RORY STEWART’S AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE
Article first published in The Guardian by Julian Glover on 14 January 2010.
A short burst of semi-automatic gunfire rings out from the bushes. Moments later, we pass a burned-out tank and a huddle of men in uniform; a gun sounds closer by and its shots echo from the fells. My walking companion, Rory Stewart, doesn’t even flinch.
But then Stewart, who will almost certainly be the next MP for Penrith, is no ordinary fledgling politician. He relishes war-torn environments – he once, famously, walked across Afghanistan – and he is now spending six weeks walking through his future constituency. The gunfire here in Cumbria brings his old and new lives into unexpected collision: these soldiers are preparing for a war, in Helmand, that Stewart – from his experience of both Afghanistan and Iraq – does not think they can win.
When an army Land Rover pulls up and a suspicious pair of squaddies start asking why we are walking – on a public road – through the middle of Operation Green Enforcer, Stewart does not mention his time in Kabul. Nor does he explain that he has just become the local Conservative parliamentary candidate. The soldiers wouldn’t believe him if he did. With an old North Face down jacket, MacPac rucksack and mud-splattered Berghaus boots – the kit that saw him through the mountains of central Afghanistan in midwinter – he looks more uppercrust eco-warrior than county Tory. In a constituency that once sent Willie Whitelaw and William Pitt the Younger to parliament, his arrival personifies the Cameron revolution.
Among the ranks of all the new parliamentary candidates on offer, from all parties, Stewart is blessed – or cursed – by standing out as being by a long way the most extraordinary. Neither quirky candour, nor unconcealed intelligence, nor being famous already, have proved reliable foundations for a Westminster career, and he knows this. As we walk, the New Yorker magazine emails asking him to agree to a profile piece. Newspaper cuttings pile on the accolades: the author of two bestselling books, picked by Esquire magazine as one of the 75 most influential people of the century. In quick succession, he was a former officer in the Black Watch and a diplomat in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo war.
After leaving the Foreign Office in search of new adventures, Stewart, who looks (deceptively) winsome and vulnerable with his tousled hair and wiry build, walked 6,000 miles across Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, mostly alone (his winter walk across Afghanistan was the subject of his first book). Then, in the chaos that followed invasion, he was asked to serve as deputy governor of an Iraqi province (the subject of his second book). He founded and still funds an Afghan cultural charity, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, reviving traditional crafts to restore the wrecked old centre of Kabul, and ran it for several years, outside the expat security bubble.
An observer could be forgiven for wondering whether Stewart has entered some kind of unconscious competition for the most astonishing obituary of his generation. Perhaps he was a spy for a time, as some say. But this isn’t a career that needs any added exoticism. In his 20s he was Britain’s presence on the ground in Montenegro; in his early 30s he was besieged in the governor’s offices in Iraq’s Maysan province. He was, briefly, summer tutor to Princes William and Harry; he writes columns for the New York Review of Books; last year he became a professor of human rights at Harvard and he is still only just 37. The romantic American ideal of a British adventurer, he has testified before the Senate foreign relations committee and briefed the Obama administration and Gordon Brown; Brad Pitt apparently bought the film rights to his life. He has just made a series on Lawrence of Arabia for the BBC. And now – surprised by his own headstrong change of direction – Stewart is giving it up to join a House of Commons whose reputation has been trashed by the expenses scandal.
“People do think I am a bit mad to do it,” he says as we sit in the friendly bar of Kirkby Stephen’s Black Bull hotel, in the middle of the rural constituency, which has been Conservative for the last 90 years. “They can’t quite understand why somebody like me would like to be a politician.” He only joined the party this summer, responding to David Cameron’s call for people with outside experience to come forward, and was chosen for Penrith in an open primary, his second attempt to win selection to a seat.
A clever, charming and funny man, and a sharply comic mimic, Stewart seems to display a dreamlike disconnection with the world as other mortals experience it. Walking with him, I find myself half-expecting to be beamed back at any moment to his home galaxy. Convention does not trouble him; he charges off in all directions, sometimes literally. At one point during our time together, driving down a farm track in his constituency at 1am, we plunge through a river and sink the car’s axles deep into a bog. Stewart’s face lights up: “So now we start walking.” And, in the mud and rain, we do.
Born in Scotland, he was brought up in Asia and at Eton (“a huge unfair advantage in life”). He is not soaked in British political culture – all those trite battles at Westminster and claims for duck islands and bell towers. He looks with unfamiliarity and horror at Private Eye when I lend him a copy.
It is, then, hardly surprising that there are those who fear he may sink or explode when he arrives next spring on the Conservative benches. Can a man who debates and dines with presidential candidates, is a friend of the Prince of Wales and has to dash back from Penrith for supper with Michael Bloomberg – the mayor of New York City – hack it as a backbencher?
“I am worried,” he says. “I think one of the odd things about public life, coming from the outside, is that people seem to be paranoid. Maybe they were quite frank initially, but then they did one thing which went wrong.” He wonders if politicians are scared into giving an exaggerated appearance of passionate idealism. “If every answer you give has to be super earnest and sincere, it is bad for the way you think . . . Ideally, what you want is someone who is thinking as they speak, rather than someone who has already thought it through and is banging it out” – an approach that may put him on collision course with the whips’ office. “Politics feels, on what I have seen of it, like joining a tribe and a lot of it is about unspoken ways of behaving.”
Stewart surely sees himself as a future minister, though he regrets telling one journalist he wanted to be. He makes little secret, however, of his hopes of one day taking charge of foreign policy or development. “I don’t want to be ironic from the sidelines. But you need to have things that you are not going to compromise on. There is a danger that you cease to be real.”
