Monthly Archives: September 2014

Rory’s interview with The New Republic

Article first published in The New Republic by Alex Palmer on 10 September 2014.

There’s a moment toward the end of The Places in Between, the book that established Rory Stewart as a celebrity intellectual, when he happens upon a frozen lake. Places chronicles Stewart’s solo trek across war-torn Afghanistan in 2002, and in this passage, he arrives on a spotless plateau, surrounded by nothing but enveloping silence and a fresh layer of snow. “I walked across the frozen lake,” he writes, “and, standing in the very center, looked back at a mosque carved into a cliff the color of elm wood. … After a few minutes, it seemed I had never been so alone or anywhere so silent. The only sounds were the creak of my staff and my steps.”

As he evades the Taliban, Stewart also finds time to consider the wisdom of a Persian poet (“Man’s life is brief and transitory, Literature endures forever”) and the linguistic similarities between the French and Old Persian words for “journey.” By the time he was 33, The New York Times had declared that Stewart was “living one of the more extraordinary lives on record.” Brave, smart, an elegant writer—and really rather dashing, in an angular, Mick Jagger sort of way—he was a kind of throwback to the last great explorers of the British Empire.

Having seen the world, Stewart set out to change it. Following a tour as a deputy provincial governor in post-invasion Iraq (an experience he chronicled in his second best-seller, The Prince of the Marshes), Stewart went on to found an NGO and teach at Harvard, where he was still based when he decided to run for Parliament. His ambitions were nothing if not grand: As he later told one interviewer, he hoped “to imagine a more serious British civilization. To raise our sense of ourselves.” He set his sights on a seat representing a tony suburb west of London—then failed to even secure the Tory nomination.

Plan B was Penrith and the Border, a rural district—or constituency, as the Brits call them—in England’s far northwest. It wasn’t the capital, but for Stewart, the area did have a natural appeal: With its patchwork of villages and craggy peaks, the area is “the closest to the Hindu Kush you’re going to get in the British Isles,” as longtime Conservative M.P. Malcolm Rifkind puts it. Stewart courted its 65,000 voters by walking the vast region on foot—he still can’t resist a good stroll—and was elected in May 2010.

One afternoon this summer, I accompanied Stewart to a meeting with constituents at the Conservative Club in the sleepy town of Brampton. As Stewart rushes through the door of the squat brick building, a minor drama erupts among the waiting constituents, who are trying to figure out which room the meetings will take place in, what time their appointments are, and whether there is actually an appointment system at all. “Poor Rory,” chuckles a balding man nursing a beer in an empty corner booth. “He’s always a bit late.”

Dressed in a dapper navy suit, Stewart sets a trim black briefcase at his side, removes a pen from his jacket pocket, and stands to greet each arrival, many of whom bear thick packets of forms or petitions demanding his attention. One older man has a handful of letters he has written to various government bodies advocating better programs for the learning-impaired. From the replies he has received, it’s clear that no one has actually read his entreaties. “Absurd,” Stewart says, shaking his head. Another constituent, a thick-set retiree in jeans and a plaid shirt, saunters over and plops down across from Stewart like he has found an empty chair at a cocktail party. With no pressing concerns to discuss, Stewart and the constituent wind up going through the latter’s family tree. (“She’s your cousin, is she?” Stewart asks. “She’s amazing!”) Soon enough, the man ambles back in the direction of the bar. Stewart is never less than attentive during these conversations. But sometimes I catch a look of discomfit—half-smile, half-grimace—reflexively spreading across his face.

Until recently, Stewart wasn’t one of those people who had to worry whether or not things would work out. They just did. (There are many clever students at Oxford, after all; only Stewart was handpicked by Prince Charles to tutor William and Harry.) But his new calling may prove the exception in his glide from one triumph to the next. “Being a backbench M.P. is a bit of an anticlimax for a superhero,” he once told a British reporter. Stewart meant it as a joke, but there was a lot of truth in the remark.

Stewart received a chilly reception when he arrived in Westminster. A Labour supporter in his youth, he had dismissed the Conservatives’ platform as “feel-good, idea-light” as recently as 2007. But he opted to run for office as a Tory, in an election that was predicted, accurately, to be a Tory landslide. His fellow M.P.s sensed an opportunist—and, even more irritatingly, an opportunist they couldn’t dismiss. They dubbed him “Florence of Arabia.”

