Monthly Archives: May 2014

Thoughts and analysis on Putin

The US and Europe spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on Defence. Why? For the last ten or fifteen years, the answer has been that our militaries exist to ‘intervene’ – to end conflict, drive out terrorists, topple regimes, and build democratic states. NATO doctrine has focused on intervention (and stretched to Somali piracy). It did not expect to fight in Europe again, and did not train for large-scale conventional war. It seemed inconceivable that someone would invade Ukraine and annex Crimea. Now, suddenly, our Defence policy hinges on the question: how big a threat is Putin’s Russia?

What motivates Putin? Does he feel encircled by NATO, threatened by the EU, and antagonised by a powerful West? Does he, as his speech to the Duma implies, see his action in Crimea as no different from the West’s intervention in Kosovo? What cocktail of insecurity and confidence, defence and aggression is driving him? Is the problem that he sees the West as too strong, or as too weak? How powerful is his military? What will he do next? And how should NATO respond?

The dominant view at the moment in Britain, France and the US, is that the threat is still minimal. Western analysts argue that Russia’s ageing population, its mortality rates, its corruption, its undemocratic system, and its over-dependence on gas revenue, makes it weak ‘in the long-term’. Most of our diplomats say that Putin would not dare to trouble a NATO member state such as Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia. They are reluctant even to discuss the scenario, because ‘it’s just not going to happen.’ They consider it sufficient to increase aerial patrolling, and send a few hundred US troops to the region. They feel that we should not respond too strongly, for fear of making Putin more aggressive, escalating the tensions, and fostering to a new Cold War.

But states neighbouring Russia such as Estonia or Latvia argue that Putin is very dangerous. They emphasise that over the past five years, while NATO’s Defence spending has dropped by 20 per cent, Russian Defence spending has increased by 50 per cent; and that Putin plans to spend another 700 Billion just on upgrading existing military equipment. On this account, the annexation of Crimea, followed logically from the annexation of part of North Georgia, in 2008. Russian military doctrine and Putin’s speeches present NATO as a ‘strategic adversary’. His action in Ukraine has been popular in Russia. Recent military exercises have suggested that Russia could mobilise up to a hundred thousand troops in seventy-two hours, and that they have already trained for invading the Baltic.  Those states argue that Putin only understands strength, that there is no point pretending any more that he is a potential partner, or worrying about irritating him.  And that Putin may be tempted to destabilise or even invade a Baltic state.

Which is the right assessment? If the former, we need to concentrate on some minimal actions to reassure the Baltics states without antagonizing Putin. If the latter, we may need to consider prepositioning supplies, and building bases in Eastern Europe, increasing surveillance, redeploying troops, and planning and training to deter Putin. NATO has been built since 1946 on the idea of protecting its members. If he could destabilise a Baltic member-state, and we were unable to respond, NATO would be fatally weakened. So getting to the right judgement on whether Putin is a threat, and what kind of threat will become central to the Foreign and Defence strategy of the US, Britain and Europe. But our track record on assessing risks and threats has not been good.

The West – the United States, France, Britain and most ‘independent’ think-tanks – failed to predict the Arab Spring. In Afghanistan, President Obama confidently predicted that we would defeat the Taliban and create ‘a credible, legitimate and effective state.’ In Libya, we were confident that the militia would be disarmed and demobilised. In Egypt we u-turned from backing the toppling of a General, to allowing the toppling of an elected President, to backing a General again. In Syria, senior diplomats predicted Bashar Al-Assad would only survive for a matter of weeks. These have been costly mistakes.

Some of these mistakes are due to the unpredictability of the world. But they also reflect the hollowing out of our strategic institutions. The Military’s Defence Intelligence Service has shrunk. People have not been encouraged to devote their intellect and experience to asking hard questions about strategy. We have not learned the lessons of our recent failures. Foreign Office reforms in 2000 reduced the emphasis on historical, linguistic and cultural expertise, and instead rewarded generic ‘management skills.’ Instead, many of our officials in all departments remain distracted by hundreds of emails and tied to their desks, unable to spend significant time, deeply focused on the politics of other cultures.

We have got away with this for the last twenty years, when the major issues seemed to be economics, and terrorism. But Crimea reminds us that we could face much more direct threats to the European alliance. This does not mean we should over-react to Putin. But it does mean we have to understand what he is doing, and is likely to do, and plan for some testing scenarios. Good defence requires investing in research, and analysis to ensure that we comprehend the threats, and have a strategy to respond.  This need not be expensive. We currently spend tens of billions on Defence and Foreign Policy. But a hundred more people worldwide – out of the almost hundred thousand we currently employ – specialising in international politics, and defence strategy would now be a very good investment.


