Monthly Archives: August 2013


Why should chemical weapons have changed our response to Syria this week? After all for two years, Syria has been a place where we have felt both that we ought to intervene, and also simultaneously that we cannot intervene.  Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions made refugees. The regime is backed by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. The rebels are backed by Saudi and Qatar, and have a fighting core which is an Al Qaeda affiliate. It desperately needs a political settlement between the more moderate parts of the regime and the more moderate parts of the opposition, to balance the very different components of Syrian society. But that would require, not just extraordinary political imagination, but the active support of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia. Failing that very uncertain scenario, Syria faces terrifying futures: a victory for Bashar, a victory by the more unpleasant parts of the opposition, or – perhaps worst of all – a continuing civil war, with no victor, and no end. The West, however, has limited power in Syria. The traditional tools of intervention, of an Afghan, or even Libyan sort – full arming of rebels, no-fly zones, missile strikes, or invasion– would be, at best, only indirectly relevant to that political settlement. And a military intervention would be far more difficult than in smaller, less well-defended Libya. As always, ought implies can: we don’t have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

So why should the Syrian government firing chemical weapons have made any difference to the West’s response? There are three reasons why it shouldn’t; and one why it should. The first would be that the weapons finally provided an opportunity for intervention, which could topple the Bashar regime, and thereby help to stabilise the Middle East. It is extremely unlikely, however, that we would be able to control such an outcome. And any such strategy, even if conceivable, would require very careful and patient exposition; it should not simply be forced through, without full public discussion, on the basis of a convenient excuse. The second reason for action might be that the President Obama made the use of chemical weapons ‘a red line’; and he has to follow-through on his threats to retain his credibility. But this, although a rationale for American action, would not in itself be a justification for British involvement.  The third might be that the attack, regardless of chemicals, was an extreme atrocity against the civilian population, whom we have a ‘responsibility to protect’. But if that were the reason, why did we not act on the many other occasions when the Syrian regime has killed thousands?  The answer remains that the West lacks the capacity to significantly improve Syrian lives, and nothing this week has changed that.

There was however one good reason to respond, despite what Parliament decided on Thursday night.  This was because Bashar used chemical weapons– a uniquely horrifying weapon, which the international community has outlawed. This is a difficult argument to accept. Why should there be a difference between a chemical weapon and anything else? Surely what matters is only the number killed, and we should be ‘neutral’ on what technology is employed? No. The Laws of War, which we have developed slowly since the early Middle Ages, are based on the principle that certain acts, regardless of the number of casualties, are intrinsically abhorrent. Critics point out that this system can be piecemeal, subjective, and inconsistent. War continues to be hell: and there are many particularly horrifying weapons– such as cluster bombs – which remain in use. But that is an argument for widening the circle of what is prohibited, not narrowing it.

Take landmines. Of course, you can kill more people with bullets or even machetes. But the banning of landmines, because of their indiscriminate barbarity, has been an important victory for civilisation.  We were right also to ban chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons, not because of the number of people they kill but in part because of their dispersal, their potential, and their method of killing. This atrocity is an opportunity to reinforce the international condemnation of chemical weapons. Even Iran has condemned the attack. Regardless of the vote, we should still work to ensure that countries like Brazil and India take a much stronger position of condemnation.

The Syrian regime’s apparent use of this unholy weapon shows a willingness not just to ‘cross red lines’, but also to flout international law, which is terrifying in its implications for their people and the region. The international community should, I believe, respond, but its response must meet three conditions. First, it should not make the situation in Syria worse for the civilian population. Second, it should seek to deter Bashar from ever using chemical weapons again. Third, even if it fails to do that – and it may – it should send a clear message to deter any other regime, which is tempted to use chemical weapons.

Thursday’s vote in the House of Commons was both moving and troubling.  Britain has learned the lessons of Iraq, but it’s in danger of over-learning them.  The alternative to grand interventions should not be simply inaction.  It is possible, as we showed in Bosnia, and even in Kosovo (where there was no UN approval) to improve the lives of other people and support a better international order.  Caution must be the first instinct.  But we should be proud of the work we’ve done together to ban the use of chemical weapons, and our recent humiliations should not make us give up on the project of arguing, and even sometimes fighting, to defend and develop those moral principles.


