RORY STEWART: ADVENTURER, ACADEMIC, MP…PM?
Rory Stewart is 40 years old but seems to have packed more than a century of experience into his four decades. Studying at Balliol College, Oxford, he was hired by Prince Charles to be summer tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry. Graduating in 1995, he joined the Foreign Office, where he was fast-tracked and made British Representative to Montenegro in the wake of Kosovo war, aged just 26, only to give it all up to walk 6,000 miles across Asia, becoming the first man to walk across Afghanistan after the allied invasion and writing The Places in Between, an award-winning book about the experience. He also served as Deputy Governor of two Iraqi provinces at the age of 29, set up and ran Turquoise Mountain, a cultural NGO in Afghanistan for which he raised £15 million, has been described by The New York Times as “living one of the most remarkable lives on record”, has been named by Esquire as “one of the 100 most influential people of the 21st century”, has advised the US President and British Prime Minister on foreign policy, was one of Harvard University’s youngest professors, and has been compared in print to everyone from T. E. Lawrence to Churchill and Alexander the Great.
The question, then, is what the hell this adventurer, historian, one-time soldier (he spent nine months with the Black Watch), bestselling author and TV documentary-maker, who has had his life story optioned for film by Brad Pitt, is doing in rural Cumbria, living in a 17th-century cottage with no mobile signal and accessible only via an unmade track, judging local scarecrow competitions as Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border?
“I guess, without sounding too pompous about it, the question of where societies like Britain go is one of the most important issues around,” he explains, sitting in an armchair in his living room on a Saturday afternoon, but looking distinctly unrelaxed in a shirt and tie. He plunges into a contemplative silence after the statement, which is unexpected, given that I have been reading about his tendency to speak in paragraphs so perfect that, to make friends as a child, he had to teach himself to put “ums” and “ers” into his speech. Eventually he resumes. “Last night I was at a dinner with 20 local business people; this morning an event for World Aids Day. What is interesting about Britain is that it consists of 70 million very individual voices who are almost impossible to generalise about. The thing that really interests me is what kind of civilisation we are trying to create.”
If this sounds grand and intellectual, it is because that is what Stewart, born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia and Scotland, is. Or, to put it another way: he is not one for small talk. A casual remark about the prettiness of the view from his house can lead to an extended lecture on how, between 1200 and 1600, the Cumbrian valley was “one of the most violent places on earth”, the revelation that 93 per cent of the people living in the nearby village were not born there (“today nationalism is about something more than deep historical connections”) and the news that he is finishing a book, The Marches, about the region, having also completed a two-month walk of what is, geographically, the largest constituency in England. It’s stimulating, but also a way of maintaining distance.
Though if Stewart is wary of the press, it is understandable. He has, since being chosen to be the Tory candidate at an open primary of constituents in Penrith in 2009, been put through the wringer by Fleet Street. Whether it is being castigated for saying parts of his constituency are “primitive” places where people hold up their trousers with string (“that story was a shock — they claimed I said something I didn’t and took it down”) or salacious coverage of his marriage to Shoshana Clark, who now runs Turquoise Mountain, but who, when they met, was married to someone else (he describes the coverage as “defamatory, deeply hurtful to family members ….. sad, snide and salacious and false”). Most troublesome, however, have been stories questioning his party-political convictions after he admitted, variously, to being a member of the Labour Party as a teenager, saying he had “never knowingly voted Conservative until 2010” and that he was only “pretty sure” he was now a Tory.
“That is interesting,” he says, sounding every inch the Oxbridge tutor. “Let me throw this back at you: what kind of ‘trouble’ is that? I don’t get what kind of media culture we live in that me saying ‘I am pretty sure I am a Tory’ is a story.” Stewart leans down towards the wood burner and thrusts some logs on to it. Addressing his back, I say people want to know their representatives have conviction, and are not just in it because it makes for an interesting career break. “But who wants to know? I don’t see a huge demand for party politics.” But he is a Conservative MP. “I am. And I am a Conservative because I am suspicious of theory and centralisation. In Afghanistan and Iraq, I saw the terrible damage caused by too much belief in reason and theory and big government.”
He is back in his armchair by this point, and the fire is roaring, but there is no time to enjoy the cosiness of the scene, given the awkwardness of the next topic: Stewart’s schooling. He is unusual in being a Conservative MP in the North of England, but is far from unusual in being yet another Eton-educated one (his family seat being Broich House near Crieff in Perthshire, Scotland). “I think this is old politics,” he protests, when I ask if the world really needs another Etonian politician. Hardly, I retort: only a few weeks ago we had John Major complaining about the dominance of the privately educated in politics. Moreover, I couldn’t help noticing that his own website doesn’t mention he attended Eton. “It does! I can show you!” Stewart leaps up and strides into the large kitchen next door, which is so rustic that a small stream runs through it in heavy rain, and where he points at a draft version of a new website, which does indeed refer to his schooling. But it still leaves the question: can David Cameron be seen to be promoting another pupil from his alma mater? “How can you even answer that question? Is there any genuine curiosity behind it?”