Stewart’s fellow M.P.s sensed an opportunist—and, even more irritatingly, an opportunist they couldn’t dismiss. They dubbed him “Florence of Arabia.”

Stewart responded by focusing resolutely on his far-flung district. After nearly two decades of wandering the globe, Stewart says, he realized that he needed to “prove that I care about Britain.” (“Broadband. Farming. Intervention. Foreign Affairs. Walking. Sausages,” his Twitter profile read until recently.) He presides over the anniversaries of municipal swimming pools, visits livestock shows, and encourages local businesses to use the new broadband Internet service he fought to have installed in the district. “It’s a job where … much more than you would’ve thought, people expect you to serve time,” Stewart says.

And yet the pull of the world outside Britain remains inexorable. Early in my afternoon with him, during a meeting with the head teacher of a local school, I watched as Stewart thumbed madly on his BlackBerry. “So sorry,” he said, eyes focused on the screen. “Trying to get rid of the news out of Iraq.”

Sometimes, when his duties fail to fire his mind, Stewart invents challenges himself. Two of the voters Stewart meets with at the Brampton Conservative Club are a pair of cheerful, middle-aged women who want to update him on their efforts to reopen a shuttered train stop that used to operate near Hadrian’s Wall. After listening patiently, Stewart leaps in with his own proposal: What if the station was not just a station? What if, instead, it was a brand new hub of local life?

It could be, Stewart continues, “an all-singing, all-dancing community regeneration project,” with a community center, a library, a visitor’s center, shops—and, yes, the train platform, too. Stewart’s eyes widen: They could even get an endorsement from an eminent British historian declaring the nearby stretch of Hadrian’s Wall to be “the finest preserved historical site in the United Kingdom.”

The women are stunned into silence. In a few minutes, Stewart has turned their modest crusade into an epic redevelopment project. Finally, one of them blurts, “Yes, that’s wonderful!”

Later, we drive to Stewart’s office in the nearby town of Carlisle. From the front seat, Stewart launches into an enthusiastic disquisition on his recent trip to the Baltic region, the role of NATO, the development of the modern industrial state. “The problems that worry people today are not like the big issues of the nineteenth century—extending the franchise, ending slavery, women’s suffrage,” he says, a bit wistfully.

We arrive in Carlisle to find only one constituent waiting. Soon enough her concern—unpaid alimony after a messy separation—is addressed, leaving Stewart to mull the state of the British soul. Lately, he has become enamored with some ideas for Parliamentary reform that would reduce the House of Commons from the current 650 members to something closer to 100, as part of a larger shift to a more federal system of government. But, he admits, “I don’t know enough yet about myself or about the country or politics to know if that is even remotely consumable.”

Over the past few months, Stewart has started to win over some of his formerly frosty colleagues. In May, he was voted in as the chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, making him the youngest head of any select committee. “That’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in Parliament,” he confides.

But because Stewart is Stewart, there is persistent speculation in Westminster that he won’t stick around for long. “I have wondered occasionally whether having done so many different careers, but relatively brief periods at each, whether the same would happen [to Stewart] in the political world,” says Rifkind. A former Conservative advisor relays a widely held view: “Chairman of one of these committees is simply killing time for him.”

I ask Stewart if he thinks he has found his rhythm as a politician. He hunches forward on his elbows and stares off toward the wall. “It’s just difficult to work out what an M.P. is, what an M.P. does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be,” he says. “Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”

Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa and Security

Written Transcript:

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

We gather here today on the eve of a vote in Scotland that could tear the United Kingdom apart after 300 years together, and the question for us—whether in Scotland or in foreign policy—is: are we proud of ourselves? Are we serious?