Local MP Rory Stewart stopped off to join a special group for tea at Bessietown’s Country Guest House in Catlowdy, as he sought to celebrate and promote tourism along the England-Scotland border. The Young wives club has now been running for more than fifty years. Rory was able to join the group for their monthly meeting and learn about their families and life in Cumbria. The visit was part of a broader program of promoting tourism on the Border. The Border receives fewer visitors than the Lakes or Hadrian’s Wall but is an undiscovered gem. Rory’s recent TV programs have focused on the astonishing scenery and history of the border regions. He wishes to encourage people to walk on the border, explore it’s reiver history, visit its castles and Roman ruins, and the unique art including the Bewcastle cross.

Rory was welcomed to the tearooms by Guest House owner, Margaret Sisson, who has been running Bessietown for over 40 years. The MP was given a chance to taste their extraordinary Edwardian tea: a multi-course meal served on the finest china.

Rory Stewart said:

“The border country has some of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain. The array of fantastic local guest houses, pubs and small, rural businesses make this area a real pleasure to visit. It was a delight to stop in for the vintage tea experience at Bessietown’s Country Guest House. Margaret and her team are doing an incredible job to run such a successful rural business, and their cakes and sandwiches were truly delicious. We need to encourage more people to visit this part of the world and celebrate the area’s rich history and culture.”


Local MP Rory Stewart met with Ainstable community representatives on Friday to see for himself the significant detrimental impact that a proposed wind turbine, application 14/0281, would have on the local landscape. The Ainstable Wind Turbine Action Campaign has the support of over 100 members, and the Penrith and the Border MP promised to offer any further support he could to fight the application.

Rory has campaigned strongly against wind-turbine proposals in Penrith and the Border, and has led and supported numerous anti-turbine campaigns across the constituency, including Carwath in Rosely, the Lune Gorge, Beckburn Farm at Longtown, and Reagill and Sleagill. The proposal in Ainstable would see a 250ft turbine tower over the village, visible for miles in every direction. The local community fears that were it approved, not only would the visual intrusion, flicker effect and noise have a highly detrimental impact on the village, but it could lead to the construction of many more turbines in the area.

Speaking from outside St Michael’s church in Ainstable, Rory Stewart said:

“The construction of such a huge turbine would blight what is currently a beautiful view of the Eden Valley. In a region where tourism is our main income earner – bringing in over a billion pounds a year  – we are directly dependent on our natural landscape as one of the last ‘unspoilt’ regions in Britain, and building wind turbines risks a deep and long-term negative impact on the economy of Cumbria.

Over 100 residents have already come together to express their serious concerns with this application – a very powerful message, given the size of the village.  This is their landscape, their community, and they should be able to determine the future and nature of their locality.”


Rory Stewart MP brought along a surprise visitor on a recent visit to Armathwaite Primary School –  James Astill, a distinguished Foreign Correspondent from the Economist. The visit was part of the school’s on-going programme of global learning activities. The MP and the Foreign Correspondent led a class on the subject of global conflict, poverty, Syria and Afghanistan.  This was part of the Global Learning Programme(GLP), which aims to encourage pupils to think more critically about global issues, through questioning and philosophical enquiry.

Rory talked about his childhood, his love of reading, and his long walk across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The pupils also shared their own global interests and concerns, discussing how it is difficult for young people to understand the complexity of some issues, especially when the news changes so rapidly.  When posed the question, “How can young people make a difference about war in the world?”  Rory suggested that the pupils should become as informed as possible by reading books.  Another question, “Is war relevant for the world today?” led to a lively philosophical enquiry between Rory, James and the pupils which was observed by parents.  Teacher, Jane Yates said, “We are keen to promote the importance of being well informed about global issues.  Rory inspired the pupils with a positive message to find out as much as they can about the world by reading.”

For the past year, Armathwaite School has been leading the national Global Learning Programme(GLP) with 23 primary and secondary schools from North Cumbria.   The project is helping teachers to deliver effective teaching and learning about development and global issues. Rory has been interested in the programme and was delighted to come and see its impact on how the pupils think critically about global issues.  Both Rory and James were hugely impressed by the pupils and especially commented on the depth of their questioning.

Speaking afterwards, Rory said:

“It was a pleasure to speak to pupils in Armathwaite about their global interests and concerns, reflecting upon the differences and similarities of different cultures and societies around the world. They asked some really interesting questions and showed a keen interest to listen to different ideas. It gives me great hope that our younger generations are actively engaging with the world beyond their own doorstep.”