Rory has backed Sandra Keaveney from NADT to win this year’s TalkTalk’s Digital Hero Awards. Sandra Keaveney has been shortlisted as one of the three deserving local candidates, who will now go head to head to win a £5,000 technology grant to help further their cause. From today people are being urged to vote for their favourite local Digital Hero at

This is the 6th annual Digital Hero Awards, and 62 organisations across Britain have been helped following their success in the awards, with funding and support with TalkTalk’s charities partners Citizens Online and Go ON UK.

Three candidates from each region have made it this far because of the great work they do using technology, now it is up to the public to cast their votes online to name their Digital Hero 2013. The winning candidate from each region will be honoured at a ceremony at the House of Commons and with £5,000 of funding. They will also have their project judged by an esteemed panel to be in with a chance of being awarded the title of Digital Hero 2013 and £10,000 of funding.

Judges include TalkTalk chairman Sir Charles Dunstone, Baroness Lane-Fox, Go ON UK Chair and Lloyd Embley, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror.

Rory said,

“It is absolutely fantastic that Sandra has been shortlisted for the Talk Talk Digital Hero Awards. This pilot scheme would see Wigton become the first fully-connected smart energy town in Britain, and it is the perfect example of a community, using cutting-edge technology to improve the lives of ordinary citizens.

“There is significant levels of fuel poverty in this small rural town, and the work of Sandra, the NADT and Silver Spring Networks, has energy efficiency and savings at its heart. The use of a community
website and smart meters has already allowed some residents and businesses to gain real-time information on their energy use, and we are keen to see this rolled out across the entire town.”

“I would urge everyone to get online and vote for Sandra before 18th September, to help ensure this brilliant, innovative project is recognised nationally, and receives what would be very welcome
additional support.

The Government’s Digital Champion Baroness Lane Fox said,

“There is a huge percentage of the population that have still never been online and 16 million do not have the basic online skills. These regional finalists are some of the nation’s best organisations that
are using digital for good and I urge their friends, families, followers and admirers to vote for them.”

“This year’s Digital Heroes Awards features some truly innovative projects, which are already using technology to improve their communities” said TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding “It was hard to select just three finalists in each region but we have some excellent contenders, and I look forward to meeting the winners at the Awards Ceremony in Parliament in October.”

To browse the 36 finalists and register your votes, please visit

Voting will be open until Wednesday 18th September. Votes can be cast for any region, not just your own.

The Twitter hashtag for the awards is #digitalheroes.


Rory has nominated Sandra Keveaney of Wigton-based charity the North Allerdale Development Trust (NADT), for the national TalkTalk Digital Heroes awards of 2013.

The smart meter project in Wigton is the first of its kind in the country, and was initiated by Rory Stewart. The local MP is nominating the charity for its hard work and involvement in launching, in association with Silver Spring Networks, the UK’s first ever ‘smart energy community’, which is helping community spaces such as Barnardo’s and the Wigton Youth Station, and residents of the local Greenacres housing estate, to conserve energy and address fuel poverty through the installation of a smart meter in their homes and premises.The meters, which operate over a wireless communications mesh, enable real-time data of energy usage to be shared via a community website – to be launched this month – which will educate the community about the benefits of smart metering, enable comparison of usage, and be a platform for the sharing of tips to save energy.

Rory said: “Wigton’s smart meter pilot scheme, being driven by Sandra Keveaney of the NADT in association with Silver Spring Networks, is a fantastically innovative local project that is of huge national importance. Using improved wireless infrastructure, the project has at its heart energy efficiency and the use of a community website to enable residents to address issues of fuel poverty by sharing real-time data of energy use, and giving consumers the power to monitor usage through these intelligent devices, shop around for suppliers, and trial other energy-saving appliances to run from the network. This is the perfect example of a community who are using cutting-edge technology to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, and I think it thoroughly deserves this boost, to be able to invest in most smart meters for the community and to build the local grid as deep and as wide as possible.”

Sandra Keveaney of NADT said: “I am delighted to be nominated for the Talk Talk Digital Heroes awards. The Wigton wireless smart meter project is an exciting and innovative approach to energy consumption in communities. Fuel poverty continues to impact heavily on many of the most vulnerable members of our community and this project through its use of its user friendly technology and peer to peer learning is enabling people to make informed decisions on their energy use and how to make valuable savings.”

