghan ruler was popular. And each of the advocates of British strategy—Auckland, Macnaghten, Hobhouse, and Palmerston—found distinctive ways of belittling or marginalizing his opponents. Lord Auckland dealt with the warnings of his predecessor, Metcalfe, by assuring him that no decisions had been made, and then suddenly that the decisions had already been made, and it was too late to quibble (“It is little good in politics to be long looking back on footsteps that are already passed”). Macnaghten convinced himself that critics in London had been too long out of the region. And that Burnes, his critic and representative in Kabul, had been too long in the region. When Burnes warned of the growing insurgency, Macnaghten argued that Burnes was only being pessimistic because he wanted his job, and wanted to take credit for any success.

Hobhouse implied that his critics were either slandering honorable men or were simply ignorant of the larger strategic context. In Parliament in 1842 he treated his opponent Disraeli with contempt: “If the hon. Member knows so little of what passes in London, how can he know what has passed in India?” He backed his position with an intimidating list of detailed facts about British trade on the Indus, the legitimacy of the rulers of the Sind, import statistics at the port of Calcutta, and the stability of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.

Palmerston chose to play on national pride and national fears. He and his colleagues raised the specter of a strong Afghan state attacking Peshawar (in modern Pakistan); of a weak Afghan state, which could not prevent others from attacking Peshawar; and of the threat to the reputation of Britain. Palmerston said of the invasion: “The vigorous decision will do us the utmost service…. The world has begun to think that England had really become…a ‘power known only by tradition.’” Such anxieties have haunted other superpowers in the cold war and beyond, and we might characterize Palmerston’s national security rhetoric, in modern jargon, as exploiting a fear of a domino effect, a rogue state, or a failed state, and fear for national credibility. It led him to neglect diplomatic solutions in favor of extreme military action. In Disraeli’s words, to lurch from a “fatal inertness to a still more terrible activity.”

But the most troubling aspect of their parliamentary rhetoric is the way that, having dragged Britain into the war, the policymakers tried to make it seem almost impossible to leave. Palmerston portrayed withdrawal as “a want of moral courage” and an unthinkable humiliation, which would leave the world a much more dangerous place.

Rely upon it, that if you abandon that country it will get into other hands; and though you may, by such a course, escape from some little present difficulty, and save some little present expense, the day will come when you will be compelled to re-occupy that country at an infinitely greater expenditure of money, and at an infinitely greater sacrifice of life than would enable you now to retain it.

(In fact, Britain did not go back in for another forty years, and when it did, it was again pursuing an exaggerated threat, and found only humiliation.)

All this was so successful that much of the British media, led by the Morning Chronicle, continued to champion the Afghan war even after the horrors of 1842. Palmerston was able to avoid the many calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster, and he so successfully avoided taking responsibility for the invasion that he went on to become prime minister, a position in which he was able to display again in the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion (which his Afghan policies had helped to foster) exactly the same combination of unscrupulous optimism and jingoistic overreaction that he had shown a decade earlier.

Nevertheless—after a brief expedition to free the prisoners (and more shamefully to take revenge—through a massacre in Istalif and the destruction of the seventeenth-century heart of Kabul)—the new government of Robert Peel did the right thing: it pulled out completely. Two and a half years after the British invaded, there was not a single British soldier or civilian left in Afghanistan; their old enemy Dost Mohammed took over again as ruler, on a British pension; and he remained a reliable ally for the next twenty years. The confidence and wisdom of this final withdrawal is almost as incomprehensible as the folly that underlay the invasion.

The political debate in London reveals how immensely difficult—intellectually, morally, and politically—it was for Peel and his colleagues to withdraw. They had to tackle the dense thicket of expert opinions on regional security, which had grown up to justify the intervention. They were forced to challenge parts of the military establishment and contradict the generals (many of whom continued to insist that all that was needed was a clearer mission, more resources, and more troops). They took the risk that withdrawal would leave Afghanistan in civil war, and that they would be accused of shirking their moral responsibility to improve conditions there. They accepted the humiliation of seeing their enemy, who they had invaded to topple, take back control. They ignored the media screams about cowardice and national disgrace. They faced down the fears about national security and loss of credibility. And by doing so, they avoided being trapped by the guilt, paranoia, and irrational momentum of war.