Penrith and The Border MP Rory Stewart, who has represented the north Cumbrian constituency since May 2010, yesterday became the new Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, and is the first ever Member of Parliament to achieve a Chairmanship in their first term in Parliament.

Rory moves from a place on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to the prestigious new role on the cross-party Committee which scrutinises National Defence. It is made up of twelve Members of Parliament and is appointed by the House of Commons.

Commenting today on his election Rory said: “This is an enormous honour. Some colleagues who I respect greatly were also running. It was a decision of all parties across the House and I hope to continue to take an independent approach, representing the views across parliament. My experience from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan has convinced me that Britain and its allies need to take a realistic approach to policy. We must learn the lessons of over-involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, without lurching to the opposite extreme of total isolation.There are great challenges ahead – not simply in Ukraine and the Middle East – but with drones, cyber warfare, and technology in general. Scrutiny, analysis and careful strategy will be ever more important, and I feel that the committee has a vital role to play in the national debate. “


Rory Stewart MP on Friday met with staff of the EdenSave Credit Union
at their office in the Devonshire Arcade in Penrith, where he found
out about the new membership-based savings and loan facility catering
to Eden’s residents. The Union was launched in October 2013, and
currently has deposits totalling in excess of 150,000 pounds. It aims
to promote a habit of regular savings among its members as well as
helping those unable to access bank loans in more traditional ways.
The local MP made a one-off personal deposit into the Credit Union.

Rory said: “EdenSave Credit Union fulfils a really important function
in our local community, where we are increasingly hearing that people
are finding it difficult to access loans via conventional banks. More
crucially, it is local money being invested and spent locally.
Trusting in the strength of our local economy is extremely important,
and this is a theme I am also working on in my Cumbria Business
Investment Fund; but on a smaller scale, I encourage people to get
involved in the EdenSave project as a really great way to save and at
the same time encourage that the Penrith pound remains in Penrith.”

Staffed by volunteers, EdenSave has opened four offices across the
district at Alston, Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and Penrith. Staff are
pleased to welcome anyone who wishes to call in and find out more. The
Union is in particular encouraging loans, which are competitively
priced, such as the Immediate Loan of up to £500 or the Savings Loan of
up to £2000. These and other loans are typically available within 7
working days subject to a member’s ability to repay. Details in full
are available at


Rory Stewart on Friday spent time with Wigton’s Nelson Thomlinson School’s award-winning DigiPi computer software team. The Young Enterprise group of ten Year 12 students had identified a gap in the market for computer programming training materials for primary-age students. They have developed a unique program to train students as young as six in computer programming. Rory met and chatted with the student team. He learnt how their  ‘Raspberry Pi’ product, generates lesson plans and training resources. It will be used by primary school teachers to help prepare for the new ICT to Computer Science curriculum in September 2014. The team’s innovation and vision has just been recognised in the North Cumbria Young Enterprise awards, where they won Best Trade Stand, Best Presentation, Best Company Report, Marketing and Champion Company, and latterly in the Cumbria County Finals where they scooped the awards for Best Company Report and County Champion Company.

Rory was taught the basics of the Raspberry Pi programme by DigiPi MD Matthew Duckworth, and said: “Matthew and the DigiPi team are truly inspirational, leading the way nationally in meeting the challenges of a changing national computing curriculum and displaying a really staggeringly sophisticated product that they deserve to be able to sell as widely as possible. That they have identified a niche like this, and have developed and promoted it in such an impressive way, is really amazing. I would love to be able to invite them to Parliament to show their product to colleagues, and to see if they can spread the word about this product to other parts of England.”

Matthew Duckworth MD of DigiPi said: “The highlight of the visit for me was getting to teach Rory the basics of computer programming. He asked some really insightful questions about our business which seemed to spark his imagination in terms of the whole concept of computer programming.”

Company Secretary Kathryn Fawcett said: “It was great to see Rory Stewart get so involved and show so much enthusiasm for our company concept” with Finance Director Mark Bragg adding: “Having Rory Stewart meet with us really helped build our confidence, as it gave us the opportunity to explain and demonstrate our computer programming resources.”

His visit, with its focus on young enterprise and the importance of giving young people a platform to engage in business, coincided with news that the number of Penrith and The Border workplaces employing apprentices increased by almost 40% between 2010 and 2013. The figures suggest that Government reforms have helped make apprenticeships both simpler for businesses, and more attractive as an option for young people. The latest figures show that in 2010/2011 there were 410 work places employing apprentices, with this number rising to 510 in 2011/2012 and 570 in 2012/2013.