The awards, now in their sixth year, have provided funding and support to 62 organisations across Britain, including various charities which have used technology to help children and youth, the homeless and people with disabilities. They are run in partnership with the Daily Mirror and charities Citizens Online and Go ON UK, and aim to recognise inspirational people who use technology to benefit their local community. Twelve winners, one from each region of the UK and voted for by the public, will each get £5,000 to enhance their digital projects, with one overall winner getting £10,000.

Commenting on the awards, Dido Harding, Chief Executive of TalkTalk, said: “Digital Heroes is the only competition of its kind, and each year attracts hundreds of nominations from people across the country. It has already made an enormous difference to dozens of important projects across the UK and this year we look forward to finding new and innovative ways of using technology for good.”

“A staggering 7.1 million UK adults have still never been online and 16 million do not have the Basic Online Skills to take advantage of digital tools. That’s why I am proud to support TalkTalk’s Digital Heroes Awards, with Go ON UK” says Baroness Lane-Fox. “The initiative celebrates inspiring digital champions achieving the extraordinary through digital technology in communities across the UK and is one I look forward to every year. John Fisher, Chief Executive of Citizens Online, said: “The internet is an important part of daily life for an increasing number of Britons, especially children and young people, and it is important that it is made accessible to everybody. Digital Heroes has already helped lots of important projects to change their communities for the better and we hope this year’s awards will inspire more people to think about how digital technology can benefit society.” More information about the TalkTalk Digital Heroes awards can be found at


Rory met this week with local anglers, on the banks of the river Lune,  at Tebay to understand their concerns over the health of the River Lune, and measures that could be put in place to better protect native fish species on the river.

Meeting down on the river itself, the group of anglers, convened by local district councillor Adrian Todd, raised concerns with Rory over the difficulty they had getting relevant agencies and public bodies to understand the threats local fish species were facing on the river, and the difficulty they had reporting incidents of malpractice. The Lune River has seen a dramatic decline in the number of salmon and sea-trout over the last few years. Rory agreed to write to the Environment Agency to ensure a more effective complaints hotline be established, as well as Defra ministers to raise wider concerns about the health of wild salmon on the Lune.

Rory said: “This was once one of the greatest rivers in England, and it’s recent decline has been very sad. We must do all we can to address it. The angling community have always played a hugely important role in understanding and monitoring the health of our rivers. Tebay anglers are an amazing part of our history – a local club who over decades have taken over one of the most special stretches of a national river and continue to work, day in day out, to protect it. Many of the anglers have known the river over decades, will hold a deep, local knowledge about its wildlife and wider ecosystem, and care deeply about its preservation. It is really important that we have the necessary structures and systems in place to ensure that any complaint or concerns are properly and quickly addressed. I am very proud to have been given the opportunity to work with Tebay anglers to protect the Lune.”


Rory met with young farmers from across his constituency at Penrith Show, in a workshop designed to establish the challenges currently faced by young Cumbrian farmers, and potential initiatives that could be set up to offer them additional support and guidance. Ideas included making more of the fantastic courses and support available through Newton Rigg, as well as encouraging older generations of farmers to engage more actively in sharing knowledge and ideas. In a lively conversation with the dozen young farmers, who form the core of his young farmer advisory group, they discussed foreign exchanges as a way of learning about best farming practice, the importance of new technology, the challenge of acquiring a farm, and of inheriting from a previous generation.

Speaking at Penrith Show, Rory said: “I have bene so impressed by the new generation of Cumbrian farmers. They are bright, determined, business savvy, and they love their work. It is a tough business, but htey have thrown themselves into it heart and soul, and seem to be getting a great deal of satisfaction from their work. The future of Cumbrian farming lies with the young farmers I have met today. These are the individuals who will continue to shape our landscape and act as the standard bearers of our culture and our traditional way of life here in Cumbria.”

“It is absolutely essential that we can offer young farmers the support they are looking for. I witnessed a fantastic level of energy, ideas and farming expertise in this workshop, and we must continue to nurture and protect this at all costs.”


