Monthly Archives: March 2017

Herald Column

Article first published in The Herald on 1 April 2017.

About every three weeks, I seem to be perched on the edge of a desk – sometimes a comically small desk – talking politics in a classroom. Some Cumbrian schools have only twelve students, some have one and a half thousand. But the conversations are strikingly similar. Eight year olds often begin with rural broadband; sixteen year-olds with reducing the voting age to 16. And then – quite suddenly – the conversation becomes global. In a moment, I can be asked by the same children to sign a pledge to eliminate child poverty in Africa, or guarantee hundred per cent access for girls’ education in Asia. So, the conversation lurches from the very local to the excessively international without touching anything in between. There is no mention of the deficit, or the budget. No mention of election campaigns, political parties, the civil service, local councils, the law, or – still less – politicians. No mention, in short, of how Britain is actually governed.

And I realise – thinking about it now – that it isn’t only school-children who have very little understanding of our political system; I myself knew almost nothing until I became a politician. And when I actually had to sit through the speeches, see how the voting happened, how promotions worked, or ‘whipping’ operated – I was often horrified. Week after week I was forced to see how intelligent, hard-working people with clear ideas were defeated: sometimes by chance, or an accident of timing, by an unfair headline, or a change in leadership, by the unintended consequences of regulations, the bizarre logic of the law, and the inertia of bureaucracies. Like most children in school today, the politicians I was taught to admire were heroic, imprisoned freedom fighters like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela; there weren’t many of those in Westminster. And it took me years to see how parliament could be made to do something useful for the nation.

So how should you teach politics or citizenship in school? One approach is to teach children about their basic rights, or to teach them inspiring stories of political change. Another is to encourage them to campaign, to sign petitions, to go on demonstrations, or mount social media storms – focusing on getting their voices heard. But if the aim is to create citizens who can really change the world, then I feel we should begin by helping them understand it.

So, my starting point for a ‘citizenship’ curriculum would be a few episodes of “Yes Minister”. My first exercise would be for them to name their best political idea, and then write a tabloid story ripping it to shreds. Then I would invite them to go through the week of a typical politician beginning with voting at 10 pm on a Monday night in Westminster, through committee hearings, debates or ministerial business cases, to a formal dinner, 300 miles away in the constituency on a Friday night, inserting a little time for the family. I would make them watch a Question Time politician giving answers on cancer survival rates, local government financing, and defence policy in NATO, and ask them to guess how deep that knowledge really was. I would invite them to draft replies for just one day of my email inbox – (my predecessor Willie Whitelaw received perhaps a hundred letters from constituents in a year, I am not unusual as a modern MP in receiving and replying to perhaps 10,000 emails from constituents in a typical year). And then I would suggest watching Yes Minister again.

But that is the easy bit; two difficult tasks would remain. The first, is to explain how British politics can be somehow more than the sum of these dispiriting parts; and how there was no golden age of political dignity and respect. Eighteenth century visitors to Britain were appalled by the rudeness, the cynicism and the irresponsibility of the British press; they were scandalised by the brash self-assertion of the party manifestos; and revolted by the boisterousness and lack of respect in the chamber. But some of these things may have been less harmful than they imagined, may in the long run keep have our system more alert and responsive than was possible amidst the grandeur of the American constitution, or the logic of the French.

The second task is to help the student see how – despite all the apparently unmovable forces – real political change remains still possible. I’m still not able to describe how the whole thing, which we call our ‘constitution’ manages to survive, let alone work. But if I was trying to write a ‘citizenship’ course for students I would start with that – with the infuriating, muddled eccentricity of parliamentary procedure and parties and media and civil servants and half-informed ministers, through which wars have been won, peace concluded, and treaties made and broken; through which a National Health Service was created, and slavery ended.


Rory Stewart MP welcomed Steve and Jennie Allison, of Low Howgill Butchers & Deli, at the House of Lords where they attended the 2016 Countryside Alliance Awards. Low Howgill Butchers, of Appleby-in-Westmorland, fought of stiff competition to be chosen as the winner in the North of England region, narrowly missing out on the national prize. The reception was held in Cholmondeley Room in The Palace of Westminster. The competition was devised by the Countryside Alliance as a way of celebrating the communities, skills and produce of those who work so hard to keep rural life ticking. Rory Stewart said: ‘The Countryside Alliance Awards is a fantastic initiative that celebrates the unsung heroes of rural communities across the country. I am a huge supporter of quality local produce and the success of Low Howgill Butchers at the awards has placed the quality of Cumbrian producers on a national stage. I congratulate them on their award and hope that they can go one step further next year!’



Following a recent meeting with representatives of Penrith’s primary schools and the Cumbrian representative of the National Association of Head Teachers, Graham Frost, Rory Stewart has taken their concerns with a group of other Cumbria MPs to parliament, meeting this week with the Schools Minister Nick Gibb to discuss Cumbria’s unique needs.

In conversation with the Minister Rory​ raised the pressures that many teachers face, the funding environment and the particular needs of small rural schools.

In an hour-long meeting,​ the ​S​chools​ Minister went through the figures on dozens of different Cumbrian schools. He explained that thanks to campaigns from MPs for rural areas, including Rory Stewart and other Cumbrian MPs, the new funding formula recognised the pressures of being in a remote rural setting, and that as a whole, the new funding formula would benefit Cumbrian schools in comparison to other areas in the country.