We look around the world, from Kabul to Tripoli, from Damascus to Baghdad to Kiev, and we see the wreck of international foreign policy over the last 20 years. So lamentable is that wreck that it is hardly worth holding the House’s attention to list the fiascos that we see today. The Afghan economy has gone into a 40% contraction since January this year, and the two Presidents are in a stand-off on the basis of ethnic divisions, and it has not even been raised seriously in this House. In Tripoli, the Misrata militia have been dabbling their toes in the American embassy swimming pool three years after our intervention. In Iraq, following a surge on which the US Government spent $420 billion and deployed over 100,000 troops a year, we are now confronted with the re-emergence of something even worse than General Petraeus confronted in 2007. And people have spoken much more eloquently than myself about the fiasco we currently face in Ukraine.

So lamentable is this problem that we should not do what it would be tempting to do, which is to learn the lessons of this and talk about our mistakes, look at the limits of our knowledge, our power and our legitimacy, and confront the fact that we are not good enough in this country at seeing what we cannot do, what we do not know and what, frankly, people do not want us to do. So lamentable is the situation that instead of emphasising humility, we in fact need to rediscover our confidence and our energy. A time has come, in fact, to rebuild, and rebuilding the seriousness of this country means acknowledging failure and regaining public trust by showing people that we have learned the lessons of where we went wrong, and then investing in our institutions.

My right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke pointed out that on the National Security Council it is quite difficult to know what is happening in the world, and that is not very surprising because, despite our grand protestations about how we are going to remodel the world from Mali to central Africa, in fact our capacity—the number of people in defence intelligence within the Foreign Office—is pathetically poor. The entire extra capacity committed to Syria was a single SMS1 officer, a D7 and a D6. When the crisis broke out in Russia and Ukraine, we discovered that the United Kingdom had cancelled its Russian analysis section in the defence intelligence service and we had to move the South Caucasus officer over to Crimea. When I and my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi turned up in Kurdistan two weeks ago, we discovered a single consul general who did not have the staff or the resources to visit any of the refugee camps or make it to the front line.

We need to get out of a situation in which only three of our 15 ambassadors in the middle east speak Arabic. We need to understand that our Foreign Office has a budget half that of the French Foreign Office and considerably smaller than the amount we commit to the winter fuel allowance. Before any of us go around talking about our brilliant strategy for Ukraine or Iraq, we should begin rebuilding those basic institutions: we should challenge the Government, and challenge the Opposition, to commit immediately more resources towards policy and analysis and understanding of what is going on on the ground, because there are no options for Ministers and there are no scenarios we can discuss in this House unless we understand the situation on the ground.

Peter Hain (Neath, Labour)

I support the hon. Gentleman’s point about resourcing the Foreign Office—and the Foreign Secretary may agree on that, too. The budget cuts, which started under the Labour Government, have been remorselessly pursued under the hon. Gentleman’s Government. For a lot of other Whitehall Departments the Foreign Office budget is not even petty cash, but the cuts have been disastrous in their effect on the Foreign Office’s capabilities.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention. As he knows, this is not simply a question of resources; it is also a question of the priority we put on policy analysis and challenge. It is about the people we promote and the people we hold accountable when they fail, and it is about a seriousness within the institution about getting to grips with these issues.

We all roughly understand what a solution to ISIL in Iraq would look like in theory—a regional solution, which people have talked about, and a political solution on the ground using the Sunni tribes against ISIL—but these are not things that can be resolved here on a whiteboard. They are things that entirely depend on being on the ground. There is the question of exactly what Qatar’s role is in this and how we can shift its position, the question of what we can get from Saudi Arabia, and the question of how we deal with the fact that foreign fighters are coming out of Turkey and oil is going back into Turkey. Those elements of the regional solution are not theory; they are practice. They are the practice of defence attachés and diplomats on the ground working day in, day out. The question of how to use the Sunni tribes against ISIL is, again, no theory; it is about this Sunni tribe or sheikh, that Sunni tribe or sheikh, this weapon, that money, this long-term strategy. The question of what the Iraqi Government are is not about generic statements about legitimacy or inclusiveness; it is about questions such as, “What is the role of Ibrahim Jaafari in this Government, and are any of these Sunnis who are currently standing for the Iraqi Government actually credible?”