At a packed out community meeting in Roadhead village hall this Sunday, Rory set out his model for how any rural community can now attain the broadband speeds they want. He encouraged communities to come forward with their own solutions to their own areas, and promised to work with them to get Cumbria ‘the best superfast broadband in Europe’.

Rory has played a key role in securing the £40 million contract between BT and Cumbria County Council, which will see 93% of homes and businesses gain access to superfast broadband by the end of 2015. Connecting Cumbria have now made clear which communities can expect superfast infrastructure, and local communities should now have a realistic understanding of what to expect. This now provides the moment for communities to come forward with their own schemes to fill in the gaps, which are not covered by the county roll-out. Rory explained the full range of options available from satellite to wireless solutions, pointed to Cumbrian companies which are already supplying solutions, including Solway Communications and Lonsdale Net. He particularly encouraged communities however, to look at following the model he had pioneered with County Councillor Libby Bateman at Fell end – which would allow superfast fibre optic broadband to be delivered directly to every home.

Rory said:

“I have lost count of the number of constituents who have contacted me wanting better broadband services, and the number of people willing to turn up on a Sunday evening to a village hall meeting, is testament to the importance of broadband to our Cumbrian communities.”

“We have secured for Cumbria more money per capita for broadband infrastructure than any other county in the UK. But even with this £40 million, we will not achieve 100% superfast broadband coverage – something I am desperate to see – unless some of our most remote communities now join us in working to finish the last miles. There are any number of broadband technologies which may be right for the geography and demand of a given community. I am confident that in every case a solution exists, and I am very keen to work and support any community who are unsure of the next step.”


Rory made time to visit and support the Dacre Hall arts and craft fair at Lanercost Priory, during his surgery roadshow across the Northern edges of his constituency. During his visit Rory was shown some of the halls stunning features, including its Tudor fireplace and frescos, before having the opportunity to browse the impressive display of local craft produce on sale.

Speaking at Lanercost, Rory said:

“This really is the most wonderful building, and entirely fitting of such a fantastic array of local arts and crafts. I challenge anyone to attend such an event, full of smiling, friendly faces and come away empty-handed. My thanks to everyone who helped organise such a beautiful display.”


Rory has congratulated and thanked all those involved in this year’s show, which organisers believe to be a record year, with over 10,000 attendees turning out to enjoy over 1000 livestock entries. The local MP held a stall at the show, and invited constituents to talk about local and national concerns, before touring the show throughout the afternoon to talk with exhibitors and stall holders.

Rory said: ” It’s a real privilege to be Vice-President of Penrith Show, and to be able to attend and show my support for such a fantastic event. The glorious weather did the show justice, and ensured everyone could enjoy fully the most wonderful array of local produce, trade stalls, amusements, and of course the incredible display of livestock, which remain at the heart of this hugely important Cumbrian tradition. Many thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the show a success, and it is really great to see so many local Cumbrians coming out to enjoy themselves and support our rural economy.”

Cherwell Online: Politics at Home and Abroad

Article first published by Rachel Savage in The Cherwell on 8 August 2013.

“This is what I live and breathe in Cumbria. It’s the most exciting part of it!” Rory Stewart MP is enthusing about localism and his job as a rural Tory backbencher. This is from a man who has been a solider, a diplomat and a Harvard professor, and founded and run a charity in Kabul. Stewart has also written two bestselling books: The Places in Between, about his walk across Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban, part of an 18 month, 6,000 mile trek across Asia; and The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, an account of his stint as an Iraqi provincial governor following the US invasion.

Brad Pitt has even bought the rights to a film of Stewart’s life, rumoured to be starring Orlando Bloom (although Stewart, who is having nothing to do with the script, says things have gone a bit quiet on that front recently. “Perhaps they’re waiting for a twist in the tale, or a Deus Ex Machina moment for their plot,” he says wryly.) So I am a little surprised to hear Stewart gushing about affordable housing and high-speed broadband.

When I press Stewart on how he would answer the people who say that he has taken a demotion to become a local MP he seems unsure, where before his answers were flowing. “I think the other things sound grander because they…” Stewart stumbles a little. “I don’t know why.

“Being a Harvard Professor, for example, which is what I did immediately before this, sounds grand. And a lot of my colleagues at Harvard said, ‘Oh no, don’t whatever you do become a backbencher. It’ll be humiliating.’ But actually this is… I find this much, much more intriguing. I meet a much greater variety of people. I mean my Harvard students are like Oxford students.”