Rory said: “This steady increase in apprenticeships is excellent news, and I’m really pleased to see that here in the constituency we are seeing directly the results of the government’s goal of raising the nation’s skills, and creating a positive environment for employers to take on more apprentices. Coupled with the recent news that our constituency has one of the lowest unemployment figures in Britain, the increase in workplaces offering apprenticeships shows that the future is looking better and better for young people and small businesses in Penrith and The Border.”

The not so recognisable Braveheart

“… no English man, that has any honour in the glorious memory of the greatest and truest hero of all our kings of the English or Saxon race, can go to Carlisle, and not step aside to see the monument to King Edward I. at Burgh upon the Sands, a little way out of the city Carlisle, where that victorious prince dy’d…that prince being the terror of Scotland.” So writes Daniel Defoe in his guidebook of 1726.

You can still see the same sandstone pillar in the middle of the salt-marsh, and it is almost certainly built on the exact spot where the King died, aged 68, in 1307 – having been given dysentery by the Cumbrian water. It stands very close both to Hadrian’s Wall and the modern border. It is easy to think of the man who died there as an English King who had fought two Scottish Kings; and to see the pillar, like Defoe, as the ultimate symbol of the division between England and Scotland.

But Edward’s normal language with his friends was not English; it was Norman French. And that was true too of his rivals, the “Scottish” Kings, John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. Edward was not a ‘Saxon’ and they were not ‘Gaels’. All their paternal ancestors were French nobles, who had come to Britain within the last two hundred years. Jean de Ballieul meant he had come from Ballieul in Picardy. The second King, Robert de Brus, means Robert from a village on the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy.

“Scotland” and “England” were then a medley of ethnicities – the descendants of British-Welsh, Northumbrian Angles, Norwegians, Flemings, Norman French, Danes, and more. The Scottish Declaration of Independence at Arbroath shows that the Scots believed themselves – or claimed to be – immigrants from the edge of the Black Sea and Spain, who had exterminated the previous populations, north of the Solway. But most of the men who signed the declaration were descended from families who had come relatively recently from continental Europe (and in one case Hungary).

If you stand at the monument and look across the Solway, the low rising ground of Annandale is the land of Robert the Bruce. Look to your left, and to the West, in Galloway, is the land of John de Balliol. But behind you too is more of their land – great estates in Yorkshire, land around Penrith. The Balliols had endowed a college in Oxford, Barnard Castle was named after a Balliol called Barnard. They still owned the town of Ballieul in France – and indeed John was to spend the last decades of his life there. Since both Bruces and Balliols held so much land between the realms of the English and Scottish Kings, they seemed to be with both and neither. At a twelfth century battle, both Bruces and Balliols fought against the Scottish King, on the English side.

When these Norman families began to fight each other, the war hardly ceased for the next three hundred years. Edward the First massacred the people of Berwick, and hung Bruce’s female supporters in cages from castle walls. Bruce’s raids South cut down all the trees in orchards, sacked holy shrines, and destroyed the soil so that the population could not plant crops again. Bruce, whose family owned estates deep into Yorkshire, now banned cross-border landholdings. He crossed over the Solway to Holm Cultram abbey, in Abbeytown which his family had long supported, and in which his father was buried. Because it was now a few miles on the wrong side of his border, he ransacked his father’s resting-place, and burnt it to the ground.

But all these men would rather have been fighting in the Middle East. Edward had taken Balliol’s brother and Bruce’s grandfather, and possibly his father too, on crusade in 1270. There, near Damascus, Edward made his reputation by killing, with his bare hands, an assassin who had broken into his tent. Edward remained desperate, thirty years later, to return to crusade, as soon as he had finished fighting Bruce. He had raised a fortune for the expedition.  One chronicler says that his dying wish was that his heart should be carried to Jerusalem. That was Robert the Bruce’s dying wish too. He had wanted to go on crusade. But he could not make the journey because he had leprosy. Instead, he asked his friend James Douglas to cut his heart out of his chest, and carry it to Jerusalem. James died cut down by a Muslim army in Spain, having flung the heart into the midst of their cavalry.

Defoe tells us to see the pillar at Burgh by Sands as a symbol of the ‘English/Saxon race’ fighting the Scots. Edward and Bruce are key figures in Braveheart: and important parts of English and Scottish nationalism. So in the year of the referendum it may be worth remembering that Edward and Bruce would not have been people who we would easily recognise today as English or Scots. They were French-speaking noblemen, descended from Scandinavians, and related to each other. Much of their energy was directed outside Britain. Edward, one chronicler says, had been warned that he would die in Burgh. But he had thought Burgh was a name for Jerusalem. He died, enraged that it turned out to be a hamlet near Carlisle.