Questions have also been asked about why he has chosen the Tories rather than Labour; after all, he was a member of the Labour party as a teenager and he diverges from the Tory line on Iraq, Afghanistan and some aspects of the European Union. But he seems at home ideologically with his new party. He shows a Cameronesque irritation with government: “Excessive regulation, red tape, all the stuff people complain about. You have got more hope with the Tories of having people who speak that kind of language; you can say that sort of thing without them getting defensive . . . I found student politics when I was at university a bit uncomfortable,” he says. “I think the Conservative party has changed and I have changed.”
Stewart, despite his globetrotting, is drawn to the local; he is no grandee bored by the people he is asking to elect him. During this winter walk though his future constituency, he’s staying every night as a guest in a different village, and he beams with pleasure at the beauty of the part of Britain he plans to make his home. “I am only really happy walking. Maybe I should give my address as a hedge.”
His walk is a conscious repeat of his expedition across Asia, and he repeatedly compares the lessons of life in Afghanistan with the needs of Penrith. “I did stuff for three years in Kabul that I found exciting, and a lot of that was fixing roofs, talking about sewage installation,” he says. He does seem serious about his commitment to this place, although Kabul certainly offered thrills that Appleby-in-Westmorland may struggle to match. And of course he’s not actually a local here, as his Liberal Democrat challenger, a farmer, certainly is. A report in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald remarks significantly that Stewart is “based in Crieff, Scotland”.
It is tempting to think of Stewart as a man out of his time, except that in any age he would be an oddity. Walking through the sharp beauty of the Eden valley – all cropped fields, stone walls and clear streams – Stewart recites a medieval Scots ballad about death. The constituency, he announces, is “halfway between Auden and Wordsworth” – both lived on its boundaries. As we walk into Kirkby Stephen a flock of green-and-gold parrots flies overhead; a suitably eccentric welcome for the town’s would-be MP. When he tells an assistant in the baker’s shop that he is standing for parliament she looks at him with pity and disbelief.
No other Tory MP, it is safe to say, will have spent a month as a 10-year-old living in a Dayak longhouse in Borneo, or be able on a whim to mimic a George Steiner lecture at Oxford, or drop into conversation lines such as “when I was beaten up at Bamiyan”. None will have walked to Oxford from Marble Arch, as he did in October, leaving London at 4.30am and arriving just after 11pm (“the A40 was boring”). After our dinner together, he asks to borrow a book, “as I only have Seneca”.
It would all be terribly affected, if it was not, apparently, for real. Throw a subject at Stewart – Henry V, for instance – and he pours forth detail and understanding. But in the Black Bull hotel that night a scratch Stewart/Guardian team comes last in the pub quiz. Full marks for geography and history, but none for pop music, and neither of us knew who plays Dot Cotton in EastEnders.
Of course the thing, most immediately, that Stewart offers Westminster is knowledge of Afghanistan and Obama’s America. William Hague has been welcoming to him. But Foreign Office hands tend to dismiss him as a nostalgic adventurer. He, in return, condemns them. “If I was to say to them, ‘With your current policy, Afghanistan is going to be no better in three years’ time – in fact it is going to be a slightly rubbish version of what it is today,’ they are not going to disagree with me. If offered a bet on whether the surge will work, they won’t take it. They think nothing can be done, and that if only I was wiser and older and more inside the system and hadn’t left the Foreign Office I would realise that is just the way the world works.”
It isn’t, he insists. Stewart is a liberal idealist. He even praises aspects of the EU, as few Tories do these days. “The world isn’t one way or another. Things can be changed very, very rapidly and can be changed by someone with sufficient confidence, sufficient knowledge and sufficient authority.” Quite possibly he imagines himself to be that person. One thing that is not in doubt is his self-confidence.
He thinks Britain’s foreign policy-making is superficial and ill-informed – overly dependent on a loyalty to America, yet adrift from what the Obama administration wants. He dismisses Brown and Cameron’s claim that British troops are fighting to stop terrorism at home. “Ninety per cent of the people we are fighting couldn’t find Britain on a map. They are semi-literate, tribal, conservative village communities,” he says. “This is not a trivial issue. There are thousands of Afghans being killed, hundreds of foreign troops being killed.”
He thinks Obama himself is sceptical of the current surge; in fact he thinks many of the politicians who back it are only really doing so because they want a fast exit from Afghanistan. “I think that some of the people who are pushing for troop increases are a little ambivalent. They may feel a bit trapped; they are not sure what to do. It is very difficult to convince them that there are any options other than troop increases or withdrawal.”
Stewart supports a middle way: he wants to see a smaller number of foreign troops, serving for a much longer time. It would, in effect, be a humanitarian mission; an admission that having invaded the country, we should try to fix things there. There would be no more pretence of war in Afghanistan offering some kind of protection to Britain. “Rather than getting into this impatient ‘either we stabilise the country or forget it’ posture, there are lots of things we do in the world where it makes sense to use modest amounts of resources,” he says. “We could deploy a few troops, quite a lot of money and, over 20-30 years, make Afghanistan better for Afghans and indirectly better for Britain by stabilising the region.
“The difficulty for me as a politician is what kind of slogan is it to say our aim should be to decrease the likelihood of civil war? The only way that you are going to be able to stay is if you have a realistic, affordable presence on the ground, a presence that voters are going to put up with. The danger of these troop surges above all – and there are many, many dangers – is that they are unsustainable: they create immediate pressure for withdrawal.”
It is a strong argument. But will a Tory government listen? He pauses. “I have absolutely no idea. I believe it very strongly. If I can find an appropriate and constructive way of hammering away at a point that I believe is true, I would like to keep doing that.”
Whether Cameron will be able to listen to someone as honest and unusual as Rory Stewart is unclear. How Stewart will deal with the realities of life in Westminster is anyone’s guess. That he will be Britain’s most fascinating and most watched new MP is not in doubt.