Hesitant Stewart may be, yet I can’t help but believe that he is genuine. That he has decided that, for the moment at least, being an MP really is where he can make the most difference. Instead of taking a seat in the Oxford Union’s Gladstone Room, where we hurriedly conduct the interview at President’s drinks, after Stewart spoke in opposition in the 80th anniversary ‘This House Would Not Fight For Queen and Country’ debate, Stewart perches on the table. The edges of his suit jacket are frayed in places, his dark hair crumpled. Stewart seems at ease with the media (he’s made documentaries too), yet removed from your average, spin-doctored politician.

Asked why he decided to move into politics, Stewart tells me, “In Iraq and Afghanistan I saw what I thought was a fatal gap between politicians, policy-makers, the way they talked about things, and what was actually going on… They would say, ‘Every Afghan is committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralised state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’ And there I was on the ground thinking, ‘I don’t even know how to translate that into language that this man I stayed with would understand.’”

“I became a politician because…” Stewart searches for the right words. “To try and see if it’s possible to bring a little bit of reality, a little bit of complexity, a little bit of knowledge into politics.”

Stewart is a child of the establishment, yet seems to have struggled to find a role within it that he believes is truly worthwhile. Born in Hong Kong to a diplomat father and academic mother, he was raised in Malaysia, and educated at Eton and Balliol, Oxford, where he studied history and PPE. Stewart spent his gap year in the Black Watch regiment, which he thought would be a “heroic life” but found frustrating. Next was the Foreign Office, where Stewart rose to become second secretary in Indonesia within two years, and then served in the Balkans, only to pack it all in to walk across Asia.

The Places in Between is evocative of Afghanistan’s epic, snow-covered peaks and valleys, yet the prose seems disconnected – the only emotional connection that you feel Stewart makes is with a dog who joins his walk through the mountains. “I was alone day in-day out, hour after hour, walking 9-10 hours a day, sleeping in strangers’ houses. And I think it put things in perspective,” Stewart observes.

“When I was at Oxford I very much thought that I was the centre of the universe. But when I was walking, I realised that in every village I stayed in there were men – generally men – who thought that they were the centre of the universe.”

Stewart admits that his writing was “rebelling against what I hate about travel writing, which is the sort of romantic, personal, ‘Isn’t this an amazing ancient civilisation?’” to capture the “lonely, boring, bewildering, frustrating” reality of travel. Why, I want to know, would you choose to spend almost two years of your life subjecting yourself to that?

“I was spending a lot of time in embassies in cities, and therefore very much talking to elites in urban areas,” Stewart says frankly. “What was defining the future of these countries was what was actually happening in the rural areas.” A strange mix of pragmatism and idealism seems to have motivated Stewart to both withdraw from politics and return to it.

Whilst Stewart waxes lyrical about the experience of an elected representative, he is passionate about the dangers of Western military intervention, and there is more than a hint of frustration. Stewart had argued the case for a just war during the night’s debate, so I ask him: What makes for a successful intervention?

“I think the core of it is humility. It begins with the West understanding its knowledge is limited, its power is limited, its legitimacy is limited. That we go into a situation which is intrinsically chaotic, unpredictable and uncertain.” Stewart hammers on the table to emphasise his point, “But when things go wrong, we go and get out!” He likens intervention to mountain rescue – you wouldn’t keep going in a blizzard.

On Afghanistan Stewart is bleakly pragmatic. “We’ve been there ten years. If we haven’t achieved things by now, then we’re probably not going to achieve them.” We are also far too late to intervene in Syria, and certainly can’t bring order to the “ungoverned space in Mali”.

Rory Stewart for Foreign Minister, perhaps? I press him on whether he has higher political ambitions and he, unsurprisingly, puts in “lots of qualifications”, including luck and a 10- 20 year time frame. However, Stewart’s idealism seems to have turned inwards towards Britain. He speaks enthusiastically but vaguely about localised democracy, reforming Parliament and getting people excited about politics, whilst admitting that he could not effect such apparently ambitious change from the backbenches. Will Stewart be frustrated again? Maybe this time, only time will tell.