The questions in Ukraine are the same kinds of questions. We can create the theoretical framework, but in the end we need some moral principles behind us. What do we make of this man Putin? Such questions can only be answered by looking at our own values. What kind of moral obligation do we feel we have to the Ukrainian people? What kind of obligation do we feel we have to the international order or the international system? How much risk are we prepared to take? How many sacrifices are we really prepared to make to confront Putin over Ukraine?

Unless we rediscover the ability to focus on what we can do and what we ought to do, this foreign policy, which should be a theatre of heroism, will instead be a narrow stage for impotence, self-flattery and oblivion.


Speaking in an Adjournment Debate on Transport Infrastructure in the House of Commons yesterday John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle, and Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border, intensified their campaign to find effective solutions to improve without further delay the issues of safety and congestion along the A69 in their constituencies, with the added need to ensure that there is no negative impact on the neighbouring A689.

The debate follows over two years of meetings and concerted attempts by the north Cumbrian MPs to assist local communities in finding a solution to the road’s problems. Their actions have included holding a number of community discussions with local councillors, attempting to establish a local-led cross-community ‘working group’ to ascertain potential solutions, meetings and communications with Cumbria County Council and the Highways Agency, and of course numerous approaches to the Department of Transport, culminating in a visit from the Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin in 2013.

Speaking on behalf of the many residents who have been calling for a by-pass for almost 40 years, Rory Stewart MP said: “We need to look at creative ideas such as a bypass and bridge at Warwick Bridge, to ensure that the misery of its inhabitants is alleviated“.

John Stevenson MP said: “The A69 is key for Carlisle, and my constituents would be delighted to see it dualled. In the short term, we would like to see improvements to it. I suggest that Guy Opperman, Rory Stewart and I make further representations to the Department about improving and ultimately dualling the A69.”

Acknowledging the serious issues at stake – Warwick Bridge is now the only village along the A69 which do not have one, and is one of the only remaining villages in the country not dissected by a main trunk road – Department for Transport Minister Claire Perry, responding to the MPs, thanked them for raising the issue of the A69, saying: “There has been a detailed review of the road. Tragically, more lives have been lost on the route recently. The road has been described as having a good safety record, but we have to be vigilant if we are to maintain that record.  We must also recognise that rural roads have specific problems. “

Speaking after the debate Rory reiterated the need to include communities along the A689 in discussions, and to avoid any negative impact that any improvement of the A69 might have on neighbouring rural roads. He said: “Fixing the A69 is absolutely crucial. But it needs to be done in a way that does not impact on other roads. It is vital to involve the communities of the A689 in the process, so that all discussions are transparent and inclusive. I have been trying very hard to help foster an environment in which such discussions can take place, and will continue to do so until a solution is found.”


Rory Stewart MP has met with senior officials in the Department for Transport to press that complete dualling of the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner be treated as a priority in the government’s upcoming Roads Investment Strategy. In a very positive meeting, the Penrith and the Border MP received assurances that the DfT would review the proposals. He secured further support from other local MPs at a House of Commons debate on the same day, where he spoke on the vital role the A66 played in connecting Cumbria, the North East and Scotland.

The Roads Investment Strategy report will set out the major projects the Highways Agency will be asked to implement across the national road network. Rory has sought to demonstrate the substantial social and economic benefits that dualling would bring to the whole of Cumbria and the North East, and has previously met with the team that put together the original economic assessments for the road back in 2003. The original reports show that the remaining stretches of the A66 still to be dualled produce equally strong cost-benefit ratios, and make a compelling argument for further investment along the route.

Speaking after the Adjournment debate, Rory Stewart said:

“It is clear from the correspondence I have received, not just from residents and businesses in my own constituency, but from individuals right the way across the North of England and Scotland, that this is a road of major national significance, and it is in desperate need of further investment. Dualling the A66 would not only significantly reduce the number of accidents and delays, but holds real potential for economic growth in the area. It would link in perfectly with the M6 Corridor Initiative, attracting haulage firms into the area and supporting our industries, from agriculture to tourism. It is hugely encouraging to receive support from my fellow MPs, as well as the Department for Transport, and I am determined to continue driving this campaign forward to see the A66 listed as a priority case for dualling.”

Fighting the spread of ISIS

Rory speaks on Newsnight about the challenges the West faces in addressing the spread of ISIS in Iraq and Syria