And so on. We end up arguing for 20 minutes: him complaining about the poverty of adversarial political discourse, me accusing him of trying to dismantle and deflect the question. Stewart eventually concedes that “social mobility has to be a fundamental part of anything you offer a citizen”, and when I ask whether it matters that he will never experience the two things he has campaigned on most recently — youth unemployment and pensioner poverty — he says: “Well, if you want to get into that game, I spent 21 months walking alone 6,000 miles across Asia, staying in homes far poorer than any you have probably stayed in your whole life. I am not interested in the game of boasting about how I lived, but I think that experience helped me. Just as having been in a war zone helps me reflect on war.”
I guess he is right: there is no way of answering the question without sounding ridiculous. As it happens, Eton is not the only aspect of his past that Stewart finds difficult. He cringes when I inquire about an incident at Oxford where he cut his hand open with a bottle of champagne and insisted on being stitched up without anaesthetic (“Why did I do that? I was 21 — a different human”), and ask whether it is true that he had read all of Dickens and Austen and memorised The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot by the age of 15. Possibly in an attempt to shut me up, he begins reciting it.
“April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring . . .”
The recital goes on. And on. It is startling and terrifying and — because the defining thing about Etonians, alongside their effortless ascent through layers of the Establishment, is that they always end up charming you — impressive. And, for the sake of balance and honesty, I should probably mention the other appealing things about Stewart: he doesn’t, like so many MPs, pretend to be interested in football or pop culture; he does not attempt at any stage to score party-political points; and he admits to vulnerability, saying that “politics is such a strange thing, I don’t begin to understand what I am doing”.
Conversely, and perhaps contradictorily, he is frank about his ambitions. The last time I came to the North of England to interview a new MP, it was Nick Clegg, who banged on tediously about the joys of local constituency politics while refusing to admit he had national ambitions, only for him to run for party leadership soon afterwards. Stewart, however, says outright that “there are limits to what I can do as a constituency MP. I would love, ultimately, if I got the opportunity, to be a minister.” Any particular area? “I am very interested in urban issues, poverty, immigration, Muslim communities.” Really? And what’s his position on immigration? “I guess my brain doesn’t quite work in those categories.”
This is true. Stewart, who studied ten languages at school, says he didn’t enjoy his recent stint at Harvard — “I don’t think I am cut out to be an academic, I think I was flattered into it” — but he has a distinctly cerebral approach to politics, qualifying every viewpoint. He is against wind farms, for instance, but only in his constituency because “we have £2.2 billion a year coming in from tourism”. He thinks the idea of an MP taking six months of paternity leave would be “difficult to make sense of”, but, not having children, is not willing to pontificate on it. As we get up to drive to a local W.I. event where Stewart is due to speak at a debate on food sustainability, however, I manage to get him back on to immigration.
“Ultimately Britain has a chance to have a very positive story,” he says. “My dream would be to try to take a sabbatical for a year, before I have kids, to go and live in Leicester, for instance.” Leicester, of course, being the most ethnically diverse city in Britain. “Britain has amazing potential to be one of most progressive countries in the world.” The rise of UKIP suggests that he might be slightly out of tune with public opinion here. “I think we are going through a difficult transition, but I feel we are becoming more enlightened by the year. One of the challenges, of course, is the national conversation.” Behind the steering wheel, I laugh out loud at the understatement. “But one of the reasons I am cheered by figures like Angela Merkel is that the world does have space for nuance.”
The analogy to the German leader suggests he has thought about something beyond a ministerial post. “How do I answer that question?” Well, profiles often talk about him as a future foreign secretary or PM. He must be used to it. “I think, like you said, I am probably not suited to be PM.” It’s not what I said: I said his opinions were currently too nuanced for national politics. “I would like to be in a position where I can influence policy. I am quite jealous of people like Oliver Letwin. I would love to change the constitution so that power became more local.”
So then: an Old Etonian Conservative minister, or prime minister, who is pro-immigration, pro-devolution and models himself on Angela Merkel? An interesting and, let’s face it, laughable prospect. But then I watch Stewart speak, talking to an audience of about a hundred, without notes, making knowledgeable reference to Afghanistan, California and Cumbria, and though, as in conversation, there are no jokes, and though, as in conversation, he is low on opinion (“my answer is that I don’t have the answer at all”) he is impressive to watch, and, for a moment at least, it doesn’t seem the most ridiculous notion in the world.