THE DIARY: RORY STEWART
Article first published in The Financial Times on 15 January 2010.
For me the new decade began walking through powder snow under a full moon north of Hadrian’s Wall. Every field and footbridge in Cumbria lay under new powder and the moon, cast up by the ice crust, illuminated hills 20 miles away. Four hours after dark and just three miles short of the Scottish border, I was offered a bed. Since October, I have been the Conservative party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border and for the past month I have been walking through the constituency in order to better know its people and places. I had reached the border section: the Bewcastle wastes, beside the Debatable Lands, which for 300 years until the accession of James I in 1603, were the scorched frontier of proxy wars between England and Scotland.
My hosts had been snowed in for four days; their heating oil had run out. I was given space in the nursery under many blankets and fed a very good bowl of porridge the next morning. They explained that this was one of the least populated parts of England and there were very few villages: the area was once too dangerous to be settled. The oldest parts of buildings, such as their kitchen, were the stumps of fortified buildings. When the roads are clear, children travel eight miles to the nearest school.
I reached the next house after half an hour’s walk through a light sleet. Since the roads were blocked, most people were at home. At Bewcastle, the bishop gave me soup and a jar of chutney. Beside his house was a seventh-century cross, set up in memory of a long-dead friend and – judging by the number of beautifully carved hawks on the stone – his falconry.
A friend joined me on the stretch over the moor to Gilsland. With each step, I had a momentary illusion of staying on the surface before I plunged through two and half feet of powder to the peat bog. We soaked our boots in hidden rivers and experimented with crawling. Most of this – though we could see nothing of it – was on the Maiden Way that linked the Roman fort at Bewcastle to Birdoswald. The wind kept the powder moving like a mist over the unbroken surface towards the setting sun. It took us two hours to cross a mile in this fashion and we were pleased to see Tarmac again.
The following day, I was pulled into the BBC studio at Carlisle to answer, in a debate with two other parliamentary candidates, Alistair Darling’s 150-page attack on David Cameron’s spending commitments. The conversation was strangely detached from anything I had experienced in Cumbrian homes. The chairman of Bewcastle council had, for instance, described carefully the different families who had taken up the affordable housing at the road head and the splits among her own relatives over wind farms. She, like most people I encountered, expects a precise, attentive focus on local decisions, not a macroeconomic theory.
Farmers, the most politicised group I met, were the exception. At the Longtown Auction Mart, Fred Errington pushed back his powder-blue hat, leant through the bars of the auction ring and barked at me, “When are you politicians going to tell the truth about the deficit? We don’t believe any of you any more.” At Penrith, David Crowden explained the cost of 20 new regulations, forms and electronic identification tags and asked what was coming next. Another man shouted, “I hope you’re not going to be fiddling like those other buggers.”
Every farmer, it seems, is not just frustrated by the near-monopoly power of the supermarkets and baffled by the increasing burden of paperwork but also by environmental policy and by government spending. Although they can appreciate the theory behind regulations, they find them disproportionate. Does water purity really require preventing all on-farm burials? Does animal health really justify putting electronic ID tags on every breeding sheep? Some forms simply encourage people to lie: “Yes, the truck was washed yesterday”, “No, no pets have ever been in my B&B kitchen”.
The marts are a unique opportunity for farmers, who have fewer and fewer people working with them, to meet and talk. The buyers stand muffled to the ears – it was minus 16 in the Longtown ring – munching on sandwiches, speaking on phones and also managing to feel the rumps and, in scarcely detectable nods and winks, bid swiftly on a bewildering range of crosses of Bluefaced Leicesters, Swaledale, Blackface, Suffolk and Texel. Despite the freezing weather (which has kept away many sellers from southern Scotland) there were smiles because of the prices. Even some of the fell breeds, which you could hardly give away two years ago, are going for record rates.
But on Friday, walking down the east fellside from my home at Dufton, I came across dairy farmers who are being crushed by supermarkets, which sell their milk for three times the price at which they buy. I listened to people, either in their houses or walking alongside me. Eight miles down the road, an equality and diversity officer at Carlisle hospital invited me in and fed me warm butter biscuits made in the shape of an elephant by her daughter. She was a Labour voter but she agreed with relatively rightwing farmers on the folly of so many targets, metrics, inspections and forms.
She was resigning because of paperwork which she, an intelligent and thoughtful woman, considered senseless. It is so easy to imagine – if, say, a tabloid is ranting about the subject – that these stories are exaggerated. But with each anecdote I heard the reality seemed worse. Again and again people said, “We would like some common-sense.” My main objective as a politician is to change this culture of government. Every day makes the task seem more urgent and more difficult.
Almost a year ago I was at another Roman fort, with stone as black as Birdoswald’s is white. It was Azrak on Rome’s other frontier, facing not across the snow plains of Bewcastle but across the Iraqi desert. I was filming a BBC documentary about Lawrence of Arabia and I was sitting in what had been his bedroom. At night, he thought about ancient history and the crusades and wrote memos to convince first world war cavalry officers to fund revolutionary guerrilla tactics. By day, he discussed livestock and family illnesses and convinced shepherds to dream of a fully independent Arabia. When he returned to Europe, he used his fame and intelligence to argue for a moderate foreign policy.
Many imagined that this boyish figure was too unworldly. But following his route, reading his secret reports, talking to people whose fathers knew him, studying his maps and journalism, has changed my idea of him. The poetry crammed in his head and his quixotic ideas of chivalry and heroism did not weaken him: they encouraged him to believe that things could be changed. His years in the field, listening to individual stories and brooding on history and landscape, gave him the confidence to challenge the stale assumptions of senior officials: their tired procedures; their lack of faith in people on the ground. Making the documentary showed me how impatience, subversion and idealism can also be intensely practical and effective.