Their ability to withdraw at all was in part a tribute to an old culture of experience and criticism, to which Peel wisely responded. The men who carefully exposed the folly of the Afghan policy—and in some cases like Sir Charles Metcalfe kept doing so over a decade or more—were vilified and sidelined by the interveners. But they continued to patiently answer every fear, counter every empirical claim, sketch out every risk, and develop the arguments that made withdrawal, though always difficult, at least conceivable. All this was helped by the unique expertise and language ability that then existed in government institutions, and in particular among the much-despised political officers.

This experience gave the critics of British policy not only the instinct that the occupation would fail, but the confidence and credibility to say so. And they were emboldened by a culture that reveled in challenging poor policy with rhetoric and rudeness (this was one of the things that Palmerston hated in the Indian civil service and tried to eliminate with his later reforms, when he said he would rather have second-rate obedient people than first-rate independent minds).

Apportioning responsibility for the Afghan intervention—resisting the temptation to condemn the policymakers on the basis of their (many) impulsive comments, weighing the mistakes in Kabul against the mistakes in London—is difficult for a historian. But it is possible. The model account of the war, Sir John Kaye’s History of the War in Afghanistan—still by far the best—was published within nine years of the retreat, when many of the participants were still alive. Kaye’s history draws on his own experience as an Indian soldier and administrator in order to imagine, and consider in the smallest detail, each tiny decision to deploy a gun on Bemaru, to halt for supplies, to withdraw from a fort, or to accept an offer of a negotiation. He forces readers to think, reconsider, and live through each of the impossible choices of the campaign.

Preston has not attempted this kind of history. She excuses her neglect with the remark that “the political and moral aspects [are] both more subjective and more difficult to analyse.” This reluctance to investigate the contradictory detail of policy decisions, and to assess the moral and intellectual foundations of the occupation, is also characteristic of almost every recent book on the Afghan invasion beginning in 2001. It may also be symptomatic of our culture. It is striking that, although as much time has passed since our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as had passed when Kaye wrote his book 160 years ago, we have yet to produce anything on those conflicts that matches his objectivity and empathy. Our inability to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of occupation, to recognize an impossible mission, to expose the flimsiest of national security arguments, or to accept the limitations of government institutions abroad (the prerequisites for any withdrawal), seems a weakness not just of our historians but also of our policymakers.

Many recent accounts of the first Anglo-Afghan war, the second British humiliation in 1879, and that of the Soviet Union in 1979 (of which the best is Rodric Braithwaite’s wonderful Afgansty, steeped in interviews and primary research) have tempted readers to echo British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s favorite line: “Rule number one in politics is: never invade Afghanistan.” There is in fact little in common between the Afghanistan of Shah Shuja and the Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai. If the first Anglo-Afghan war tells us anything it is not about Afghanistan, but about ourselves. It is a parable less of “an unchanging East” than of an unchanging West.


Rory encourages constituent entries to TalkTalk Digital Heroes Awards

Rory is encouraging constituents to participate in this year’s Digital Heroes Awards, following on from his successful nomination last year of East Cumbria Community Broadband Forum chairman Libby Bateman, who won the top prize for the north-west region.

The Digital Heroes Awards, run in partnership with the Daily Mirror and charities Citizens Online and Go ON UK, aim to recognise inspirational people who use technology to benefit their local community. The scheme has to date provided funding and support to 49 organisations across Britain.

Rory said: “TalkTalk’s Digital Heroes Awards recognise the invaluable contributions that our community broadband activists are making to the campaign to get our remote communities connected. Such was the success of Libby and the East Cumbria Community Broadband Forum last year that the government is now relying on Libby and her colleagues to pilot rural broadband solutions that will eventually be rolled out throughout the UK. Now that we are making constituents aware of the great need for these infrastructure improvements, I hope that more nominees will come from Penrith and the Border this year, and encourage you to think about members of your own community who are taking real steps to make super-fast broadband a reality for our rural communities.”

Now, for the fifth year running, twelve winners, one from each region of the UK – voted for by the public – will each get £5,000 to enhance their digital projects, with one overall winner getting £10,000. This year there will be an additional category for children and young people, with a top prize of £4,000 for their chosen charity and an Apple MacBook Air.

Please do make any nominations at Groups are also welcome to make direct submissions themselves. The deadline for entries is 14 September 2012.