Rory appeared on Vintage Books’ podcast to discuss Scottish independence, nationalism and identity. He was joined by fellow authors Annalena McAfee and Denise Mina. Listen below:


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Rory Stewart MP – a long-time supporter of Eden FM and of community radio stations – has visited Eden’s own Penrith-based community radio Eden FM at its new premises at Mostyn Hall, and was interviewed as part of the afternoon Drivetime show by UCC student and radio presenter Emily Quinn, where he answered topical questions about the Budget and political affairs.

Rory has spoken a number of times on Eden FM, and continues to voice his admiration for the local radio station, which has almost 5,000 online followers, and broadcasts 24 hours per day; it is a “community organisation, run by people for people”, says founder Lee Quinn.

Rory is an advocate for the cohesive power of community radio, echoing a new report out today from Murdoch University  which states that involvement in local radio stations can alleviate social isolation, a problem which can affect rural communities. As Rory met and chatted with presenters at Eden FM he pledged to support their application for a full-time licence and search for a suitable transmission site, and to continue to support the station in any way he could.

Lee Quinn, Eden FM’s founder, said: “It’s always great to see Rory at Eden FM as he is so positive in his approach to better communication in the community and very appreciative of the team’s commitment at the station.”

Listeners are encourage to tune into Eden FM at 107.5, and can also follow the station on Facebook.




Rory Stewart MP has paid a visit to a public awareness-raising session of Sustainable Keswick (SusKes) and Derwent 7 to learn more about the group’s plans to turn commercial food waste into renewable energy and fertiliser for local use, including Threlkeld Parish in his constituency of Penrith and The Border.

The meeting was organised by Rural Cumbria Connects (RCC), a consortium of local community energy groups supported by CAFS which works to develop renewable rural energy projects. It is supporting SusKes and Derwent 7 in a study looking into the potential for the deployment of micro anaerobic digesters, with Threlkeld Village Hall and Cafe on the long-list as a potential beneficiary. A leaflet has been distributed to all households in the Derwent 7 parishes, with “positive support”, according to RCC representatives.

Rory Stewart MP said: “I was grateful for the opportunity to meet some of the team behind SusKes and Derwent 7, and to learn what the potential benefits for Threlkeld in my constituency might be. Overall, I very much support initiatives that look at ways of reducing food waste, something I was closely involved in as a DEFRA Minister. I think it is important that communities take time to learn about the benefits associated with micro anaerobic digesters, as well as the potential difficulties; the initiative should be well researched, which seems to be happening thanks to these helpful public-engagement sessions.”

SusKes and Derwent 7 representative said: “A few local organisations have started looking into whether we can do this here, using a network of anaerobic digesters at the micro scale. Micro digesters are small enough to sit next to community facilities which then use the energy they generate. We are grateful for Rory’s visit here today.”



Prior to yesterday’s announcements all Cumbrian MPs were briefed by the Success Regime about the future of Cumbria’s community hospitals and the implications for in-patient beds.

Rory Stewart said: “I have pushed consistently for the retention of beds in our community hospitals. I have also pushed consistently for the regime to engage with our Leagues of Friends and the excellent proposals from Alston and Wigton in particular on how to deliver services to our rural populations. The needs of rural areas are unique and require unique solutions. The community hospitals are at the heart of our communities and are justly loved for the wonderful service they provide. I will continue to fight for them tooth and nail.”

“This was an encouraging conversation – the Regime has been listening and they seem sincere in wanting to find a good solution which vitally combines social and palliative care provision with the medical provision. But as always the devil is in the detail, and there are many players including the County Council who will have to support these reforms if we are to keep beds in places like Alston. So I will continue to be closely engaged and fight hard for these precious assets.”


Penrith and The Border MP Rory has responded to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget Statement delivered this afternoon. He welcomed the strong message of continuity, and the government’s commitment to remaining on the path to security and prosperity – while applauding in particular the Chancellor’s announcements on investment in skills and young people; in social care; and in infrastructure.

The Chancellor unveiled a number of key measures to sustain growth, building on his predecessor’s budgets and in the context of raised growth forecasts from the OBR.

Speaking on the budget, Rory Stewart said:

“This is a quietly confident budget, but it is important and right that the Chancellor has tempered optimism with realism. I especially welcome, first and foremost, the significant investment in social care, which will enable councils to act now to commission social care packages for 2017-18 – particularly important in the Cumbrian context. I am also pleased to hear that young Cumbrians aged 16-19 will benefit from more investment into apprenticeships and skills, particularly the increase in training hours for young people, ensuring they are ‘work-ready’. Schools will benefit from more than £200 million investment – particularly important as I communicate with schools across the constituency about how we react to decisions around the School Funding Formula. And it is good news that local councils will benefit from a discretionary fund to support businesses who find business rates difficult, and I am pleased that Cumbrian pubs will receive a discount on their rates.

“As ever the government continues its pledge to invest in our rail, roads, and telecomms infrastructure, all of which are key to our economy and, in turn, to the prosperity of Cumbria’s communities. A further £90 million is pledged to roads in the north, another £200 million for fibre broadband, and £16 million for 5G technology.”

“Post-Brexit, the government’s policy of continuing fiscal responsibility is the right one, and while the OBR’s forecasts are healthy and UK debt is forecast to begin falling for the first time in 20 years within the next 5 years, we must be wise and careful in our spending plans ahead of a time of uncertainty once Article 50 is triggered. I feel that this is a budget to have confidence in, and I welcome it.”